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Changes Coming — Slowly — to Indigenous Child Welfare in BC

Part five of a series. Now that governments are finally acknowledging the problem, here’s what is changing.

Katie Hyslop 24 May

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. This series is supported by Vancouver Foundation. Supporters neither influence nor endorse the particular content of the reporting. Other publications wishing to publish Katie’s work can contact editor Barry Link here.

Indigenous child welfare is a “humanitarian crisis,” says federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott.

The treatment of Indigenous kids is “inexcusable,” says former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

So, at least four decades after the alarm was sounded about the devastating effects of taking Indigenous children from their families and culture, what’s changed?

The federal and B.C. governments are both starting to act, though there has been no movement on many of the changes urged by Indigenous people. (We’ll examine those later in the series.)

Whether their actions are too little, too late remains to be seen — and the judgment ultimately will be made by Indigenous people.

But here is what’s happening in B.C. right now.

Involving elders and communities

Less than a year into her job as minister of child and family development, Katrine Conroy knows she has her work cut out for her in returning Indigenous kids in care back to their communities.

While the total number of kids in care in B.C. has gone down over the past few years, the reduction has been almost entirely in non-Indigenous children.

In fact the percentage of Indigenous kids in care has only increased. Five years ago there were just over 8,000 kids in care, and 55 per cent of them were Indigenous. As of December 2017 there were 6,804 children in care, 63.8 per cent of whom are Indigenous.

But Conroy says her ministry is working on a number of fronts to bring that number down. It has already dropped by 100 Indigenous kids who went back to their families in the last year, and the minister says credit is due to “more work on family preservation, more work with social workers thinking outside the box.”

One way the province is hoping to prevent more Indigenous kids being taken from their families is through Bill 26 the Child, Family and Community Service Amendment Act to ensure social workers can involve an Indigenous child’s community and its leaders in plans of care before apprehension is considered.

More kids could be kept at home if social workers can involve community leaders in finding solutions before it’s necessary to take children into care, Conroy said.

“To say to them, is there anyone else in the community that may be able to provide support to the mum and/or dad, or actually have the aunties or uncles and or the elders take care of the child until mum and dad get the supports they need so that the child can be reunited with the family,” she said.

Some Indigenous advocates say that was the type of child and family supports their communities provided before colonization.

However Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have sharply criticized the government for the lack of consultation before introducing the amendments in April. Others, including Representative for Children and Youth Bernard Richard and Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau say the changes still leave too much power in the hands of the ministry at a time when even the province acknowledges Indigenous people need jurisdiction over their own child welfare services.

The government is also focusing on prevention measures, Conroy said. In September the ministry announced a $6.4-million family preservation services program, with funding available to any of the province’s 203 First Nations, as well as to the seven child welfare agencies serving Métis people. So far more than 170 First Nations have applied; if the funding was split evenly it would amount to less than $40,000 per nation.

Conroy also said the government wants to see Delegated Aboriginal Agencies, which have replaced government ministry services in many communities, receive equal funding.

The province’s 24 Delegated Aboriginal Agencies, which receive both federal and provincial funding, are notoriously underfunded and understaffed. A report from the provincial Representative for Children and Youth released last year found staff had on average 30 cases each, 50 per cent more than provincial guidelines allowed.

However, the agencies stand to benefit from the recent federal government announcement that it would fully fund on-reserve prevention programs.

“They serve approximately just over 40 per cent Indigenous children in care,” said Conroy, “and we want to make sure they’re funded to the same level as the ministry is funded and that they can hire experienced and qualified social workers and the staff they needed.”

Delegated Aboriginal Agencies are controversial among some Indigenous people seeking child welfare reform. Introduced under the BC Liberal government, the majority of agencies operate on reserves, although there are four urban Indigenous agencies.

Run and staffed primarily by Indigenous people, the agencies are supposed to provide more culturally relevant and appropriate care and services to Indigenous families than a mainstream child welfare agency.

However they still have to operate under provincial child welfare law and policies that critics say are designed to bring Indigenous children into care.

And the delegation process that allows the agencies to take kids into care and arrange adoptions takes an average 10 years, and underfunding by both the provincial and federal governments have led to both inadequate service delivery and cultural content.

Last November the province upgraded the delegation level of one of those urban agencies, Lii Michif Otipemisiwak. It became the first Métis-run agency in the province with full child protection powers, including taking kids into care. Lii Michif is not delegated to oversee adoptions of Metis kids and youth, however, which are currently handled by Métis Family Services Surrey.

With $2.7 million in funding from the province, Lii Michif Otipemisiwak took over the cases of 50 Métis kids and youth currently in care.*

“One of the interesting things the executive director said was when we were talking about permanency was, we haven’t had any of our children adopted,” said Conroy.

