Indigenous children are over-represented in foster care, minister and experts say

Published On June 27, 2018 | By tazdhaliwal | News, Politics

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, third left, and Cindy Blackstock, second left, on Parliament Hill with Indigenous leaders and politicians on May 10. (Jane Philpott, Twitter Media-@janephilpott)

Taz Dhaliwal

There’s a crisis in foster care as Indigenous children are over-represented in the system, say experts and federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott.

“Between 1989 and 2012…First Nation children on reserve, only in Canada, spent 66 million nights in foster care,” said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCARES).

“So, that’s 187, 000 years of childhood,” she said.

Philpott said there’s a disproportionate amount of Indigenous children in the foster care system.

“The severe over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care is well documented,” she told the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in December last year.

“Census 2016 data indicate that Indigenous children aged zero to four make up 7.7 per cent of all Canadian children. But they represent over 52 per cent of children in foster care in private homes,” Philpott told the assembly, describing the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in the child welfare system as a “humanitarian crisis.”

Blackstock told Humber News the Caring Society, where she works, was developed in 1998 during a national meeting of First Nations child and family service agencies. Members decided a national non-profit organization was necessary to provide research, policy, professional development and networking to help First Nations community agencies.

The FNCARES website states there are three times more First Nations children in child welfare care now than there ever were during the height of Residential Schools and that First Nations children are six to eight times more likely to be in child welfare than non-Indigenous children

Blackstock said the number of children in foster care varies significantly amongst the three Indigenous groups; the First Nations, Metis and Inuit groups.

“When we look at First Nations kids, we’ve known since 1998 that the reason they’re coming into care disproportionately is poverty, poor housing and substance misuse owing to the multi-generational impact of residential schools,” she said.

“Those three things get codified by child welfare as being parental deficits and the assumption by child welfare is that the parents can change things thing on their own,” she said. “When often it requires the addressing of systemic discrimination…that’s where we come in because on reserve, the federal government was dramatically underfunding child care services.”

Blackstock said children with the highest needs in child welfare are the most underfunded.

She said these children are being under-supported in areas such as poverty, access to clean water and education. Blackstock said these are contributing factors to the over-representation.

Blackstoke said they filed a human rights complaint against Canada in 2007, along with the Assembly of First Nations. She said the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decided in 2016 that Canada’s underfunding of children services was racial discrimination.

She said there has been some progress on Jordan’s Principle ever since Philpott came into office as Minister of Indigenous Services. The principle was named after Jordan River Anderson, who was born in 1999 with multiple disabilities. 

When Jordan was two, the federal and provincial governments could not decide on who would pay for his home care.

Because of the financial stalemate, Jordan stayed in hospital where he died when he was five.

Ottawa then passed Jordan’s Principle, a commitment made by the government to ensure that First Nations children would receive the products, services and support they need, at the time they are needed and payments would then be worked out later.

Blackstock said the principle allows Canada to approve tens of thousands of service requests for children.

She said more funding and resources are needed, but the way money is structured and allocated also matters.

Blackstock said structural problems still remain in terms of restrictions Canada places on how funds can be used.

She drew similarities and contrasts between what children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border are going through and what Indigenous children face.

“You saw a whole cadre of child psychiatrists coming in and saying how that creates irreparable harm for these kids,” she said. “Now imagine those kids being taken away for years.”

In terms of solutions, Blackstock said the reason why Canada continues to replicate the same mistakes from residential schools to the ’60s scoop needs to be understood.

“There’s something in the culture and the way that [governmental] system operates that perpetuates that,” she said. Blackstock said egregious harms against children need to be fixed.

However, she said one of the ways she has seen progress is through community based initiatives.

“There’s emerging research to suggest that they’re less likely, far less likely to remove kids, and are more successful at keeping kids safely with their families because community based interventions are developed,” Blackstoke said. “They often involve bringing in extended family members as support, as well as professional services.”

She said with additional money these community efforts could become easier and pointed out a lack of resources has contributed to decreased involvement of professional services.

Blackstock argued First Nations deserve more funding due to their circumstances and history. She also said more funding and allocation of resources could help close inequality gaps.

When it comes to custody of children, she said most statutes are consistent with one another and state all other options have to be exhausted before removal of a child from it’s family and community can be considered. She said these are called “least disruptive measures.”

Albeit, when it comes to tracking this kind of data, Blackstock said Canada is one of the few Western countries that has no national data collection on child welfare.

Miles Richardson, an expert on relations between First Nations and the government, said a holistic approach is needed to address the issue, although he doesn’t see much progress and said there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

Richardson said Indigenous communities should have control over their own community to better help serve their people.

He said it is better for children to stay with extended family members and within their community than to be taken out of a familiar environment and put into foster care. Richardson continued to say that when a child stays within their community, they receive security and support from people who share the same culture, values and world view as them.

Every human needs that element of love, trust, connection, and that feeling of knowing that “someone has your back” in your life, he said.

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