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Tens of Millions of Aboriginal Child Welfare Dollars Spent on Talk: Watchdog

Ministry counters that changes to a more 'service'-oriented system are already underway.

Katie Hyslop 7 Nov

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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'There could not be a more confused, unstable and bizarre area of public policy than that which guides Aboriginal child and family services in BC,' finds child watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's latest report.

British Columbia's child and youth watchdog dropped a bombshell yesterday morning with revelations the province's Ministry of Children and Family Development spent close to $66 million on discussions and engagement with Aboriginal organizations and governments about kids in care since 2002, but no services were ever provided with the money. The government could also not provide a clear record of how the sum was spent.

"What this report reveals may shock some British Columbians, and hopefully it will prompt some change in how [the ministry] and the provincial government as a whole approaches the difficult job of serving this vulnerable sector of our population," said B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

A further $90 million of provincial money is annually spent on 23 Delegated Aboriginal Agencies, which are intended to provide services to status First Nations living on reserve, although there are three urban agencies, too. Another $57 million comes from the federal government annually to top up those agencies.

However, the watchdog's office found that only one of those agencies meets the federal requirement that there be at least 1,000 children to serve in order to justify their existence, and some don't have any files open on children in their area -- despite receiving government money for years.

"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.," summed up the report.

The report found that as of March 2013, more than half of the province's 8,106 children in care were Aboriginal, about 4,450 children.

But while the Ministry of Children and Family Development, or MCFD, accepts the report and its overall findings "in general", Minister Stephanie Cadieux said it would be a mistake to categorize the $66 million as wasted money.

"I don't want it to be misinterpreted that government spent $66 million to have these discussions around governance and jurisdictional issues without receiving some benefit," she said, adding the goal was to give Aboriginal people a voice regarding child services.

"There are better working relationships with indigenous communities. First Nations, in many cases, have increased capacity to provide culturally relevant care for their own children, including child protection mediation," she said.

Cadieux said services were provided to Aboriginal children during this time, through both Delegated Aboriginal Agencies and directly through the ministry itself. But the $66 million did not fund these services.

Both the minister and the representative agree that changes need to be made to the province's child welfare system for Aboriginal children. But while the representative's report indicates the current system is broken, the ministry says it's already begun to make the transition from talking about how the services should be provided to actually providing services.

Money spent on talk: watchdog

The spending covered in the report began in 2002, with talks surrounding the formation of Regional Aboriginal Authorities to take over children's services on a community level. A suggestion that came out of MCFD's core review in 2001, these authorities would help the ministry move to a community-based service delivery model, to improve on the outcomes of Aboriginal kids and families who need ministry services.

From 2002 until 2008, the ministry spent nearly $35 million in talks around what the authorities should look like, how many there should be, and what they would be responsible for. The idea was finally dropped after several First Nations spoke out against the idea.

"In the end, only one such agency was created in British Columbia, and it didn't have anything to do with Aboriginal people, really," said Turpel-Lafond. "That's Community Living BC, [which] dealt with children and youth with developmental disabilities, and they lost that mandate."

Another $31.02 million was spent from 2009 to 2013 on funding First Nations to create their own child welfare services, what the report calls a "Nation to Nation approach." The approach seems to have had the goal of transferring children and family services responsibilities to Delegated Aboriginal Agencies -- which Turpel-Lafond pointed out were not nations, and neither is British Columbia -- without a transition plan to achieve it.

"There is no evidence for that $66 million -- and I stress that that's a conservative estimate, I expect it's much higher than that -- that a single child or family actually received a service that would have contributed to improving their life circumstance," she said.

On top of this, the province has given $90 million to 23 Delegated Aboriginal Agencies to provide services to Aboriginal families on reserve and in three urban areas. However, there is no funding formula for how each agency receives its funding, and at least one agency has received nearly $5 million since 2010 despite never opening a single service file.

The report adds agencies were often left to their own devices, with little support other than financial from the ministry in delivering services -- although one agency, Kw'umut Lelum Child and Family Services near Nanaimo, completed 97 per cent of its "Comprehensive Plans of Care", which are detailed plans for service delivery and updates on how kids progress throughout their involvement with child and family services.

Earlier this year, the Representative issued a report on the ministry's poor track record for completing proper plans, with just five per cent plans completed on average province-wide.

Turpel-Lafond said her office hasn't been able to account for the $57 million the federal government puts into on-reserve child welfare services in B.C. every year, either.

"The funding to the delegated agencies alone follows no metric or rubric that could make any sense to me, nor does the federal funding. And the federal funders are clear... they don't know how the province funds, and the province says they don't understand how the feds fund," she said.

"All I can say is, I have a lot of kids who don't get service and need it."

Place-based answer to Aboriginal issues

Scott Clark wasn't shocked when he read the Representative for Children and Youth's report yesterday. The executive director of Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE), Clark and his organization have been speaking out for years against the segregation of Aboriginal services from non-Aboriginal services, especially in family and children's services.

