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Two-Tier Child Welfare System Hurts Indigenous Children, Says Watchdog

‘Urgent need’ to revamp system plagued by overworked staff, insufficient funding.

Katie Hyslop 31 Mar

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

Indigenous children, mostly on reserves, are being taken into care because provincial and federal underfunding creates a two-tiered child welfare system and fails to provide prevention services, according to a report from the Representative for Children and Youth released Thursday.

More than 60 per cent of the approximately 7,000 B.C. children and youth in care are Indigenous; they are almost 17 times more likely to end up in care.

While more than half of Indigenous children in care who live off reserve receive support directly from Ministry of Children and Family Development agencies, 1,900 Indigenous kids receive services from one of 23 “Delegated Aboriginal Agencies” (DAAs) in the province, mandated by the ministry to serve Indigenous children and families. Most are funded by the provincial and federal governments.

The representative’s report, “Delegated Aboriginal Agencies: How resourcing affects service delivery,” focuses on inadequate funding for the agencies.

Interviews with staff found workers juggling an average 30 cases each — 50 per cent more than provincial guidelines allow — and often receiving salaries lower than those of ministry frontline workers, making attracting and retaining social workers difficult.

The lack of resources also meant workers could not deliver culturally based services, which the delegated agencies are required to provide, or long-term planning for kids in government care.

“We have a system that does not account for the fact that the need for services is greater in DAAs to address the intergenerational effects of residential schools and other colonial policies in Canada,” said Bernard Richard, the Representative for Children and Youth.

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux issued a statement saying Richard’s report doesn’t take into account the $14.4 million in additional funding for delegated agencies announced in last month’s budget.

But Richard said since the funding doesn’t start until April 1, it’s too early to say what the impact will be.

“It seems like the ministry would like us to report on their good intentions,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

The provincial government is responsible for ensuring B.C. child welfare policies are enacted on reserves. It receives top-up funding from the federal government for children with status under the Indian Act.

But federal funding is based on a model that assumes no more than 20 per cent of families on reserve will require child and family services, and only six per cent of children will be in care. Reserves with less than 250 status children receive no federal funding; those with less than 1,000 receive up to 75 per cent less funding than larger reserves.

Richard’s report calls on the federal government to overhaul the child welfare system and reduce the number of Indigenous children in care.

He noted the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled last year that the federal government discriminates against children on reserves by not providing adequate funding for their care.

Mary Teegee, executive director of child and family services at Carrier Sekani Family Services, a delegated agency that participated in the review, says funding levels must increase to provide prevention services to keep kids out of care. That means funding housing, mental health and culture, she said.

“We know that if a child knows who they are, they know where they come from, they are least likely to engage in high risk activity,” she said. “Working to provide holistic, wrap-around services is absolutely important in preventing children going into care, and including those family members.”

The Tyee called Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for comment, but Minister Carolyn Bennett was unavailable.

Instead the ministry sent a statement highlighting the $635 million promised over five years in last year’s budget to reform First Nations child and family services and a federal, provincial and First Nations Leadership Council working group on child welfare reforms.

“Removing children from their homes has a devastating effect on both the child and the parents,” the statement said. “That is why the federal government is working closely with First Nations to reform the system and end the perverse incentives in the funding formulas that incentivize children being apprehended.”

But Richard says frontline workers tell him more federal money isn’t felt on the ground. “God knows where it’s going, but it’s not going to front line services where it’s desperately needed,” he said.

Lack of funding ‘an embarrassment’

Provincial DAA funding is negotiated on an agency-by-agency basis. Agreements last anywhere from six months to two years, making long-term planning impossible for the agencies.

The representative’s report says there is no formula to determine costs and needed funding, although agencies working with rural and remote communities face much higher expenses.

Melanie Mark, New Democratic Party critic for children and families, said an NDP government would provide adequate funding formula for Delegated Aboriginal Agencies.

“Those social workers have to do work in remote communities, have to drive three hours to go see their kids, with extra... kids on their caseload, against the standards,” she said. “That’s not being treated as equals [to ministry workers].”

Richard said the provincial and federal governments need to work together. Cadieux told him the ministry has just begun talking to Indigenous and Northern Affairs after “years of virtually no communication,” he reported.

“There is an urgent need for both levels of government to develop a real, concrete plan to address a critical issue that’s an embarrassment for the country,” Richard said.

The provincial government has promised that $14.4 million in additional money for DAAs will bring them up to the level of ministry supported agencies. But Richard says that’s not enough considering the higher needs and remote locations of reserves.

The ministry has also pledged $150 million to implement recommendations from last year’s report on First Nations child and family welfare by former grand chief Edward John.

Commissioned by the ministry, the report calls for an overhaul of the system to focus on prevention and funding that meets community needs, particularly for hiring more frontline social workers.

Although Richard’s report does not include recommendations, he said his office and the ministry have agreed to start working groups in order to track the status of recommendations from previous Representative for Children and Youth reports.

“At the end of every day, I firmly believe that what we all want is for kids to be safe, to be happy and to be able to reach their full potential, whether they’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous,” Richard said. “We’re a rich province in a rich country. We’re able to do a much better job than we’ve been doing in the past.”  [Tyee]

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