HALIFAX — Social workers in Nova Scotia are now required to consider a child's immigration status when they are taken into care — and can even apply for citizenship on their behalf.
The policy changes follow the high-profile case of Abdoul Abdi, a former Somali child refugee who successfully fought to remain in Canada in the face of a deportation hearing last summer.
In an interview Tuesday, Kelly Besler, director of child protection and children in care with the Department of Community Services, said the changes introduced last May are significant because there was no previous policy to specifically deal with citizenship and immigration issues.
"It differentiates the two statuses (immigrant and citizen) and what a person might need to know in terms of how one might go from one to the other," said Besler.
Besler said social workers are now expected to validate and document a child's citizenship during every 90-day review period conducted by the department.
"The department did commit to reviewing this area of citizenship and immigration," she said. "It fits in well with other (previous) changes that requires an understanding of a child's connection to their community, their cultural background, heritage and traditions."
Besler said workers will also have the ability to consult with federal officials and outside experts and to seek legal advice on individual cases.
And, in cases where a child is in the temporary or permanent care of the province and is deemed eligible to apply for citizenship, a social worker may apply on the child's behalf.
"There are many factors to consider, including but not limited to the status of the application and the parent's willingness and ability to continue with the application on their own, the wishes of the child and their parents, and the implications of obtaining citizenship on behalf of the child," the department said in an email.
"As in the past, the services of an immigration lawyer may be accessed during this process."
Nova Scotia's changes came to light following a freedom-of-information request by CBC.
Abdi, who was never granted Canadian citizenship while growing up in foster care in Nova Scotia, was detained by the Canada Border Services Agency after he served about five years in prison for multiple offences, including aggravated assault.
His non-citizenship put him at risk of deportation, although he was eventually allowed to stay in Canada in July after federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced that Ottawa would not move to deport him.
"When you do not have any policy in place, getting a policy in place is a good first step," Abdi's lawyer, Benjamin Perryman, said Tuesday.
"The question then becomes how is that implemented and can it be implemented in a way that works to ensure that this type of case does not happen again."
Perryman voiced concerns that social workers are already overtaxed and added they will need the proper external supports to make the changes work properly.
He said in Ontario, the Peel Children's Aid Society has developed a centre of expertise to assist with complex immigration cases involving children in care.
"Nova Scotia has said that they will just contract out on an as-needed basis or they will reach out to unnamed partners for that expertise," Perryman said. "But I think it would be helpful to have a centre like that or a go-to person ... because these cases can be extremely complex."
Perryman also said the department should have a legal obligation to get citizenship for children, especially those who are refugees.
"The policy appears to be permissive as opposed to mandatory," he said.
But Besler said such cases are rare and the objective is always to return children back to their families.
"So the majority of those children return to their families," she said.
Besler said the department cared for one child who was a non-Canadian citizen in 2017 and four in 2018. She said just over 1,000 children are currently being cared for by the province.
Abdi, who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1993, came to Canada in 1995 and was taken into provincial care shortly after, moving between foster homes 31 times.
He developed behavioural problems that advocates say were not adequately treated and led to problems with the justice system.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press