Program Helping Indigenous Parents Undersubscribed, Says Provider

With so many Indigenous kids in care, why aren’t more south Vancouver Island families enrolled in prevention programs?

By Katie Hyslop 22 Nov 2017 |

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

High turnover among government social workers could be part of the reason for the baffling underuse of a critical program for Indigenous families on Vancouver Island, says the agency behind the programs.

Two Victoria-based family preservation programs are often the last chance for Indigenous parents to keep their kids at home or out of permanent government care. Yet only one of the programs, which are both offered by Hulitan Family and Community Services Society, has a waitlist.

Hulitan’s executive director Kendra Gage acknowledges that the absence of a waitlist for programs is usually considered a good sign, not an outcome of under-funding or lack of services. But Gage is certain the low numbers aren’t because fewer kids are at risk of going into permanent care.

Instead she points the finger at the high turnover rate in the ministry’s Aboriginal Services Team, the frontline child welfare social workers specifically assigned to Indigenous families in the region, and an overall disconnect between the ministry’s policies and what’s happening at the front lines.

“Sometimes new [ministry] people don’t know what the service is,” Gage said of their intensive parenting programs. “There’s maybe three people in that office that I even know anymore.”

Hulitan (pronounced Hu-lee-ton) is the only provider of Indigenous-created intensive family preservation services for urban, rural, and on-reserve families in southern Vancouver Island. Its two programs include the Family Development Response team program and the Kwen’an’latel Intensive Parent Support program.

Family Development Response is a three-to-six month intensive program where case workers spend up to 10 hours per week with families at home, helping mitigate risks to kids.

Kwen’an’latel is an 18-month program designed by the local Indigenous community to assist parents in addressing any trauma standing in the way of healthy parenting and to help them get their kids back from temporary care placements.

Parents can only access these programs via referrals from their ministry social workers as part of their family plans to keep or get their kids back. Yet despite serving a community of roughly 25,000 Indigenous people who live between the Saanich Peninsula and Port Renfrew, both Hulitan programs have just two full-time workers each, taking on a maximum of five families per worker.

That’s not enough to meet the need when 47 per cent of the roughly 535 kids in care in south Vancouver Island are Indigenous, Gage said. That ratio increases to 60 per cent for the 7,000 kids in care province-wide.

Yet at the moment only Kwen’an’latel currently has a waitlist, with two families who could wait up to eight months to get in.

“Our [Family Development Response team] program, if we want to do the work differently and prevent kids from going into care, that should be sitting at a waitlist all the time,” Gage said.

Kids versus waitlists

Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and recommendations from Grand Chief Ed John’s 2016 special report on improving Indigenous child welfare in B.C. mention the importance of culturally relevant prevention and parenting skills programs available and fully-funded for Indigenous families.

The provincial government has made it clear it intends to implement both sets of recommendations, with Premier John Horgan including in Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy’s mandate letter earlier this year a commitment to fulfilling all 94 Calls to Action, while working to implement Chief Ed John’s recommendations.

A 2015 report to Canada’s premiers on best practices in Indigenous child welfare programs in the country also outlined the importance of prevention, singling out Hulitan’s Family Development Response and Kwen’an’latel programs for keeping kids out of permanent care.

Hulitan’s own 2016/17 annual report showed 40 per cent of the 21 opened Kwen’an’latel files during this period were closed, resulting in four kids returned to their families and one child housed with extended family. During the same time period, 53 per cent of Family Development Response participants completed the program, resulting in 21 kids staying at home.

Failure to complete a program doesn’t mean kids automatically go into care, Gage said.

“Some of them may have gone into care, and then some of them may have moved out of the services area,” she said. “Twenty-one children is a strong number [of kids staying home] for a program of that type.”

Burnside Gorge Community Association is the only other provider of mandated “high risk” parenting skills programs serving mainly the City of Victoria. But while it could take on Indigenous clients, most are directed to Hulitan while non-Indigenous families are directed to Burnside.

“A lot of times we’ll get the social worker to put the family on both of our waitlists to see who’s faster,” said Suzanne Cole, executive director of Burnside Gorge.

“Historically I would say Hulitan carried a longer case load. But we just let someone off our case load because they got into Hulitan faster than us. So it all depends.”

Burnside only has three full-time workers in its C’NEX intensive parenting skills program, which is similar to Kwen’an’latel, with three families on the waitlist. While Cole has never heard of a family losing their kids because they couldn’t access a court-mandated program, long wait times still impact kids.

“Time is of the essence,” she said. “If parents are ready and willing to do the work to get their kids back, a waitlist can be a huge barrier for people.”

One list too long, one not long enough

Representative for Children and Youth Bernard Richard says an eight month waitlist for the Kwen’an’latel program is unacceptable.

“The ministry, whether they do it directly or through contracted services, they should be responding immediately,” he said.

“What it says to me, and it should say to the ministry as well, is if certain issues are addressed, if certain training is delivered, then the family is able to take care of these kids.”

When he spoke with The Tyee in late October, Richard was not familiar with Hulitan’s issue with a lack of waitlist for the Family Development Response program and overall resourcing problems, but said he would address it at his next meeting with the ministry. That meeting has yet to take place.

“Any time spent in care that doesn’t need to be spent in care would be a concern for us,” he said.

The Tyee requested an interview with Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy, but she was not made available. In a statement emailed to The Tyee, a ministry spokesperson said parents unable to enrol in Hulitan programs are free to enter any of the many parenting programs in the region.

“Indigenous families can choose to work with any service provider — Indigenous or otherwise,” the statement read.

But Gage said other parenting programs in the region, like Triple P, are shorter and less intensive than Kwen’an’latel, Family Development Response, or Burnside’s C’NEX program. They also don’t involve the intensive interventions and monthly report back to the social worker on parents’ progress and goals in the program as Hulitan’s programs do.

“The only thing the staff can report on is if you went or not,” she said of other parenting programs in the region. “Sometimes going to Triple P wouldn’t get your kids home. That isn’t considered good enough for the ministry if parenting risk to the children is the reason kids are removed.”

The ministry noted it had last heard from Hulitan in September where its quarterly report showed there were 15 files open and eight families on the waitlist between the two programs.

As of November, only two families sat on the waitlist for Kwen’an’latel, and none for the Family Development Response team program.

“This is a good indication of a disconnect they have,” Gage said about the ministry.

The ministry didn’t deny turnover levels have been high with their Aboriginal Services Team, citing retirements and advancements as the reason. But it did not specify how often front line social workers leave the Aboriginal Services Team in the area.

Gage recognizes the contradiction in Hulitan’s issues: one waitlist is too long, while another waitlist isn’t long enough. But the problem lies in the reliance on waitlists to show whether a program is needed.

“There’s bigger issues: are people referring [to the programs]? Are they aware? What are the other barriers and issues contributing to this not happening?” she said.

“It’s a double-edged sword: if we actually pushed to get all the referrals we should be getting, we couldn’t meet the need anyways.”  [Tyee]

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