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

The Minister’s Special Representative, Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, met with stakeholders and partners in British Columbia who have an interest in the reform process for First Nations Child and Family Services from November 22 to 30, 2016, 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 British Columbia and highlights:

Key issues and findings

Youth

  • support from people who are their own age and who are Indigenous, including access to mentors and peer supports in person and online
  • provide children who are in care with safe ways to be able to stay in touch and maintain their bonds with their cultural identities and their communities (or another Indigenous community if it is not possible to provide a safe link to their home community)
  • cultural supports and activities that help youth in care to be linked to specific culture or community to which the person in care belongs, unlike current approach
  • more cultural awareness training for foster families (especially non-Indigenous foster families) so that they can support Indigenous foster children in staying connected to their culture
  • better screening for foster parents
  • families and the care system to have a better understanding of two-spirited and transgender youth and be supportive of their needs
  • need for social workers who are Indigenous or have cultural sensitivity training
  • children in care to not be separated from their brothers and sisters if it is safe to keep them together
  • want youth in care to not be forced to attend church against their wishes
  • funding and support for school and other basic needs (such as housing) for youth who have aged out of care
  • need resource telephones lines for youth in care because many young people are too intimidated to go into offices
  • art therapy programs for children and youth in care

First Nation leadership organizations

  • desire to see First Nation communities and First Nation organizations lead, develop and run their own Child and Family Services programs
  • a law or national standards for First Nation child and family services that include Indigenous input and reflect cultural contexts
  • want to see the child and family services program focus on three key areas:
    • deal with the underlying issues that lead to children being taken into care (prevention)
    • strengthen families
    • help individuals and families connect to their Indigenous culture
  • more Indigenous social workers or social workers who have experience with Indigenous people and working with people who have suffered trauma
  • support kinship care; for example, providing extended families with funding for children in their care

Communities and tribal councils

  • tribal councils or groups of First Nations receive funding to deliver child and family services instead of agencies
  • First Nations exploring self-government agreements that would see them running their own child and family services programs
  • a federal law on child and family services focused on helping families
  • ensure communities are part of any discussion on national standards so these standards recognize cultural context and the needs of First Nation families
  • First Nations children and youth from their communities get the services they need no matter where they live or whether they live on or off reserve
  • a holistic approach to child and family services that emphasizes well-being and includes support for multiple services such as parenting classes and mental health counselling
  • consider the criminal justice system when reforming the program, because the high rates of Indigenous people in the justice system affects the lives of First Nation children and families
  • connecting First Nation children taken from their communities to their culture, either by going back to their communities to visit or, if they cannot go back to their communities in a safe way, by going to another First Nation community
  • call for band and provincial social workers to work together
  • the importance of families and children getting help from elders
  • need for care circles to support families in crisis
  • dedicated individual in communities to help families with child and family services
  • more infrastructure in communities for child and family services, including for agency offices, family treatment homes and safe houses
  • need for reform to be guided by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • reform to be linked to the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action

Child welfare agencies

  • importance of prevention programs in helping children stay in their homes and communities
  • more direct funding for agencies to improve prevention programs
  • more information sharing on promising prevention approaches for keeping families together
  • raise the age that youth stop being in care
  • stable, predictable and ongoing funding rather than having to do proposals each year for funding for programs to keep families together
  • challenges in hiring social workers
  • First Nation agencies to pay social workers the same as non-First Nation agencies
  • infrastructure funding for buildings and offices in order to have more workers
  • more support or a dedicated support person for individuals and families when they are dealing with the court system

Social and well-being workers

  • expand child welfare programs to child well-being, as current programs are too focused on apprehension and prevention
  • more funding for community-based workers to set up activities for children and youth
  • more programs to train Indigenous peoples to be social workers
  • more mental health supports for children and families on and off reserve

Province of British Columbia

  • the province supports the federal government’s child and family services reform work and supports more Indigenous control over First Nation child and family services
  • discussions currently taking place with First Nation representatives about changing the province’s laws on child welfare
  • the province is exploring how to better support off-reserve First Nation children and families who require child and family services, including Métis children
  • 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

  • set up national standards for child and family services on reserve
  • call for a national commissioner for child and family services
  • more supports and services for children who have aged out of care
  • desire to see families who adopt children through customary care arrangements, rather than through the formal court system, receive post-adoption funding

Key themes

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

  • jurisdiction and control is an issue that affects First Nation child and family services across British Columbia
  • call for national standards of care or legislation to support a community, group of communities or other organizations to take responsibility for delivering child and family services and for Indigenous people to be engaged in the development of national standards or legislation
  • importance of finding options for children to stay in their homes whenever possible, to keep children connected to their culture and communities
  • need for Indigenous communities to provide holistic healing and prevention programs to help families deal with any issues they are having and stay together
  • need for infrastructure resources for offices, buildings and safe houses for families or children in crisis
  • need for more support for youth aging out of care
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