Photo: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

A new report on the well-being of Nova Scotia’s children and youth has found that while many are doing well, far too many are being left behind.

The ‘One Chance to be a Child’ report was released Tuesday. Described as the first “comprehensive snapshot” of child and youth well-being in the province, the data profile report was led by Dalhousie University’s Department of Pediatrics and the Healthy Populations Institute with a diverse multidisciplinary group of child and youth service providers, academics, and community leaders from across the province.

The report’s authors assessed available data and also spoke directly to children and youth across Nova Scotia.

“This is not about what children can do or what parents can do. It’s what society overall can do to make life better for children and youth,” report co-author and Healthy Populations Institute director Sara Kirk said in an interview Tuesday.

“Children’s voices are very underrepresented in our province. We don’t actually talk to children and youth about their experiences.”

A smiling blond woman wearing a pink, white and blue patterned shirt and black sweater, hair pulled back, tilts her head to the left against a slatted window with daylight streaming behind her.
Sara Kirk, Dalhousie University professor and scientific director of the Healthy Populations Institute. She’s also one of the authors of the ‘One Chance to Be a Child’ report released on Tuesday. Photo: Dalhousie University

Using data collected between 2018 and 2019, researchers found one in four Nova Scotia children are missing important skills in their first year in school.

Only one in four is meeting daily physical activity guidelines, and one in five children and youth reported low life satisfaction. One in five Nova Scotian children and youth also reported living in a food insecure household.

Pandemic increases urgency

The report’s authors expect the pandemic has only exacerbated these and many other key issues impacting children and youth.

“The worry we have is the data that we’re including in this report is from 2018/19, with a little bit from 2020. But we have to now consider this whole pandemic environment that children are functioning in as well,” Kirk said.

“And nationally, certainly, there’s research that suggests that they have not been doing well. That makes this even more urgent. We need to take what we knew already, add on that COVID lens, and then do something about it.”

The report also found that 26% of girls in grades 9 and 10 reported being victims of teen dating violence within 12 months of the data collection. The national average is 17%.

For boys, the number was 18%, higher than the national average of 14%.

In addition, one in five students in grades 4 to 12 reported feeling unsafe or threatened at school.

A graphic with a cartoon faceless figure holding hands to face above the words 1 in 5 children felt unsafe or threatened at school in 2018-19.
From the One Chance to Be a Child report.

“We’ve done them (the provincial government) a great service here because we’re providing them with the data to make decisions,” Kirk said.

“What we really need to do, though, is keep that focus up on the system and not just bring it down to individual behaviour change because the reason why children aren’t eating nutritious foods is because our environment doesn’t provide them with those.”

‘Stop beating around the bush’

The report’s authors provided six recommendations and 12 actions requiring the “prompt” attention of provincial leaders and policy makers.

One of those includes the creation of an independent child and youth advocate office, something long been advocated by the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers (reported here). Only Nova Scotia and Ontario don’t have one.

Two of the report’s recommendations identified as the “most urgent threats” to child and youth wellbeing in Nova Scotia were poverty and systemic racism and discrimination.

The report found that in 2019, one in nine children and youth in Nova Scotia were living in homes experiencing poverty to the extent that they were deprived of food, clothing, and shelter.

In its most recent report card on child and family poverty published in November (reported here), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) found that the province reduced its child poverty rate by just 0.1 of a percentage point in 30 years, making it the province with the worst child poverty reduction record in Canada.

That 2021 report found that while almost one in four Nova Scotia children live in poverty, that number jumps to more than one in three children in Cape Breton and in the Digby and Annapolis census areas.

“We’ve got to think about what is it like for a child to be growing up without the resources that other children have and how does that impact their future? We know that it does, so let’s stop talking about this problem that has been talked about federally and provincially for decades,” Kirk said.

“Let’s actually act to address this issue and do it in the way that we know would actually work. You know what causes poverty? Lack of resources. What solves poverty? Providing resources. Let’s stop beating around the bush.”

A pink text box advises that when children are struggling, our province is struggling.
From the One Chance to Be a Child report.

Kirk said we also need to better measure poverty.

“We’re not measuring it well,” she said.

“There’s tons of evidence internationally about how we should measure poverty and recognize the experiences as just as important as that actual measure of material deprivation.”

Major gaps in data

The lack of data on child and youth well being overall was also identified as an issue, with the authors describing “major gaps” in data used to understand their rights and well being.

The report’s authors are calling for increased availability and access to quality data across all sectors, noting the inconsistencies that arise when using a “patchwork of sources” where information is gleaned from multiple surveys, weighted census data, and provincial government departments.

“Data come from different time points, represent different age ranges, and in many cases, cannot be analyzed to understand inequities,” the report states.

“In some cases, there are very limited or no data available about the well-being of specific groups of children and youth. For important aspects of child and youth well-being, such as leisure, play and participation, data are extremely limited or not available at all.

While a great deal of research exists on the importance of the first 1,000 days of life, Kirk said it’s equally important to pay attention to maternal health and the first 18 years of a child’s life.

“We know that prevention is a critically important part of the solution to our health care crisis, and if we support health and wellbeing in childhood, we know that that translates into better health and wellbeing in adulthood,” Kirk said.

A blue text box featuring words from a youth participant saying you have to identify the cause of distress and depression to deal with it because you can't fight what you can't identify.
From the One Chance to Be a Child report.

‘Hold people’s feet to the fire’

Kirk hopes the average Nova Scotian cares, shares, and endorses the report. She hopes provincial government officials will take action on the recommendations and involve the report’s authors.

“We’ve very carefully constructed our recommendations. We’ve only got six, but there’s probably hundreds that we could have had,” she said.

“But the six are the things that we feel would make the most difference in the lives of children…We’re willing and waiting to be involved in those conversations because all of us want to see our children do well.”

While Tuesday marked the report’s launch, Kirk said there will be other events. She’s particularly eager to bring children and policymakers together and to see what happens moving forward.

“This (report) is on the blood, sweat, and tears of a group of passionate people,” Kirk said.

“And we’ll hold people’s feet to the fire now, because we’ve got the information to do that.”

The report’s six recommendations:

•Listen to children and youth, consider their rights and focus on their best interests when making decisions

•Reduce and eventually eliminate poverty experienced by children and youth

•Prioritize the elimination of systemic racism and discrimination

•Establish an independent body dedicated to children and youth rights

•Develop a strategy to fully enshrine the rights of children and youth and improve their well-being

•Implement a system to robustly measure and monitor the rights and well-being outcomes of children and youth in Nova Scotia

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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