For a dozen years, the B.C. government has tried to figure out how to offload responsibility for aboriginal child welfare, spending more than $66-million on a series of "chaotic and haphazard" programs that failed to deliver services to the vulnerable kids who need them, a new report has found.
B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth says it is long past time the province ends its quest, and instead focus on delivering the help needed to improve the lives of First Nations children and their families. "They need to end the dream of having someone else do the job for them," Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond told a news conference on Wednesday.
In her report, the outspoken watchdog attempted to audit the spending of both federal and provincial governments since 2001 on services for aboriginal children in B.C. Sifting through more than 70,000 pages of documents, she was left with a series of troubling questions.
"There could not be a more confused, unstable and bizarre area of public policy than that which guides aboriginal child and family services in B.C.," she found. "To be blunt, a significant amount of money has gone to people who provide no program or service to directly benefit children."
Aboriginal children make up 8 per cent of the province's under-18 population, but more than half of the children are in government care.
Following a series of high-profile child-abuse cases where the government bore responsibility for its handling of aboriginal kids in care, the province reached out to First Nations in a bid to set up a new governance model.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond found the province spent $35-million discussing a new system that would establish regional aboriginal authorities for child welfare.
The money went to "paying people to meet, hiring consultants to facilitate those meetings, and producing materials of questionable practical value following such meetings that almost never addressed the actual difficulties children and youth were experiencing in their lives."
Then, in 2008, the B.C. government changed tactics and decided that the Ministry of Children and Family Development should "get out of their way" and allow First Nations to devise their own child welfare programs.
But the "nation-to-nation" approach, which came with its own staggering expenses, ignored the fact the ministry was not dealing with nations, but with a myriad of community organizations that did not have the capacity to enter into self-government negotiations.
Of the three First Nations governments that have been established under modern-day treaties in B.C., none has elected to take over authority for child welfare.
"They are very concerned about liability and the capacity to do the work," she said. "Running a child welfare system … is a complex business."
Meanwhile, the programs that are designed to help vulnerable children in need have been financially squeezed. "All children and youth, including aboriginal children and youth, who receive actual services paid the price and continue to do so," she wrote.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond also flagged a dismal accountability record for the $90-million handed out annually to 23 delegated aboriginal agencies that are responsible for child welfare programs. When she looked at the books last March, she found one of the agencies – the Haida Child and Family Services Society – reaped $5-million in the space of three years despite the fact it had not a single open file to account for a child being served.
Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux said the work was "well-intentioned." However, in a letter sent to 16 service agencies in September, her ministry said contracts must "focus on enhancing service directly to children" if they want more money next year.
"There is no getting around the fact that the province is wholly responsible for the delivery of aboriginal child welfare services in British Columbia," Ms. Cadieux told reporters. "In hindsight, we should have focused on service delivery."
Carole James, the NDP critic for children and families, called the findings of the report tragic. "There has to be accountability for those public dollars, there has to be outcomes."