“Because that’s not the goal. The goal is to ensure that those kids can stay with extended family members like grannies or aunties, work towards reconciliation with their parents. And she said that's what they’re doing, and it’s working.”

As the province makes moves towards enabling further Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare, some communities will continue to rely on the delegated agency model, Conroy said.

“Some First Nations like the delegated agency process, some don’t. So we have to respect and work in collaboration with the different nations on what works best for their nation,” she said.

One First Nation community that does not like the delegated agency model is the Splatsin of the Secwe̓pemc nation, who live on their territories near the town of Enderby and have been operating under their own child welfare bylaw since 1980, an arrangement we will cover in more detail later in this series.

“Jurisdiction is key,” said Splatsin Chief Wayne Christian. “It’s not about programs and services, because those programs and services have to operate under the provincial realm and that doesn’t work. That’s the issue, but people don’t see that. They just see the money and think that’s going to solve everything.”

The previous provincial Liberal government stopped recognizing the Splatsin’s jurisdiction over their children living off reserve in 2007, 27 years after the province had signed an agreement acknowledging their jurisdiction over their own children regardless of where they lived.

In response the Splatsin filed a constitutional claim against the province in 2015.

The lawsuit forced the province to negotiate with the Splatsin and they have been in talks ever since at two tables: one discussing the operational issues created by the disagreement over who has jurisdiction over kids off the Splatsin reserve, and the other to discuss with the federal and provincial governments ways to remove the legislative roadblocks preventing the full recognition of Splatsin jurisdiction over their children.

The push for Indigenous control over child welfare

These aren’t the only child welfare jurisdiction talks the province has been engaged in recently.

Last year the-then Liberal provincial government and the Wet’suwet’en First Nation signed an agreement to work towards full Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction over their children and child welfare services. However the agreement acknowledges there is no agreed-on definition of jurisdiction yet and talks will eventually have to include the federal government.

The province is also engaged in jurisdiction talks with the Lake Babine First Nation and Métis Nation BC, while discussing nation-specific child welfare legislation changes with the Cowichan Tribes and working with the Huu-ah-ayt First Nation to help implement recommendations from an independent report commissioned by the nation on how to improve outcomes for Huu-ah-ayt children, including greater involvement in supporting and planning for children and families in the child welfare system.*

The province pledged $150 million in 2017 to implement all the report’s recommendations, something Conroy says her ministry is still working towards.

The B.C. and federal governments have also been at the table with B.C.’s First Nations Leadership Council since 2017, though provincial talks started in 2016. The three parties have an established work plan and timeline for reaching a tripartite child welfare agreement that would see jurisdiction over child welfare returned to First Nations in the province.

The child welfare agreement would be the first of its kind in Canada to transfer jurisdiction over a service back to First Nations people.

Cheryl Casimer is a member of the First Nations Summit political executive, one of three First Nations organizations that make up the First Nations Leadership Council. Giving First Nations full jurisdiction over child welfare and the right to set their own rules and programs is critical, she said.

“We don’t want the current system that exists. This system is broken, and Canada and British Columbia have said so themselves,” Casimer said.

“We need to be able to have an opportunity to have resourcing to support our capacity, to be able to support our ability to put into place systems that work for us, our traditional systems,” she said. “We want to be able to have jurisdiction and the authority to implement those laws. The capacity, the infrastructure.”

That includes money for capital costs like building longhouses where traditional governance can take place. And funding for adequate housing on and off reserves so families have safe homes to raise their children and the space required to increase the number of Indigenous foster parents and kinship agreements.

Conroy says the housing issue, which leads to some children being apprehended simply because of their living conditions, will be helped by the province’s coming poverty reduction strategy. The universal child care program should let more parents with young children find work, reducing the risk that poverty will lead to children being taken into care.

Both should also help reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care. The majority of Indigenous children and youth living away from their parents aren’t at home due to poverty-related issues.

“Poverty can’t be a reason to take kids into care,” Conroy said.

Everyone involved agrees that this process will take time. Every nation is different and British Columbia, while not home to the largest First Nations population, does have the most nations at 203, not including Métis or non-Status First Nations people. There is no pan-Indigenous solution to this problem.

Nevertheless, Conroy believes we could see jurisdiction transferred within her time in government — depending on how long the NDP stay in power.

“I think it’s going to be happening within the next few years. We’re entering into agreements to work towards jurisdiction. And so once we've entered into those agreements, then we talk about how the jurisdiction is going to take place. I could see that happening in the foreseeable future,” she said.

“That's my goal.”

Coming Monday: In part six, Jaye Simpson shares experiences of a childhood in care — and what needs to be done to transform the Indigenous child welfare system.

* Article edited May 25 to correct errors made by the ministry in presenting information.  [Tyee]

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