Last year, child-protection workers in British Columbia removed more than 2,500 children from their homes, the vast majority of them for reasons of neglect. It’s an amorphous category, which is meant to justify the apprehension of a child if he or she has been, or is likely to be, physically harmed because of neglect by their parent.
But in this rich province, with one of the highest child-poverty rates in the country, neglect can simply be a reflection of financial status. Families – especially Indigenous families – are being ripped apart because they are poor.
“There are parts of our population that face very high rates of poverty and their kids are being taken into care at rates that rival the rate of Indigenous kids taken into care during the height of the residential-school era,” Bernard Richard, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, said in an interview.
That is not a mild comparison. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission reminds us that the nation’s residential schools “were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages,” a system that amounted to “cultural genocide.”
Statistics obtained from the Ministry of Children and Family Development show that in the past year, more than three-quarters of Indigenous children were apprehended because social workers deemed them to be at risk because of reasons of neglect.
To make the decision to sever the bond between a parent and child, it’s fair to expect a very high standard of determination. But in a rare case when a First Nation challenged an apprehension earlier this year to the B.C. Supreme Court, the province failed to make the case that taking a three-day-old infant from her mother was necessary. Today the mother and her six-month-old baby are thriving together, with support from their community, the woman’s lawyer says.
Indigenous children are grossly over-represented in government care in B.C., and they are also more likely to face greater issues of inadequate housing, poor access to clean water and high poverty rates.
Mr. Richard believes the number of babies, children and youth who are apprehended could be reduced if social workers offered assistance to families who cannot afford nutritious food, or who live in substandard housing, rather than paying strangers to care for those children.
He pointed to the Alex Gervais case, one that he reviewed extensively. The Métis teen jumped to his death from a hotel where he was warehoused as a form of foster care. He was attached to his stepmother and she wanted to care for him, but she required some small respite funding so that she could cope with Mr. Gervais’ significant issues. Instead, the ministry paid an unrelated caregiver more than $8,000 a month to sporadically check in on the youth.
“We are still prone to take too many children into care,” Mr. Richard said. “The damage caused by lack of attachment, the bonding between a child and his or her mother, is hard to repair. We need to be doing everything we can to keep families together.”
Late last year, federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said poverty is the main driver behind the high numbers of Indigenous children in care, and she called on the provinces to help Ottawa reform the system.
B.C.’s Minister of Children and Family Development, Katrine Conroy, said she has been working to change the culture within her ministry in the 11 months since she took on the portfolio. Social workers have to learn that they can spend money to help families when needed – something that hasn’t been encouraged in the past.
To justify the separation of a family, she said in an interview, “It can’t just be poverty ... it shouldn’t happen, and that’s the direction I have given to the ministry.”
Her ministry has boosted funding to provide more support for families in their communities, and she said children in poverty are now less likely to be admitted into care.
But Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, who has been active in her Cowichan Valley riding in helping establish support services to help keep families together, says there is a disconnect between what the ministry says it is doing, and what is happening on the ground. It is still too easy to choose apprehension over the sometimes more complex work of supporting families. Like Mr. Richard, she sees a parallel between the families torn apart under the residential-school system and the high numbers of Indigenous children in government care.
“We need to be asking, what impact is this having on the next generation?”