Children First Act
Enhancing Supports and Protection for Alberta Children
The Children First Act was passed by the Legislative Assembly in May 2013. Read about it in Hansard. Proclamation of the act is happening in stages in 2013 and 2014, with the first stage completed on November 1, 2013, and the second stage completed on January 1, 2014.
The Act updates and amends legislation and enhances the tools, process and policies that impact how government and service providers deliver programs and services for children and youth. It also aligns with and supports the work of other initiatives including: the Social Policy Framework, Early Childhood Development Strategy, Poverty Reduction Strategy and the Information Sharing Strategy.
One of the key amendments establishes a Family Violence Death Review Committee. Children who are exposed to violence in the home or the loss of parent due to family violence can be profoundly affected. Preventing and reducing family violence is a vital part of protecting children and giving them the best possible start in life. Read the news release. See below for additional information about the committee.
Key themes of the legislation:
Develop a Children’s Charter to establish government-wide principles, priorities, roles and responsibilities as they pertain to Alberta children.
While amendments brought forward in the Children First Act will address shortfalls or gaps within existing legislation, the charter approach will promote a longer-term discussion about supports for children. The charter will focus on broader outcomes and will be linked with other priority initiatives including the Social Policy Framework, Poverty Reduction Strategy and the Early Childhood Development Framework and will lead to a review with a common lens of all government and policies that impact children.
The Children First Act outlines five specific principles that must be recognized in any Alberta Children’s Charter:
- That all children are to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their circumstances;
- That a child’s familial, cultural, social, and religious heritage is to be recognized and respected;
- That the needs of children are a central focus in the design and delivery of programs and services affecting children;
- That prevention and early intervention are fundamental in addressing social challenges affecting children;
- While reinforcing and without in any way minimizing the primary responsibility of parents, guardians and families for their children; that individuals, families, communities and governments have a shared responsibility for the well-being, safety, security, education, and health of children.
“This is fantastic that Premier and Minister Hancock have pushed this legislation to the forefront and got it on the agenda,” said Chief Rick Hanson, Calgary Police Service. “This is legislation that will benefit all Albertans, kids, families. It’s about doing what’s right for those kids in our society that need a voice, to provide that voice and better protect kids that really need that protection or that need the right help at the right time.”
“Recognizing that children come first and must be our central focus in delivering programs and services, the establishment of a ‘Children’s Charter’ will identify the greater community as having a shared responsibility for the well-being, safety, security, education and health of children,” said Joan Carr, Superintendent, Edmonton Catholic Schools. “We know that early intervention and prevention are fundamental in addressing social challenges affecting children and the Children First Act will support collaboration amongst agencies and provide the opportunity for shared research as well. Our children and their families are precious gifts to society and the future!”
Enhance information sharing to allow for the sharing of a child’s personal and health information for the purposes of planning and providing services.
The legislation will define the “tent” within which this information could be shared including government departments, educational bodies, health care bodies, police services, parents or guardians or others as defined elsewhere in legislation. Changes to the Health information Act and Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act will promote the sharing of information for the purposes of enhancing a child’s well-being, safety, security, education or health, while retaining the ability of individuals and bodies to use professional discretion in assessing when the sharing of information is most appropriate. This will also build on the work of the Information Sharing Strategy.
“The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, working in partnership with Calgary Police Service, Calgary and Area Child and Family Services, Alberta Health Services and Calgary Crown Prosecutors, Alberta Justice, fully supports the intent and elements of Bill 25, Children’s First Act. The children and youth coming to our Child Advocacy Centre face serious and complex issues associated with physical and sexual abuse. Front line workers have consistently brought to our attention the need to share critical information in a timely, sensitive and integrated manner. We applaud the government’s process in coming together with the community to listen, learn and take positive action to ensure, collectively, we work in the best interests of our children and youth.” – Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre
Formally establish the Child and Youth Data Laboratory in legislation and provide it with the information sharing provisions required to enhance its analysis and advice.
The Child and Youth Data Lab is a research initiative that provides the Government of Alberta with a picture of the programs and services being accessed by Alberta’s children and youth. This makes it possible to see the patterns and potential relationships that exist between government programs and services for children and youth, and the root causes leading to the need for intervention. Government and stakeholders can use this information to work together and make well-informed policy and program decisions related to Alberta’s children and youth.
The ability to make anonymized personal information available to researchers will help improve timeliness and relevancy of research on the outcomes of program interventions and the factors that impact successful transitions to adulthood for children. Anonymized personal information means personal information from which the identity of the individual who is the subject of the personal information cannot readily be ascertained. Safeguards will still be in place to monitor and control sharing of information with external researchers, especially health information, and to ensure the security and privacy of the data.
