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Canada Failure to protect indigenous children in care perpetuates cycle of abuse

"Groomed for a lifetime of victimization," says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Too often, that is the tragic fate of kids in a child-welfare system that is supposed to protect them.

Those who are victimized – abused sexually and otherwise – are most likely to be indigenous girls. But children with disabilities, mental illnesses and substance-abuse issues are also at higher risk.

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Read more: B.C. report finds indigenous girls in care more likely to face sex abuse

Related: First Nations leaders in B.C. seek control over child-welfare system

In other words, the most vulnerable are the most at risk, and the state – which is legally this child's parent – is failing to protect them from predators.

That's the conclusion of Ms. Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, in a scathing new report entitled Too Many Victims: Sexualized Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth in Care.

The raw numbers are shocking – 145 reports of sexual violence against 121 children over a four-year period just in British Columbia – but the circumstances even more so, with foster children abused by foster fathers, foster children preying on younger ones and sexual abuse in group homes, not to mention by family members, casual acquaintances and strangers.

Two in every three of the victims of sexual abuse disclosed between 2011 and 2014 were indigenous girls, even though they represented only one in four children in care in British Columbia.

The fact that indigenous girls are four times as likely to be victims of abuse as non-indigenous girls – even when they are supposed to be in a safe space – is as shameful as it is unsurprising.

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Unsurprising because these levels of exploitation and victimization have been catalogued time and time again to the point where we are almost rendered numb.

And the horror stories will again take centre stage when the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls ramps up its work.

It is hard to overstate the health impacts of childhood sexual abuse: The physical, psychological and social impact can be devastating and, oftentimes, the trauma and depression that are common symptoms fuel high-risk behaviour that, in turn, further endangers health.

What gets a lot less attention are the potential solutions – both preventing the abuse in the first place, and treating and supporting those who are abused so they are not revictimized.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its landmark report, its No. 1 recommendation was: "We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal governments to commit to reducing the number of aboriginal children in care."

The shocking reality is that there are more indigenous children in state care today (some 15,000) than there were in residential schools at their peak.

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Countrywide, about 7 per cent of children are indigenous, but almost half of children in care are First Nations, Inuit or Métis.

The new B.C. report is a grim reminder that the victimization in state-sanctioned safe havens is often as bad today as it was in the residential school era. Has history taught us nothing?

Indigenous children are often removed from their homes because of "neglect" – an inability of parents to provide the necessities of life.

Yet, the roots of this neglect are systemic: Poor housing, unemployment, isolation, often second-rate health and welfare programs and, of course, the trauma of dislocation and abuse that is a legacy of residential schools and, now, the child-welfare system.

The failure – and the abuse – perpetuates itself.

There are no easy answers, but surely the ideal approach is not to routinely remove children from their homes and ship them far away, dislocated from community and family, where the cycle of hopelessness begins anew.

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Taking vulnerable children and putting them in a more vulnerable position is, as Ms. Turpel-Lafond says pointedly, an approach that grooms young people (and girls in particular) for victimization and re-victimization as they too often spiral down into the clutches of addiction, sex work, human trafficking and, sometimes, become yet another of the "invisible women" on the tragically long list of missing and murdered.

Today, the reports to the authorities may be a little more pointed, but the action is still lacking. Failing to protect indigenous children in the child-welfare system and then apologizing to them some time in the future is not good enough.

As Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada states so eloquently: "Reconciliation means not saying sorry twice."

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