How poverty and underfunding land indigenous kids in care the tyee data recovery jaipur

Most Indigenous children end up in care because their parents are poor, says Nico Trocmé, director of McGill University’s School of Social Work and principal researcher for the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, a national database that collects information on the characteristics of kids and families who come to child welfare’s attention. The Tyee is supported by readers like you

“I’ve certainly never seen any evidence from any of the research to indicate that there is something endemic to First Nations families that would explain a higher rate of placement. It has much more to do with the high rates of poverty and the difficult social and economic circumstances they’re living in.”

“And then as they worked their way through the system they’re even more likely to be open for ongoing services, more likely to go to court, and 12 times more likely to be placed in child welfare care,” Trocmé said.

The data is not robust enough to be considered nationally representative, he added, but it’s the best Canada has until the next study is completed in 2019.

For First Nations kids living on reserve, child welfare services are usually provided by the province. But they’re mainly funded by the federal government. And until February, the federal government would only provide funding after children were taken into care, not to support families or take steps to head off child apprehension.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development “does more than just ensure the provision of child and family services to First Nations, it controls the provision of those services through its funding mechanisms to the point where it negatively impacts children and families on reserve,” the ruling read.

“Instead of assessing the needs of First Nations children and families and using provincial legislation and standards as a reference to design an adequate program to address those needs, AANDC adopts an ad hoc approach to addressing needed changes to its program.”

The ruling was clear, but the government largely ignored it — despite five non-compliance orders from the tribunal. Following the fifth order this past January, the February budget included $1.4 billion over the next six years for Indigenous child welfare, on top of the $635 million over five years promised in 2016.

But the funding is far short of what’s actually needed to provide First Nations children with the same supports — educational, health and social services as their non-Indigenous peers, says Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the driving force behind the effort to take the Canadian government’s treatment of Indigenous children to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal 11 years ago.

“I welcome those investments in the budget and I’m thankful to [Indigenous Services] Minister [Jane] Philpott for advocating for them but the reality is these kids are still getting underfunded in early childhood education, in education, in water,” she said.

Outcomes for kids placed in the child welfare system aren’t good. A national study from 2015 found almost 60 per cent of homeless youth surveyed had spent time in the child welfare system, while a B.C. study found just over a third of the kids in care had also been involved in the youth justice system. Kids in care were more likely to be involved with the justice system than to graduate from high school.

While there are no federal statistics, youth in care and receiving services from the children’s ministry in B.C. have alarming rates of death and injuries, with 120 youth dying in 2016 alone according to the provincial watchdog. It’s a number higher than the 104 deaths the ministry counted that year. The provincial Representative for Children and Youth’s office estimates they receive 200 critical injury and death reports for kids in care every month, roughly 85 of which are related to the care they received or failed to receive.

The federal and B.C. governments have both committed to implementing the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first five of which are about child welfare, as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says that Indigenous people have the right to the shared raising of their own children.

After knowing for decades that too many Indigenous children were going into care; federal, provincial and territorial governments are starting to act. Budgets are increasing for on and off-reserve services and the focus — at least in theory — has shifted to supporting families rather than taking children into care.

The issues don’t just affect children and families living on reserves. Even off-reserve Indigenous children — who include status and non-status First Nations, Inuit and Métis children — are being taken into care before families can access services or supports.

Manitoba uses a risk assessment tool checklist to determine whether children should be brought into care, a checklist that includes questions about parents’ past and current mental health and addictions issues. B.C. uses such a tool, too, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children and Family Development confirmed with The Tyee via email.

“Ministry staff and service providers are trained in trauma-informed practice, including trauma caused by inter-generational issues such as those experienced by parents who have themselves been in the child welfare system or who were in residential schools,” they said.

Banakonda Kennedy-Kish Bell, elder in residence at Wilfrid Laurier University’s faculty of social work, said this is “making us be part of a system that does not work for us, has never worked for us, has never had in mind, in goal, in purpose, working for us.”

Katrine Conroy, B.C. minister of children and family development, sees the system’s limitations. Current B.C. legislation prevents social workers from reaching out to First Nations community leaders to find help for families before they go into care, she notes. It’s a rule her ministry is trying to change through Bill 26 introduced last month, which makes amendments to the Child, Family and Community Service Act to allow the director of child welfare to decide if a nation should be contacted.

Critics, including the Representative for Children and Youth and several First Nations groups, say the proposed legislation was created without proper consultation with First Nations people and maintains the current paternalistic child welfare system.

“So the ministry got a couple of bunk beds and put them in the room with her and it’s perfect. It’s an interim measure, mum gets the support she needs so the boys can go back to mum. But that’s a way of thinking outside of the box, whereas a few years ago that wouldn’t have been an ‘appropriate placement.’”