Kids at risk of abuse need earlier intervention, with more help for their parents: youth protection commission

Quebec children need much more help than in the past, a sweeping report has found -- in the past 25 years, calls to child services have more than doubled.

At the same time, those at risk of abuse and violence at home need a different kind of help entirely than what they've been getting, a special commission found.

"We have to make a major shift to go to prevention," explained André Lebon, vice-president on the commission, which released its full report Monday.

"It's earlier in the development of the child. It's earlier when a problem occurs in the family," he said.

"It's as soon as it happens... If we do so, we will step up and brind the developent of the child at a better level, and the family will get some help to get through their problems, and everyone will be winning."

The province should be stepping in at the first sign of trouble and sending real help to the parents, without asking them to go search it out, explained Lebon and others who have spent two years studying the issue.

It won't be easy to change the entire approach of the system, but it's imperative, said longtime nurse Régine Laurent, who chaired the commission, in a press conference Monday.

"It is a pivot that we absolutely must make in our society," she said.

When asked repeatedly about costs, she and other commission members repeatedly said costs come second to vulnerable children's needs -- and that coming in too late and trying to fix problems that are already very serious is much more expensive than prevention.

Laurent, also a former union executive, has led the commission since it was created in the wake of the tragic death of an abused seven-year-old girl in Granby in April 2019.

She was later found to have been sent between mutiple government departments and failed at every stage of the health and legal process.

Laurent said Monday the little girl "inspired" the commission's work and was in its members' minds.

The report, released just before the press conference, describes a system with a huge workload and many changes needed to bring it up to date and fulfill the bigger vision the commission described.

It tasked the Legault government with adopting a charter of children's rights, giving better funding for several community organizations, and lightening the workload of youth workers.

The charter of children's rights is meant to help formally recognize the attitude shift Lebon described -- the children's needs, perspective and opinions should be at the centre of his or her protection.

The charter would enshrine the idea that each child has the right to develop in a family and in a caring environment.

In one example of the attitude change needed, the current youth protection model too often cuts kids off from those who care about them, including other workers from parts of the health, education and social system, Lebon said.

That's the opposite of what should be happening, he said.

"If [a person] is invested, and if he has a significant link with the [child], he should be in the project of intervening," he said. It's a "small thing" that would add up to a big change.

On Monday and in earlier in-process updates, Laurent also pointed to the need for more top-level direction of the system.

She proposed creating a post of Commissioner for the Welfare and Rights of Children, in addition to the post of National Director of Youth Protection -- a job already appointed last March.

The Commission recommends covering the operating costs of several family-related community groups, at least $200,000 per year. In the press conference, Laurent said the need to support struggling parents is paramount.

She also mentioned community organizations that work to improve families' situations around domestic violence, food security and other areas.

The commission also asked for youth protection workers' jobs to be made easier: to free them from administrative tasks, to offer them better support and supervision, and to adjust staffing numbers according to needs.

--With files from The Canadian Press

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