02/19/2012 12:00 EST | Updated 04/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Foster Care Crisis: National Data Lacking On Numbers, Services For Foster Kids

MONTREAL - Anyone seeking a national snapshot of the average child in foster care in Canada, especially how their experiences helped shape their adult life, is flat out of luck.

No reliable national statistics exist on children in foster care in the country, a situation compounded by the differences in how data is collected at the provincial and territorial levels.

"We know ridiculously little about these kids," said Nico Trocme, who directs the Centre for Research on Children and Families at McGill University in Montreal.

"I can't answer a basic question like how many kids are in foster care in Canada," says Trocme, whose research is carried out in collaboration with a number of Canadian universities.

Trocme, who works with governments and social service agencies to help them target services, said corporations are often more rigorous at profiling their clientele.

It can easily cost taxpayers $1 million to care for a child who comes into foster care as an infant and leaves when they're 20, says Virginia Rowden, social policy director for the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies.

"I want to know how that investment made a difference," she said. "We don't have a way of doing that."

Knowing how a child turned out can be helpful in determining the efficiency of services, she said.

"Are they working? Are they educated? Are they healthy? Are they forming their own families? Are they living on the street? Are they sick? We don't know those things."

The lack of reliable national data on kids in foster care in Canada is something that can pose a challenge to policy-makers, observers say.

"The real value of this information is it allows more reflection, more comparative understanding in producing successful outcomes," says Peter Dudding, the chief executive of the Child Welfare League of Canada.

Dudding said being able to compare jurisdictions allows governments and agencies to ask more pointed questions about services and how they're delivered.

Members of a Parliamentary committee studying adoption in Canada found the lack of national data was a hurdle in completing their work, Dudding said he was told.

"The first obstacle they ran into was the one around the lack of data," he said. The chairman of the committee declined to comment until its report is released.

Trocme said there is not a complete lack of information. Provinces and territories do track their charges to some extent.

"But every province categorizes foster care in a different way," he said. "Ontario is a good example. That information really falls at the level of different agencies. There's 15 agencies, they each count things differently."

Rowden said that three years ago her organization asked its members to help in a survey to determine how many of their wards had graduated from high school because there is no data.

Ninety-seven per cent of the agencies contributed, their staff having to manually check all their files for the information.

"What we found is ... that we have abysmal graduation rates for kids up to the age of 21," she said, adding data indicated that around 42 per cent graduated from high school.

A similar study two years later suggested that number had climbed to 44 per cent although Rowden said even that number is distorted.

Rowden said she'd actually like to see a better interpretation of existing data as well.

Dawn Levine, a spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services, says Ontario only tracks data on children and youths who have been wards of the province for two years or more.

Statistics, such as how many times the child has been in care or moved, educational progress and care plans, are compiled through annual reviews of these wards' cases.

Levine, who said fewer foster children are coming into care in Ontario recently, said the ministry regularly uses "inter-jurisdictional information" when devising policy.

"This includes identifying national trends and best practices related to family and child services," she said.

The federal Human Resources Department said it works with provinces on developing programs and services but it is up to the provinces to implement them when it comes to foster care.

"There is considerable diversity between jurisdictions on how these programs are delivered, making it difficult to compile statistics on a national level," an unidentified department spokesman said in an email response to questions.

Sheila Durnford, president of the Canadian Foster Family Association, said the need for reliable national statistics had come up in discussions with Human Resources when her group worked with the Child Welfare League on a program to recruit and train foster families across Canada.

"One of the things the federal government asked us to do was try to find out national statistics," she said. Although progress had been made, it wasn't easy.

"It's more involved than going into each province's statistics because each province does things so differently and some provinces do it better than others," said Durnford, who has been a foster parent for 25 years.

Durnford, who lives in Langley, B.C., said her province does a good job of collecting data but she sees the value in compiling national data, saying she believes it would help the care network develop. She pointed out it would also help greatly when it comes to funding.

"Whenever you're asking for funding from any government, they always work on statistics," she said.