01/23/2014 02:28 EST | Updated 03/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia denying basic information to former foster children: review officer

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government is routinely ignoring its own laws by denying basic information to former foster children trying to learn about their family history, the province's freedom of information officer says.

Dulcie McCallum issued a report Thursday that says the Community Services Department is disregarding previous practice and the law through an incorrect interpretation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

"Children who grew up in foster care in Nova Scotia deserve the same right to their life story as all other children," McCallum said in a statement. "Foster children are being treated as if they have no past — essentially a person without any life story prior to adulthood.”

Her report says former foster children are not being told why they were removed from their biological family, where they came from, or if their family had a history of health issues, among other things.

Under a previous policy, the department granted former foster children access to their records. But the department has moved away from this long-standing practice for reasons that contradict the intent of the province's freedom of information laws, McCallum said.

She said the law specifically states that it can't be used to restrict access to information that had been available before the act went into effect.

Department spokeswoman Elizabeth MacDonald said the province is reviewing McCallum's report. The department has 15 days to respond.

"We can say that the subject matter of the report has previously been before the courts where it was determined that children in care can rightfully have access to their own information," she said.

"However, information of the foster parent was found to be information of a third party and couldn't be released by the province without the foster parents' consent. The court was satisfied that there will be general harm to the foster care program if personal information is released without consent. This decision is in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act."

McCallum said if Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard doesn't follow her recommendations, the minister should at least ask the legislature to address the matter with new legislation similar to that drafted for adopted children.

The report says foster children who are adopted have access to their foster-care files under the Adoption Information Act. However, those who aren't adopted are required to file a formal request through access to information legislation.

"For the most vulnerable children, those apprehended and taken into foster care, one of the ways we can show respect to them is to give them information about their childhood," the report says.

"They are entitled to know we value them, to know that being removed from their biological families was not their fault and to know they are entitled to have access to their life story."