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

The Minister's Special Representative, Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, met with stakeholders and partners in Saskatchewan who have an interest in the reform process for First Nations Child and Family Services from February 26 to March 3, 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 Saskatchewan and highlights:

Key issues and findings

Youth

  • need for Indigenous people, including youth, to act as mentors and peer supports for Indigenous children in care
  • support children who are in care so they can maintain bonds with their communities (or another Indigenous community if safety is a concern) and their cultural identities
  • keep siblings in care together
  • offer cultural supports and activities (for example, land-based education) that help youth in care to remain connected to their culture
  • need to increase the number of social workers who are Indigenous and/or have cultural safety training
  • require cultural awareness training for foster families (especially non-Indigenous) so that they can support Indigenous foster children to stay connected to their culture
  • develop better screening processes for foster parents
  • call for families and the care system to deepen understanding of two-spirited and transgender youth in order to support their needs
  • ensure that religious values and beliefs (for example, attendance at church) are not  forced upon youth against their wishes
  • funding and support for youth who have aged out of care to go to school and to meet other basic needs such as housing
  • create a 1-800 number to which children in care could report abuse or neglect they suffer in foster homes
  • children feel intimidated and do not feel they have an advocate to turn to when help is needed
  • art therapy programs for children and youth in care
  • more information to understand why they are being put into care, what is going to happen to them, and why they keep returning to care
  • increase awareness that youth/children in care feel depressed and unhappy

First Nation leadership organizations

  • lead, develop and manage their own child and family services programs
  • more authority/delegation to develop their own laws and have the government respect their culture and practices
  • First Nation child and family services legislation and/or national standards must include and reflect Indigenous input and cultural context
  • leaders want the root causes of why children are brought into care addressed and focus on prevention that strengthens families and puts children first
  • need for more Indigenous social workers and/or those who have experience in dealing with Indigenous people and working with people who have suffered trauma
  • funding to support kinship care; for example, providing extended families with funding for children in their care
  • a funding formula methodology for child and family services that is based on needs and not percentages
  • more support for parents, such as culturally relevant parenting programs (such as parenting skills/education, healthy lifestyles, family counselling)
  • need for more resources for children with special needs, including crisis services to deal with issues such as bullying and suicide prevention, and resources to attend schools and special educators 
  • less singling out of children in care by school officials, which can lead to students being left out of activities and not wanting to return to school
  • Children's Special Allowance guidelines and policies to address concerns the province is withholding the funds from the agencies
  • review of inter-provincial jurisdictional issues that happen when Indigenous children are placed in care in another province that is not the family's province of origin
  • create forums to discuss and address other issues such as drugs and gang activities 

Communities and tribal councils

  • desire to have tribal councils or groups of First Nations receive funding to deliver child and family services, instead of agencies
  • explore self-government agreements that would see First Nations take responsibility for their own child and family services
  • need for a federal or First Nations law on child and family services that helps families and replaces provincial jurisdiction
  • ensure Indigenous communities and parents are part of any discussion on national standards so that the cultural context and needs of First Nation families are included – First Nations know what works and what does not work
  • expand kinship care as a way to decrease the number of children being removed from communities
  • children and youth need access to services no matter where they live, whether on or off reserve
  • a holistic approach to child and family services that emphasizes well-being and includes support for multiple services, including parenting classes and mental health counselling
  • reform must consider the criminal justice system because of the high incarceration rates of Indigenous people
  • connect First Nation children in care with their culture, either through visits to their home community or, if they cannot return to their communities because of safety concerns, to another First Nation community
  • funding from the federal government does not all make it to communities
  • change the funding formula so that it is based on the population of the community and remove the distinction between on and off reserve
  • create flexible funding models so that communities can "carry over" money from one year to another
  • have band and provincial social workers work together to identify needs of children, create better responses, and provide culturally appropriate programs/services
  • active involvement by Elders is important to child and family well-being
  • importance of having land-based programming as a prevention tool
  • need for dedicated individuals in the 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
  • need for more child and family service infrastructure in communities, including for agency offices, family treatment homes and safe houses
  • 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

Child welfare agencies

  • importance of prevention programs in helping children stay in their homes and communities
  • need for more direct funding to improve agency prevention programming
  • funding should be stable, predictable and ongoing—should not need to do proposals each year for programs intended to keep families together
  • want to see funding focus on prevention programing, including "Triple P Parenting Program"
  • 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 
  • change the current funding formula for child and family services agencies because it rewards agencies for putting children in care
  • need a different Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada program operation system (such as guidelines, policies, and procedures) 
  • lack of social workers makes it difficult to hire staff at the First Nation agency level
  • address pay differentials between First Nation agency social workers and those hired by non-First Nation agencies
  • funding for children in care on reserve is less than if the child is put into the care of the province, which makes it difficult to keep children in the communities
  • need for new investments in infrastructure for buildings and offices in order to have more workers and meet the demands of children in care
  • more support or a dedicated support person for individuals and families when they are dealing with the court system and criminal justice issues, especially when offenders are sent to group homes instead of prisons
  • difficult to attract and maintain workers in the northern communities due to isolation and the high cost of living
  • desire to see home visits and other activities designed to reintegrate children with their families be more flexible, including visits with siblings and grandparents 
  • conduct a review of provincial legislation, policies and operational practices and agency operational practices to reform western models of child welfare
  • need funding for mental health workers/programs to deal with suicide crisis and drug and alcohol abuse

Social and well-being workers

  • shift from child welfare programs that apprehend children to a model that strengthens families and supports child well-being
  • more funding for community-based workers to set up activities for children and youth
  • a lack of  programming to train Indigenous peoples to be social workers
  • desire to see more mental health supports for children and families on and off reserve

Province of Saskatchewan

  • supports the federal government's child and family services reform work and goal to have more Indigenous control over child and family services
  • discussions underway with First Nations to change the provincial approach to child welfare
  • examining how to better support First Nation children and families off reserve who require child and family services, including Métis children 
  • communities need more funding and quicker to meet critical needs in the areas of suicide prevention and first responders training
  • need to address the special needs of remote First Nation communities, as communities face special challenges such as lack of services and lack of infrastructure for child and family services programs

Child advocate

  • need for national standards for child and family service approaches on reserve
  • more supports and services for children who have aged out of care are necessary (for example, life skills, post-secondary education)
  • need to get rid of on/off reserve distinction so that children receive similar programs and services based on needs regardless of their address
  • child advocates must move from an investigative role to a more supportive role in order to ensure a needs focused response as opposed to removal of the child from the home

Key themes

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

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