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A Meadow Bank couple is calling for an update to P.E.I.’s caregiving laws and a revamped child advocate position after they were not permitted to adopt a foster son who had lived with them for more than three years.
The couple, Natalie and Ralston Small, began fostering the boy in 2013 when he was a baby and grew to consider him part of their family until he was removed from the house by the province two years ago.
“If we were good enough to keep him for three years, we should have been good enough to adopt him,” said Ralston Small.
“The fact that we lost him, we’re still having nightmares over that,” added Natalie.
The couple feels the issue has not only affected them.
“There are oodles of ex-foster parents (in P.E.I.) who had the same thing happen to them,” said Natalie, adding that the couple did not become foster parents with the goal of adopting.
“(But) sometimes you fall in love with some of these kids and after they’ve been in your home for years it only seems like the right thing to do.”
After an application for a judicial review of the decision was dismissed, the couple has written numerous emails to P.E.I.’s political candidates, with the two also receiving support on Facebook. Anne Van Donkersgoed started a GoFundMe for the couple, who are now in the process of selling their home to cover their legal fees from fighting the decision.
The Guardian reached out to province’s department of family and human services, which could not comment on specific cases.
However, the province’s director of child and family services (CFS) said foster parents are not discouraged from adopting, and all applications are treated through the same process.
“Placing a child with a family for adoption involves a thorough assessment that is conducted with input from multiple professionals involved in a child’s life,” Sean Morrison said in a statement provided to The Guardian.
“For adoptions, it is always CFS’s goal to find a safe and permanent place for a child where they will thrive. CFS would deny an adoption application if it is not safe for the child or if the placement would not promote their well-being.”
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Morrison said P.E.I.’s legislation does not prescribe a certain length of time that a child may remain in foster care.
“Decisions about where to place a child are made based on the individual child’s best interests,” said Morrison.
With four biological adult children and one adopted child from New Brunswick, the Smalls entered the world of fostering in that province about 16 years ago. In 2008, they were recognized with a foster parents of the year award and, around the same time, passed a home study approving an international adoption, which later fell through because Bolivia restricted its international adoptions.
They later moved to P.E.I. and took part in an 18-month training and home study process before opening a foster home in the province in March 2011 and eventually rising to the highest qualification for foster homes in P.E.I.
Over the years, they have cared for about 28 foster children.
However, they now feel their reputation and standing in the caregiving community has been damaged after their foster care status was also removed following the adoption application’s rejection, which was based on what they claim to be inaccurate information they did not get to refute.
“We went from being well-respected members of the fostering community to being treated like dirt,” the couple said in a statement that has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook.
Ultimately, the adoption application was rejected following a home review the couple claims was done in bad faith. Notably, the couple said one of the key reasons given for the rejection was Natalie’s history as a victim of childhood abuse, without consulting with professionals in the mental health field, which they said the province was previously aware of and assessed while allowing them to continue operating foster home.
The couple said they were previously praised by the province for their foster care of the boy. They said that attitude changed when they applied to adopt him in 2015.
The couple then made what they were told was the first application for a judicial review of a decision by the director to deny an adoption. The application was dismissed, which they said left them with no other course of action after already spending $80,000 in legal fees.
The Supreme Court is the only avenue to review decisions made by P.E.I.’s director of child protection under the Child Protection Act and Adoption Act.
Morrison said that review is an independent process.
However, the Smalls said they feel the two acts ultimately leaves little recourse through the courts to challenge the director’s opinion.
About six months after being informed of the denial, the boy was placed with another family for adoption in early 2017.
“We were told that not only were we not allowed to adopt but that we were being shut down as a foster home because we were unsafe,” the couple said.
However, after being notified, the couple said they continued to foster parent for about six months, including the province placing other foster children in their home for respite care, until the province revoked their status.
Morrison said termination notices for foster parent agreements are always given in person and in writing except for in situations where CFS has cause to believe a child’s safety is at risk and is required to take immediate action.
The couple said they do not want to be vindictive about the decision but wanted to raise awareness around what they described as a lack of accountability.
They want an independent child advocate similar to other provinces. While P.E.I. introduced a the position earlier this year, the appointment has been criticized by some as not being truly independent because the advocate reports to the province.
They also want more accountability for P.E.I.’s child protection laws, believing that having the boy removed from his foster parents of three years was not in the best interest of the child.
“We’re not doing this to be vindictive or mean or whatever. But if the tables were turned, this would be child abuse,” said Natalie. “They’re allowed to do it because they have authority and it’s not right.”