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After $66 Million Spent on 'Talk,' Has BC Reworked Aboriginal Child Welfare?

Ministry still offloads work to under-resourced agencies, says watchdog.

By Katie Hyslop 1 May 2014 |

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

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Despite the B.C. government's vow to change how aboriginal child welfare services are delivered in November, not much has changed to help kids and families get back on their feet. Swing photo via Shutterstock.

It's been over six months since B.C.'s child watchdog revealed the province spent roughly $66 million between 2002 and 2013 on "talk" with indigenous family service organizations and governments, rather than concrete services for kids and families.

The sum was in addition to the $90 million the government provides to indigenous organizations to run child and family services every year.

"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," child and youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said at the release of the report, "When Talk Trumped Service," in November.

In March 2013, when research for the report was gathered, over half of the province's kids in care -- 4,450 out of 8,106 -- were aboriginal. It's a long-standing trend that years ago inspired the province and many First Nations to pursue transferring the care of these children back to their nations.

The report documented the millions poured into each of B.C.'s 23 delegated aboriginal agencies for child and family services. Some of these agencies had service delivery records more impressive than the government's, but many had opened no or few cases on the indigenous youth and families they are supposed to serve.

Turpel-Lafond provided several recommendations for the government, including developing a plan for the transfer of child and family welfare services to indigenous agencies; cancelling contracts with agencies that had no clear goals for service delivery; and creating a government-wide strategy to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous youth, especially around education and health outcomes.

Deadlines for the government's rough drafts were due in February. So far, nothing has been submitted.

Other than cancelling Indigenous Approaches, funding provided to First Nations for services aimed at keeping families out of the child welfare system, there's been little change in the way delegated aboriginal agencies are funded by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Whether that's good news depends on whom you ask. Turpel-Lafond said since her report's release, she's discovered millions in additional funding provided to agencies that "can't possibly meet the obligations to serve aboriginal children and families to a high standard," because of a lack of resources.

"I'm concerned more widely about the ministry offloading, to these very fragile agencies, entire service lines without appropriate funding and support, and certainly without any clear coordination with the federal government around an equal level of service on and off reserve," she said.

Turpel-Lafond isn't ready to report the dollar amount of these contracts. But she did say the government has been slow to adopt changes and commit to reforming the system.

Meanwhile, delegated agencies say while they respect the watchdog's findings, media have mischaracterized the way they've spent government money. While they agree resources are tight, agencies have always provided and still provide family welfare services to their communities, they say.

Agencies crippled by underfunding

When Turpel-Lafond's report was released, Denisiqi Services Society was the poster child for what looked like aboriginal delegation failure. It has received almost $5 million from the government since 2008, with not a single file opened.

But Denisiqi executive director Dwayne Emerson said the agency didn't receive the necessary delegation status to open files until one month after the watchdog's office gathered data in March 2013. The organization has since opened files, but Denisiqi, which serves seven Tsilhqot'in and Ulkatchot'en communities in B.C.'s central interior, always provided preventative services to keep kids out of the child welfare system, Emerson said.

"I think someone who wasn't very sophisticated would look at that report and go, 'Oh my gosh, here's all these funds going to agencies, but you don't get any kind of true picture of what services they provide," he said.

Indigenous agencies must go through a three-tiered delegation process in order to take over child protection and family services in their area. The process takes 10 years on average, and Denisiqi has only reached the second level, which involves creating plans of care for kids with open files, guardianship of kids in care, and helping youth transition out of care.

Delegated agencies must report their progress to the community and the child and youth ministry. Denisiqi makes annual presentations on their services and the delegation process to the chiefs and councils of the communities they serve.

But Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, representing all seven communities Denisiqi serves, said the ministry isn't providing enough resources to enable the society to do its job. This leads community members to turn to their band council for family services.

"I think you find out who can get things done for the most part, and most times people end up coming directly to me," said Alphonse, who also serves as chief of the Tl'etinqox-t'in nation.

