First Nations child and family services reform: Minister’s Special Representative meetings in Alberta

The Minister’s Special Representative, Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, met with stakeholders and partners in Alberta who have an interest in the reform process for First Nation child and family services from January 16 to 20, 2017, including:

Stakeholders and partners were asked to identify what needs to change in the First Nations Child and Family Services program. This report presents a summary of Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux’s meetings in Alberta and highlights:

Key issues and findings

First Nation leadership organizations

  • First Nation communities and First Nation organizations want to lead, develop, and manage their own child and family services programs
  • First Nations want more authority to input into the development of culturally relevant laws and standards
  • need for laws and standards that focus on the underlying issues that bring children into care, strengthen families and help individuals and families connect to their Indigenous culture
  • need for more Indigenous social workers or those who have experience with Indigenous people and working with people who have suffered trauma
  • desire to see more support kinship care, for example, by providing extended families with funding for children they are caring for and by changing the assessment process to be less intrusive
  • family dynamics have been broken by residential schools and colonial policies and laws, children are not coming back to healthy places and are searching for where they belong
  • desire to make families safe again and to support children to know who they are and belong to their communities, through language, culture and ceremony

Tribal councils and communities

  • First Nations feel that government should be addressing funding shortfalls and providing programming at the community level
  • First Nations are exploring ways to have jurisdiction over child welfare, including First Nation laws that would see them taking responsibility for their own child and family services
  • desire to see First Nations involved in the province of Alberta's legislative review committee
  • need to ensure communities are part of any discussion on national standards so that they recognize the needs and cultural context of First Nation families
  • First Nations children and youth need services no matter where they live, and whether they live on or off reserve
  • desire to see a system that has a comprehensive approach to child and family services, one that emphasizes well-being and includes support for multiple services, including parenting classes and mental health counselling
  • families explained they fear getting help because of the potential of having their children taken away and that, in the current system, families only get help when a child is registered in the child welfare system; prevention supports need to be provided without families being in the system
  • need for dedicated individuals in communities to help families in relation to child and family issues (for example, a trained person to provide prevention services during times of crisis, avoiding further family disruption)
  • importance of families and children getting help from Elders and of community care circles supporting families in crisis
  • after care and support for when families are reunited
  • more infrastructure in communities for child and family services, including for agency offices, family treatment homes and safe houses
  • the justice system operates under a western perspective and does not take into account the realities faced by First Nations (for example, many communities do not have access to programs and services that the courts mandate that they participate in)
  • funding should be identical to off-reserve programs
  • raised questions about why children are being taken out of communities and suggested alternatives, such as removing parents from the home so that they can get support and heal
  • there should be supports for families who take a child under private guardianship, which is when families who have had continuous care of a child for a period of time can apply for private guardianship of a child as an alternative to adoption
  • child and family services reform must be in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is a comprehensive statement of human rights
  • a compassionate relationship is needed between governments and First Nations to re-build trust and support child and family well-being

Agencies and social and well-being workers

  • importance of prevention programs in helping children stay in their homes and communities
  • need for more direct funding for agencies to improve prevention programs
  • difficult to attract and maintain staff because of current heavy workloads, high levels of stress, and high turnover results in the inability for staff to connect and develop real trust with children and families
  • challenges in hiring social workers, including because of the pay differential between First Nation agencies and non-First Nation agencies
  • need more programing to train Indigenous peoples to be social workers
  • desire to see more information sharing on promising approaches for keeping families together to support agencies
  • suggestion to increase the age of youth in care beyond 18 years and adopt a more flexible approach that supports youth who have aged out of care to remain in school and get a post-secondary education or skills training
  • funding should be stable, predictable and ongoing
    • currently proposal timelines are not reasonable and groups should not need to do proposals each year to seek funding for programs to keep families together
  • need for infrastructure funding for buildings and offices in order to have more workers
  • more support or a dedicated support person is required for individuals and families when they are dealing with the court system
  • funding should be provided for community-based workers to set up cultural activities for children and youth
  • desire to see more mental health supports for children and families on and off reserve
  • band representatives should have adequate funding given their role in keeping children in care connected with their extended families and culture which promotes a child’s sense of identity and encourages them to return to their communities and culture as adults

Province of Alberta

  • opportunity for federal government to collaborate with First Nations and the new provincial Ministry of Child Intervention and Early Childhood Development
  • Alberta Reform Agreement is unique and allows the Alberta government to provide services on reserve and bill the federal government for these services and allows for the province to fill in the gaps
  • need to take comprehensive approach with early intervention and prevention that considers poverty, homelessness, services for people with disabilities, food security and good drinking water
  • sometimes families place their kids in care so they can get the services they need
  • the province is exploring how to better support off reserve First Nation children and families who require culturally appropriate child and family services, and how to respond to the increase in

First Nation individuals moving to urban centres

  • the province is exploring how to create Indigenous-led and Elder supported programs in the communities
  • need to address the special needs of remote First Nation communities, as these communities face special challenges such as lack of services and lack of infrastructure for child and family services programs

Child advocate

  • systems need to focus on supporting children
  • urban office would facilitate the connection between the city and communities and better link children to their culture and language
  • need to address gaps in addictions counselling and rehabilitation services for parents, as this would help them to keep their children
  • need to invest in education and life-long learning for both parents and children
  • changing the relationship between governments and First Nation communities is key to making change

Key themes

A number of themes emerged from discussions with stakeholders and partners:

  • jurisdiction and control of child and family services is an issue affecting First Nation child and family well-being across Alberta
  • call for national First Nation standards of care or legislation to support a community or group of communities or other organizations to take responsibility for delivering child and family services
  • expectation of equal partnership in developing policies, programs and laws for First Nation members, including on how to reform the First Nations Child and Family Services Program
  • sufficient and stable funding is needed to develop and consistently deliver successful prevention programming and support families and children to be together and to stay connected to their culture and language
  • First Nation communities need to lead the development and implementation of trauma-informed and culturally relevant parenting and family programs to help families deal with any issues they are having and stay together
  • need to consider urban supports, as First Nation children are often placed in urban centers
  • need for infrastructure resources for offices, buildings and safe houses for families or children in crisis
  • additional supports for youth aging out of care are required in order to keep children in school and provide more positive alternatives for their futures
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