The Parents Legal Centre officially opened in Campbell River on Thursday. The office has a staff of four and serves areas including Port Hardy, which has B.C.’s highest rate of children in care. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

UPDATED: New law centre serving B.C. region with highest rates of kids in care

Many cases reflect conditions of poverty, says Parents Legal Centre

The opening of a Parents Legal Centre in Campbell River comes at a time when upwards of 250 children are in government care in North Island communities served by the new office, which has a staff of four people.

That includes Port Hardy, the area with B.C.’s highest rate of children in care as of February 2019, according to data obtained by the Spotlight: Child Welfare collaborative journalism project.

In February, there were 78 children in care in the Port Hardy area, or 32 for every 1,000 children ages 18 or younger.

Port Hardy’s so-called local service area includes places like Woss, Alert Bay and a large section of the adjacent mainland, according to a Ministry of Children and Family Development map.

A Ministry of Children and Family Development map shows service boundaries on Vancouver Island.

The new Parents Legal Centre is providing free legal services to families facing child removal in northern Vancouver Island, from the Comox Valley to Port Hardy.

Advocates are hoping the Parents Legal Centre will curb the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in government care, which is often linked to intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools and colonization.

The centre is based in Campbell River, where there were 121 children and youth in government care in February. That’s slightly more than 14 per 1,000 children.

VIDEO: Families facing child apprehension to receive free legal services in Campbell River

Campbell River and Kamloops both had the same rate, meaning those communities were twelfth in a list ranking local service areas by rate of children in care.

The Campbell River service area includes places like Tahsis, Gold River, Sayward and a wide swath of the mainland north of Powell River.

The smaller Comox Valley area, which is also served by the new Parents Legal Centre, had 72 children in care. Its rate was 6.2 per 1,000 children in care, or the twenty-fifth highest among roughly 50 service areas in B.C.

READ MORE: Journalists launch ‘Spotlight: Child Welfare’ series into B.C.’s foster system

Port Alberni second-highest

According to Ministry of Child and Family development service boundaries, the North Island also includes areas not served by the new Campbell River office.

Among them is the Port Alberni area, which includes Tofino and Ucluelet and had the second-highest rate in the province, with 173 children in care.

It also includes the Nanaimo area, the eleventh highest with 319 children in care, and Parksville-Qualicum, which was the twentieth with 62 children in care.

In total, there were 652 children in care in the five ministry-defined northern Vancouver Island service areas.

Government cites neglect

In the Campbell River area, neglect was cited in roughly 70 per cent of cases as the reason for children being placed in care, followed by 6.7 per cent involving physical harm by parent, according to data from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Sexual or emotional abuse were cited in less than one per cent of cases each.

Almost 20 per cent involved voluntary care situations, which involve written agreements with parents who are temporarily unable to look after their children, for example due to hospitalization or time in a treatment program. Other reasons accounted for the remaining cases.

In the Port Hardy area, neglect was cited in about 85 per cent of cases. Physical harm was cited in about six per cent of cases, and emotional abuse was cited in 2 per cent of cases. Sexual abuse was cited in none.

Only about two per cent involved a voluntary agreement. Other reasons were cited in about five per cent of cases.

READ MORE: B.C. government is failing vulnerable kids and families, according to its own audits

‘It’s why we exist’

“These numbers show there’s a real need for the services we provide at the Parents Legal Centre,” said Brian Dybwad, managing lawyer at the Campbell River office, in an email statement. “It’s why we exist.”

He stressed that many cases reflect underlying conditions of poverty, including the need for housing.

“(W)hen the stated reason for child protection cases is ‘neglect’ this often simply means a family has limited financial means and with help can address the issues that led to the child protection problem,” he said.

“It’s why we offer help to address underlying non-legal issues, things like the lack of, or inadequate, housing and accessing other community resources to help those who are impacted by poverty. We want to help address these numbers and have real and meaningful impact on all communities affected by the child welfare system.”

Return to parents the goal, says ministry

The ministry issued a statement by email saying the government is “committed to helping families with the early resolution of child protection matters, keeping children and families out of the court system.”

Parents Legal Centres help families to “to resolve matters early, collaboratively and out of court,” the statement said in part. It also said the government had changed legislation, including to help Indigenous families stay together safety.

“By law, the ministry can only remove if the child is in immediate danger and no less disruptive measures are available,” it said, adding that “the goal is always to return a child to parental care, when and if it is safe to do so – often once family and community supports are in place.”

This story was updated on July 15, 2019, to include a statement from the Parents Legal Centre.

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