“The Children First bill is going to make a very big difference in around how government is able to have access to cross ministry data,” said Robyn Blackader, President and CEO of the Alberta Centre for Child, Community and Family Research. “We have a Child and Youth Data lab that was put in place about a year ago … which demonstrated that by having access to data across a number of ministries, Education, Justice, Health, Human Services and other areas, Advanced Ed would be another one, we’re able to use that data to help better form effectiveness of [government and community] programs, especially with individuals that are crossing through all of those areas. This is anonymous data to ensure that we are not outside of client and privacy legislation. This [Children First] legislation enables us to do that work in a more timely and efficient manner and it is critical for us as part of the team that helps ensuring evidence based policy decisions are made around helping child and families and communities.”
Amend the Protection Against Family Violence Act to formally establish a Family Violence Death Review Committee.
Alberta has the second-highest rate of self-reported spousal violence in the country, and the fifth-highest rate of police-reported intimate partner violence in Canada. Between 2000-2010, there were 121 victims of intimate partner homicides in Alberta. Family violence has proven and long-lasting impacts on all those involved, particularly children.
Alberta does not currently have a formalized, multi-sectoral process to review family violence related deaths. Processes established in other five provinces and 42 U.S. states have been successful in supporting efforts to prevent and reduce family violence. Creating the committee will create a formalized process and bring together representatives from the Medical Examiner, police, justice system, health sectors, child intervention and other service providers to review all family violence deaths and make recommendations to the Minister of Human Services that support the prevention and reduction of family violence. The committee will identify trends, patterns, risk factors, gaps in services and to make recommendations for systemic change that will build upon existing efforts and strengthen partnerships in multiple sectors in support of the goal of reducing family violence.
“The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) is thrilled that the Alberta Government is taking leadership on this issue by creating a provincial domestic violence Death Review Committee,” says Carolyn Goard, Director of Member Programs and Services for ACWS. “The creation of the Committee will help Alberta identify areas in our jurisdiction that are working and those that are not; resulting in improved collaborative practices which empower women, their children and seniors living in violence, ultimately reducing family violence in Alberta.”
Why do we need a Family Violence Death Review Committee?
By conducting reviews of family violence deaths we can:
- Identify factors and trends that contribute to violence
- Make recommendations for effective intervention and prevention strategies
What powers or responsibilities would the committee members have?
Committee members would:
- Conduct reviews of family violence deaths
- Identify what is working well
- Identify the systemic issues or gaps within each case
- Identify trends, risk factors, and patterns from the cases reviewed and make recommendations for more effective intervention and prevention strategies
- Report annually to the Minister of Human Services about the trends, risk factors, and patterns identified and make appropriate recommendations based on the data collected
Would the committee have legal authority to lay charges?
No, the committee would not begin its work until all legal proceedings are completed. The findings of the committee would not include any findings of legal responsibility or any conclusions of law.
Who would be on the committee?
The committee would consist of individuals with expertise in the area of family violence from the Alberta Government and community service providers. Members may include those from the justice and health systems as well as those who work with victims of family violence.
Permit the Victims of Crime funds to support groups that help child victims of crime through the use of counseling, mental health services and other tools that support children to overcome the impacts of trauma.
Amendments to the Victims of Crime Act and the Victims Restitution and Compensation Payment Act will clarify and express government’s commitment to providing support to programs that assist child victims of crime. These funds could be used to provide counseling, mental health support services and other services to help children overcome the impacts of crimes that cause physical or mental harm to a child. The bill also specifies that the Victims of Crime Fund and the Civil Forfeiture Fund may be used to support programs that assist and treat child victims of crime.
Change the Maintenance Enforcement Act and the Family Law Act to support greater information sharing and improve client services.
Given that single-parent families have a greater likelihood of experiencing financial hardship and other challenges that can put children at risk, ensuring that children and families receive appropriate levels of court-ordered financial support is essential.
Current provisions within the Maintenance Enforcement Act restrict information sharing between the Maintenance Enforcement Program and Child Support Recalculation Program, which can create frustration and confusion for clients and result in administrative inefficiency. Amending this act to allow for more information sharing will enable parents to more easily adjust their child support to reflect current earnings without having to go to court and help ensure that children receive the best level of child support their parents can provide.
Additional housekeeping amendments to the Family Law Act will clarify that the Child Support Recalculation Program has the discretion to accept or not accept a registration application, as is currently stated in regulation. The bill will also clarify for clients the program’s existing authority to collect and rely upon a tax return or notice of assessment from the Canada Revenue Agency for one parent that is provided by the other parent. This will help clients understand the program’s ability to use valid information obtained through court applications or lawful exchange between the parties involved.
Amend the Protection Against Family Violence Act to help continue to protect parents and their children from family violence by allowing protection orders from other provinces to be recognized in Alberta.
