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British Columbia Internal conflict continues to plague Fraser Valley aboriginal child agency

Children’s representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond called on the B.C. and federal governments to work with First Nations leaders to improve services for children and families in First Nations communities Turpel-Lafond is seen in a file photo from March 1, 2012.

Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Fraser Valley aboriginal child welfare agency with a history of upheavals is facing a fresh round of conflict, with one high-profile member calling for it to be overhauled.

The internal dispute is contributing to uncertainty and staff turnover that have plagued the agency for years, says provincial child welfare advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

"Staff retention has been a major concern in that agency," Ms. Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, said Monday. "So when the agency itself is not sure what its future is, there's no question in my mind that in turn the work becomes more challenging."

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The dispute, which has been simmering for several months, concerns governance at the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, a "delegated" agency authorized to provide specified child protection services through an agreement with the provincial government.

In a recent e-mail to government officials, including B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux, society member and Grand Chief Doug Kelly alleged the agency's board broke its own bylaws when it removed two directors in February and is blocking proposed reforms.

"This fight is between those that seek Transformative Change to children and family services and the forces for Status Quo," Mr. Kelly said in the e-mail, dated Sept. 28. "Some of the [agency] directors supported transformation and change. But a majority of directors appear to support the status quo."

That change would involve the society becoming more accountable to chiefs, councils and local communities, said Mr. Kelly, who is also president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council and chairman of the recently formed First Nations Health Council.

Staff for Ministry for Child and Family Development said the dispute was an internal matter and that services to children and families had not been affected.

Society chairwoman Gwendolyn Point, however, says Mr. Kelly is trying to "destabilize" the group.

"The agency is financially and professionally strong and stable and operating with the full support of our federal and provincial partners," Ms. Point said in an e-mailed statement.

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Formerly known as Xyolhemelyh Child and Family Services, the agency was brought back under provincial control between 2006 and 2010 as a result of staffing problems and internal conflict, but has been operating under a new delegation agreement since 2010.

The agency also came under fire in connection with the 2002 death of two-year-old Chassidy Whitford, who was killed by her father while under agency supervision. A 2003 provincial review found Xyolhemelyh missed risk factors, including injuries when the girl visited the hospital.

The agency is also undergoing its third audit in three years, after two recent reviews found problems including overloaded caseworkers, staff shortages and delays of two years or longer for home visits to determine whether potential foster homes were safe.

Repeat audits in such a short time frame are unusual for delegated agencies and highlight the need to sort out governance issues to ensure children get services they need, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said.

"It is a concern to me, particularly because there is no point in continuing to do audits if we are not seeing improvement and not making decisions about how we [the province] are either going to support the agency to do the work or really problem-solve," she said.

The agency, one of 23 delegated aboriginal agencies in B.C., received funding of $17.6-million from the province last year and had more than 760 open files, according to Ms. Turpel-Lafond's November, 2013, report on aboriginal child welfare policies and programs in B.C.

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In that report, titled When Talk Trumped Service: A Decade of Lost Opportunity for Aboriginal Children and Youth in B.C., Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the province had spent more than $66-million on aboriginal governance endeavours over the preceding dozen years to little or no effect.

While about 8 per cent of children and youth in B.C. are aboriginal, as of March they accounted for more than half of children in care.

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