"What I'm reading is bang on. We need to be able to question all government contractors that are receiving dollars to see that they're doing their job, and it's what we've been advocating for since day one," Clark said.

"Many of these contracted agencies that receive government money, where they once were advocates for Aboriginal people, they've now become contracted agents and are accountable to the government and not the community."

ALIVE deals solely with issues facing urban Aboriginal residents of Vancouver, and has been an outspoken critic of the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, the city's Delegated Aboriginal Agency. But Clark said many of the ideas ALIVE promotes to improve the lives of urban Aboriginals could be used province-wide.

For instance, ALIVE is a member of Our Place, a coalition of community organizations and service providers that advocate for place-based initiatives. That means services families and individuals have asked for are offered in places they already access, like the local community centre.

The best example of this strategy is services provided through the Ray Cam Community Centre in Vancouver's Strathcona Neighbourhood. Partnerships between the City of Vancouver, UBC Nursing, Network of Inner City Services Society (NICSS), and BC Children's Hospital offer everything from childcare, to family medical clinics, support programs for young parents, and after-school programs for kids from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Unlike Aboriginal Authorities or Delegated Agencies, these services are available to all low-income residents of the neighbourhood, which has a large Aboriginal population, but is also home to many recent immigrant and single mother-led families.

The program has been successful enough so far to catch the attention of Representative Turpel-Lafond, who praised the concept in an interview with Clark earlier this year.

"The great thing about place-based services like here at Ray Cam," she said in an interview, "is having the flexibility to actually be a supportive individual in the life of a person or a family, and it's 'place-based', meaning it's where you live and work. It isn't hundreds of miles away with a bunch of paperwork, and it has some flexibility and adaptability in terms of what's needed."

Clark said the model could easily be adopted province-wide.

"What we need province-wide is a place-based approach, where we work with principally the schools and the community centres as the hubs, and network with the non-profits, the business improvement associations, and other people who want to see a model that is an empowerment model with vulnerable children and families," he said.

"Why do we need to build a whole other parallel [Aboriginal] infrastructure when we already have it?"

'Incredibly complex file': Cadieux

Turpel-Lafond told reporters that Minister Cadieux was "genuine" in telling the representative she had no idea this was happening in her ministry when the two discussed the report over lunch on Tuesday. But Cadieux told media that was a misunderstanding -- rather she meant the file is the most difficult to understand.

"It's an incredibly complex file, because we do service children and families through a number of different ways -- delegated agencies through the ministry -- there were all of these conversations going on at different levels in terms of governance."

Minister Cadieux said she knew this was happening as early as two years ago, when then-deputy minister Stephen Brown noted the ministry was moving away from its mandate of providing families services by spending money on structures and governance.

Brown, now deputy minister of health, began shifting the focus of government contracts to service delivery, a process that is almost complete today -- the final remaining contracts for consultation, which cost the ministry $8 million, will be finished by March 2014.

"All new contracts and all contracts undergoing review will be focused on service delivery," Cadieux told reporters, adding they would have to be services "directly provided to children and families that improve outcomes for children and families."

These contracts could go to agencies and organizations who previously received structure and governance contracts. Although the representative's report found that some Delegated Aboriginal Agencies were not equipped to open case files for children and families receiving services, Cadieux said many agencies are in different stages of development and all offer some level of services.

"There are stages where they're not yet providing services under the Child, Family, and Community Services Act, but they are in development. So they are training staff, etc., and there are costs associated with that," she said.

"As well, many of those same agencies will provide services that are not under the Child, Family, and Community Services Act, but that we contract with them for. Which might include things like family support, parenting circles, [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome] programming or infant development programming... Participation in any one of those programs by children and families would not necessarily result in what would be monitored as a case file."

She said she could not speak to whether this applied to every agency without an open file. The report points specifically to the Denisiqi Services Society, which has received close to $5 million since 2008 but has yet to open a single file on a child in care in the seven communities it services.

The report outlined several recommendations for the ministry, with deadlines ranging from Feb.-Sept. 2014. Cadieux said recommendations one and three, which call for the attorney general to create policy for any delegation of services, and develop a clear plan for closing the outcome gap for Aboriginal kids across all relevant ministries, will take some work.

"The focus in MCFD certainly needs to be on focus delivery and making sure that Aboriginal children and families get good quality service, no matter which door they come through in the ministry," she said.

But while she agreed to work on these recommendations with the Representative's office, she isn't going to "suspend any open-ended Aboriginal-related initiatives currently funded by the MCFD" when it comes to the current jurisdiction and governance contracts that run out next spring.

"They all end relatively soon. But all of the indigenous contractors have been informed by letter that, indeed, all future work is going to be focused on service delivery and service delivery only," she said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, BC Politics

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