In Alberta, a judge or justice of the peace can issue a protection order if they determine that family violence has occurred, that family violence will continue to occur, and that due to seriousness or urgency, an order should be granted to offer protection. Alberta does not currently have legislative provisions for the recognition of valid court orders issued in other Canadian jurisdictions.
An amendment to the Protection Against Family Violence Act could provide for the recognition of orders issued in other jurisdictions giving them the same force and effect as if the order were issued in Alberta. This will help ensure that victims of family violence have the same protections in Alberta that they were offered elsewhere and that individuals will not have to go back to court to re-apply for an order.
Revamp the offence provisions within the Drug Endangered Children Act, Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act, and the Child Youth and Family Enhancement Act.
The Drug-endangered Children Act, the Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act, and the Child Youth and Family Enhancement Act all contain similar offence provisions under which individuals can be charged should they put a child at risk. Specifically, these provisions indicate that if an individual “wilfully causes a child to be in need of intervention” or “wilfully causes a child to be a drug-endangered child” that they are guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of up to $25,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 24 months.
The removal of the term “wilfully” from the offence provisions will ensure that those who put children at risk are held accountable, regardless of their intention or motivation, in appropriate circumstances. This will ensure that the purpose of the legislation is carried out without undermining the integrity of the process or the accused’s right to a full defence.
Enhance the mandate of the Child and Youth Advocate to allow investigations into the serious injury or death of young adults and to participate in appeal panels.
Amendments to the Child and Youth Advocate Act will strengthen the mandate of the Child and Youth Advocate by providing him with the authority to conduct investigations into the serious injury or death of a young adult between 18- and 22-years-old who is no longer under government care, but who is receiving care and maintenance under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act. The Advocate will conduct a systemic review of issues arising from the serious injury or death in these specific cases. In addition, the Advocate will be able to represent the rights, interests and viewpoints of individual children at Appeals Panels established under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act.
Enhance relationships between child intervention workers and families by placing team-based decision making with the people who work most closely with the child and family.
Every day, child intervention workers make important decisions about the children and families they serve, however the current legislation requires decision-making at various levels by various people within the organization. This can be a confusing, time consuming and difficult process. The amendments to the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, the Drug Endangered Children Act and the Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act recognize the importance of having decision-making done by professional staff working closest to the child, and that meaningful relationships with families and children are essential to delivering effective and responsive child intervention services.
The amendments will clarify roles and responsibilities and further enable front-line workers, foster parents and kinship care providers to work together with their teams to make decisions in the best interests of the children and the families they serve. It also ensures that overall accountability and legal liability for the system will remain with the Crown, enhancing liability protection for workers who provide services to children in good faith and within the scope of their positions will be protected.
Increase access to justice by allowing children under 12 to appeal court orders made under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, and allowing parents and guardians to apply for a review of a permanent guardianship order.
A permanent guardianship order is granted by the court in those cases where a child is deemed to need to be brought under permanent care of the Crown. In Alberta, only the government can make an application to the court for a review of these orders once they are issued by the court. Alberta is the only Canadian jurisdiction that does not allow parents to make such an application even if the parent’s personal life circumstances change and they believe they are now able to provide a safe, healthy home for their child or children. Enabling parents to make an application for a review of orders will open up additional avenues that could potentially keep families together, while maintaining assurances of child safety and well-being and the integrity of the process.
In addition, the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act currently does not allow children under 12 to appeal an order made under the Act. Removing this section of the act will increase access to justice for children in situations where a lawyer is in a position to represent their interests to the court for consideration.
Extend the Premier’s Council on Alberta’s Promise Act through 2018.
Alberta’s Promise works to encourage organizations, corporations and individuals to enhance community resources in order to further the well-being of children. The change to the term of expiry will permit long-term planning and engagement of Promise Partners to support children in Alberta.
Who was consulted in developing the Children First Act?
Over the last several years, stakeholders have identified a number of areas where government and service providers could work better together, as well as some of the systemic issues that create delays or roadblocks that impact their ability to assist children.
In addition, a cross-section of stakeholders were invited to two roundtable sessions on February 5 and 6 to discuss the legislative, policy and program challenges that impact their ability to serve Alberta children. The following groups were represented:
- Family violence prevention and intervention
- Child and youth support services
- School boards, educators
- Mental health
- Sexual assault
- Non-profit/Voluntary Sector
- Alberta Health Services
- Information sharing, protection of privacy
A variety of themes were discussed at these roundtables varying from the very high-level to the very specific. Topics raised included:
- Challenges with information sharing, protection of privacy
- Early intervention, early childhood development
- Funding and Processes
- Sexual violence
- Relationships between government, communities and service providers
- System design and navigation
- Mental Health
- Outcomes measurement and demonstrating impacts