Nova Scotia has changed its policies for children in the care of the province, in an effort to make sure another child will not suffer a repeat of what happened to former child refugee Abdoul Abdi.
Still, questions remain about whether the policy change will be enough to prevent complex cases involving non-Canadian citizens from slipping through the cracks.
Last year, Abdi successfully fought to remain in Canada in the face of a deportation hearing where the government sought to send him to Somalia, the birthplace of his dead mother, due to his criminal record.
Abdi was taken into provincial care in Nova Scotia in 2001, shortly after he arrived in Canada as a six-year-old. But the province never applied for Canadian citizenship on his behalf, something he, his family and his supporters have argued was a failure of the child-welfare system.
On May 1, 2018, Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services quietly introduced a policy change that requires social workers to note a child’s citizenship when a child enters into the care of the state.
Social workers must reassess the child’s immigration situation at least every 90 days. If the child is in the permanent care of the province, staff now have the power to apply for Canadian citizenship on their behalf and must decide on a case-by-case basis whether to do so.
As more immigrant families settle in Nova Scotia, the department recognized Abdi’s story was increasingly likely to happen again.
“I was happy because that means no other child will have to experience what me and my brother and other kids that were in the same situation as us have to go through,” said Fatouma Abdi, Abdoul Abdi’s sister, after learning of the policy change from CBC.
“At the same time, it’s just kind of heartbreaking that it took this long and it took what my brother went through for people to open their eyes and make that change. This should have happened 18 years ago when me and my brother first came to Canada.”
Like her brother, Fatouma Abdi was also taken into the child-welfare system. Now 24 and 26, both brother and sister are still pursuing their Canadian citizenship. She is proud that taking their story public has made a difference.
In documents released to CBC under the Freedom of Information Act it seems clear the shift in the department’s thinking came about because of Abdoul Abdi’s case, although the documents do not use his name.
“Policy is silent regarding Canadian citizenship for children in care,” department staff noted in the documents from the spring of 2018.
“Recently, this has been highlighted in the media, at the federal level, due to a specific case where a former child in care is currently at risk of being deported due to not having his Canadian citizenship.”
The documents also note the old approach was “inconsistent” and not timely, and that the provincial ombudsman was monitoring the issue.
For Fatouma Abdi and her brother, the repercussions of not having citizenship remain. For example, Abdi does not travel outside of Canada out of concern she might not be permitted to re-enter. She said her time in the foster care system left her documentation mixed up, something that will be expensive to untangle.
“That doesn’t change the fact of what we went through; it doesn’t change the effects that we’re still feeling right now,” she said.
“When you have a complete void of policy I think getting a policy is a significant move in the right direction,” he said.
But Perryman worries about the implementation of the policy, which will mostly be the responsibility of social workers who do not necessarily have a background in the complicated Canadian immigration system.
“I think it’s reasonable to place some responsibility on front-line social workers, but as cases get more complex they may need outside assistance and resources, and it’s unclear whether that’s being put in place in the current policy,” he said.
Support for social workers
The Department of Community Services acknowledges social workers will be the main people tasked with gathering information and monitoring citizenship of children.
Besler said the social worker will have the support of two supervisors and a child-welfare specialist, as well as written manuals on how to access more information on immigration.
“We have partners with immigration that will help with understanding what the child’s immigration status is at that time,” said Besler.
As well, she said if the department is preparing to make a citizenship application it could hire an immigration lawyer to handle the case.
The department has not designated a particular person or task group to tackle the issue, and there has been no additional funding set aside.
“It’s a very rare occurrence that we have children taken into care that are non-Canadian citizens. So there has certainly at this point not been an expectation to set aside special funding for that,” said Besler.
In the last seven years, seven children who were non-Canadian citizens were taken into the province of Nova Scotia’s care, including four last year. The majority of the children were under temporary care and returned to their parents.
There are slightly more than 1,000 children currently in the care of the province.
“We can’t expect every social worker to be an expert in every issue that children will experience when they come into care,” he said.
“That’s why we need to develop some expertise or centres of expertise for that knowledge, so that social workers have ready access to that expertise and knowledge, and there’s a location for that.”
There is only one agency in Canada, located in Mississauga, Ont., dedicated to this specific issue.
Last June, the Peel Children’s Aid Society launched a team of experts to help unravel immigration-related issues for Ontario children’s aid societies. Peel is the agency closest to the biggest international airport in Canada, Toronto Pearson.
The Peel Child Welfare Immigration Centre of Excellence has fielded some questions from agencies outside Ontario as well, according to Mary Beth Moellenkamp, the senior service manager.
“I think what we learned is that having a group of people who have done the work, who understand the immigration system, some of which have been through the immigration system themselves or have specialized knowledge from working in the settlement sector, was a better way to be able to help ensure that all children and youth were having their immigration status issues addressed,” she said.
Moellenkamp said it has been a “challenge” for child protection agencies to gather data on immigration. Some agencies in Canada do not track that data, and Moellenkamp said there is no mechanism to measure how many children across the country are in that precarious situation.
Nova Scotia Department of Community Services policy documents released to CBC Nova Scotia under freedom-of-information laws: