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Opinion For Indigenous kids' welfare, our government knows better; it just needs to do better

Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She is a professor at the School of Social Work at McGill University.

This week, the story of a newborn baby removed from her family in Manitoba added to a litany of reports about the over-representation of First Nations children in child-welfare care. The number and persistence of these stories lead many to believe this is a problem without a solution. But real answers have been on the books for decades – governments just need to implement them.

In 1967, social worker George Caldwell observed that 80 per cent of the children placed in residential schools in Saskatchewan were there as child-welfare placements. He called upon Indian Affairs to put more emphasis on services to support families and to ensure services were culturally appropriate.

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In the succeeding decades, his recommendations were never properly implemented and a plethora of provincial and federal reports followed, finding the same problem and recommending the same solutions. These reports suffered the same fate as Mr. Caldwell’s recommendations: piecemeal government implementation or being flat out ignored.

It has been a year since outgoing Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called the over-representation of First Nations children in child welfare a “humanitarian crisis.”

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted in its 2015 report, First Nations children are placed in child-welfare care at 12 times the rate of other children, due largely to poverty, poor housing, parental addictions and mental-health issues. Yet, despite all of the discussion, the public knows very little about First Nations child welfare and what can be done to tackle the heartbreaking pace at which these children and youth are separated from their families. First Nations have always had ways to address child well-being in their communities; however, these systems were displaced and, in some cases, fractured by the imposition of the residential-school system in the late 1800s.

While residential schools slowly began to close in the 1940s, with the last one in Saskatchewan shuttering its doors in 1996, the ones that remained gradually morphed into child-welfare placements.

Meanwhile, the federal government amended the Indian Act in the 1950s to allow “laws of general application,” including provincial child welfare laws, to apply on reserves. Services resulting from these laws are federally funded. The amendment created an overlap between residential schools operating as child-welfare placements and the provincial child-welfare system. As a result, social workers who knew little of the trauma of residential schools removed large numbers of First Nations children and placed them, often permanently, with non-Indigenous families in what is now known as the Sixties Scoop.

Beginning in the 1970s, First Nations urgently called on the federal government to create First Nations child-welfare agencies on reserves. And although Canada agreed, the implementation fell far short of perfect.

Provincial and territorial child-welfare laws would be enforced despite the fact they were not tailored to the needs of First Nations children and families, who by this point had suffered generations of colonial trauma. The agencies could only serve on reserve and although the federal government would fund them, it would be at a far lesser level than other children received off-reserve.

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Today, there are more than 105 First Nations child-welfare agencies across Canada that serve clients both on- and off-reserve, but the legislative and funding constraints persist. On a positive note, despite the barriers, First Nations children served by these agencies are more likely to be able to stay safely at home than those served by provincial agencies off-reserve.

The on-reserve funding deficit for child welfare is being addressed thanks to the five orders issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that require the federal government to properly fund the agencies and family-support programs, paying due account to the unique cultures and contexts of First Nations children. While there are persistent concerns with the federal government’s compliance with the tribunal’s orders, the funding relief is already paying dividends for families who are now able to access basic support services available to other Canadian families.

However, federal funding shortfalls on reserve for basics such as water, sanitation, early childhood and education programs continue, undermining the ability of First Nations families to care for their children.

Off-reserve, provincial legislation and funding apply, but few programs answer Mr. Caldwell’s call – now more than 50 years old – for culturally based services that target the reasons why First Nations children end up in care at such high rates. The expansion of First Nations agency services off reserve would provide some much-needed assistance, as would bolstering culturally based family supports.

First Nations youth in care have repeatedly called for more programs to promote healthy connections to family and culture, improved supports to address issues stemming from childhood trauma, youth addictions and turnover in service providers, as well as supports so they are not just left on their own when they turn 18. These are basics a compassionate and rich country such as ours should provide without question, but doesn’t.

The over-representation of First Nations children in care is a problem with a solution.

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There have been numerous reports over the years calling for the same things: First, to ensure child-welfare programs are based on the unique cultures of First Nations with the affirmation of First Nations jurisdiction; secondly, that family supports are put in place to address the reasons why children are at risk; third, to end the shortfalls in child welfare and other services First Nations children need and to provide higher quality care for children and youth who cannot live at home; lastly, to institute culturally based alternative justice approaches to replace or augment the current role of the provincial courts and provide a check system when children are removed.

While we do all of this, we need to ensure child-welfare policy is driven by facts, instead of exceptional cases or social-media exposure of vulnerable children and youth.

More than a decade ago, I sat with children and youth – some of whom were in care – to talk about ethical engagement. They told me we need to be very careful with their stories. Videos and photos of their most tragic moments will endure a lifetime and should only be shared with those in a position to do something to ensure their safety, dignity and well-being – not the public. While public scrutiny of child welfare is needed, it can be done without violating the privacy of children, youth and families.

After more than 30 years of seeing the over-representation of First Nations children and youth in child welfare, I know one thing for sure: Unless the public puts pressure on provincial, territorial and federal governments, the good solutions on the books will not be implemented. We must tell our politicians: literally thousands of children need our help.

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