Alphonse cites a Feb. 2014 child watchdog report detailing the life and suicide of a 14-year-old girl from Alphonse's nation as proof. Although many services failed the girl and her family, including the government and the police, the report states the aboriginal family services agency, which isn't named, didn't have the funds required to offer adequate support.

"The mental health services the girl received were from an aboriginal agency so under-resourced that trips by a clinician to visit the reserve -- more than an hour away -- were not possible due to budgetary constraints. This could not even be called a 'service' as the contract with a fledgling agency was, on its face, impossible to meet," the report said.

The report adds the agency had achieved the delegated status required to intervene in the young girl's case before she committed suicide in 2011, but no one in either the provincial or federal government had told them.

Since that report was released, Alphonse has met with Denisiqi, First Nations Health, and the Ministry of Children and Family Development; another meeting is scheduled for later in May that will include the RCMP and potentially the federal aboriginal affairs department. Alphonse will drive home the need for more funding.

Government social workers are permitted to have 30 clients maximum, Alphonse said. But in his community, there's only funding to cover 1.5 social worker positions. "So we have to find funding elsewhere to create two full-time positions, [which] both have 100 clients each."

Desperately seeking accountability

It's not fair to say every delegated agency faces the same issues as Denisiqi. "When Talk Trumped Service" singled out Kw'umut Lelum Child and Family Services Society on Vancouver Island as a success for completing 97 per cent of its comprehensive plans of care for children. The average completion rate for these plans created by ministry social workers is five per cent.

But there is a lack of oversight to track the success of these organizations, starting with irregular ministry auditing.

"I know they have a draft audit on some of the agencies," said Turpel-Lafond. "I'm very concerned that some of the audits are not good and that [the ministry is] not coming clean and actually showing me how they're going to work on those issues."

Turpel-Lafond isn't the only one concerned. As director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, Scott Clark has been in constant contact with the ministry and the Vancouver Child and Family Services Society, one of three urban delegated aboriginal child and family services agencies in B.C., since news of a suicide pact involving dozens of urban aboriginal youth in Vancouver broke in 2012.

Clark said he's been unable to find any organizational accountability between the ministry and the delegated aboriginal agencies.

"If $66 million was taken away from front-line services starting back in [2002] to today, it's absolutely mind-boggling that they would spend all this money and there would be no lines of accountability," he said. In an emailed statement, the ministry said there is an organizational structure, starting with oversight for all agencies under the director of child welfare, as well as the ministry's aboriginal services and quality assurances division and local ministry offices that work with aboriginal agencies.

No one from Vancouver Child and Family Services Society was available for an interview.

'It's a very sensitive issue'

Both Turpel-Lafond and the child and youth ministry agree the recommendations from "When Talk Trumped Service" are complex, and the watchdog said she understands why the work has gone past deadline. The ministry said it is meeting with other ministries, program areas, and stakeholders, and progress is underway.

But with no government or ministry-wide aboriginal strategy, aboriginal services strategy, or aboriginal hiring strategy, Turpel-Lafond wonders about government's capacity to adequately support delegated agencies to serve their own communities.

Clark points to the Musqueam Nation as a model for indigenous-controlled services. The nation's comprehensive community plan has clear goals, timelines, and methods of accountability in all areas of the services it provides, from supports for families and children, to housing, recreation, and economic development.

There are other indigenous nations in Canada, including the Nisga'a, the Tsawwassen, and the 14 First Nations in the Yukon, that have agreements with settler governments to take over child welfare services, the representative said. But they chose not to.

"You have to have the collaboration and the partnership [with provincial and federal governments] to build the capacity," she said. "It's a very sensitive issue."

Turpel-Lafond was quick to clarify that First Nations are capable of caring for their own children. But if true delegation is going to happen, she said, a serious plan needs to take shape within the provincial government to carry it out.  [Tyee]

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