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

The Minister's Special Representative, Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, met with stakeholders and partners in Manitoba who have an interest in the reform process for First Nation child and family services from March 13 to March 17, 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 Manitoba and highlights:

Key issues and findings

Youth

  • needs supports for youth in care to help them deal with trauma, build self-worth, develop a sense of belonging, and offer life skills so they do not repeat the cycle with their own children
  • encourage agencies to follow through on commitments with young adult/youth parents whose children are in care to avoid the "promise of re-unification that never really happens"
  • encourage youth in care and aged out youth to act as role models for other Indigenous children to look up to
  • require cultural awareness training for foster families (especially non-Indigenous) so  they can support Indigenous foster children to stay connected to their culture
  • develop better screening and training processes for foster parents to ensure they have the right knowledge, characteristics and values to raise Indigenous foster children and that they understand children's need for spirituality and culture
  • need to deepen social worker understanding about the reasons children and youth act out (for example, youth kept running away because group home setting didn't work for him)
  • support children who are in care by having social workers that are honest, fair, supportive and kind and who can act like a mentor and not a babysitter
  • increase awareness that youth/children in care often feel depressed/unhappy and they are not in care because they are "bad people"
  • importance of building strong foster parent, extended family and child relationships to avoid children feeling alone and not part of the family 
  • want the welfare system to stop placing children in non-Indigenous homes to avoid re-traumatization, loss of identity/belonging, and children not feeling safe
  • ensure children and youth in care feel safe and accepted instead of being labelled as a problem to get a more money to take care of them
  • need to change the system because, as one youth said, "the child and family service system apprehends children for neglect but ends up neglecting the child itself"
  • ensure religious values and beliefs (for example, attendance at church) are not forced upon children and youth against their wishes
  • need for funding and support for youth who have aged out of care to go to school and to meet their other basic needs, such as housing and proper clothing
  • children are often intimidated and do not feel they have an advocate to turn to when help is needed
  • important for agencies to offer cultural supports and activities (for example, land-based education) that help youth in care to remain connected to their culture

First Nation leadership organizations

  • focus on reconciliation by supporting, listening to, and treating Indigenous peoples as equal partners in child welfare reform 
  • address the issue of nation-to-nation relationship and support First Nations to have jurisdiction and authority for child welfare through their own laws as opposed existing government policies and laws
    • an Elder stated: "We know what we need to do"
  • want to reclaim autonomy (or independence) by taking responsibility and centring the care of children in Indigenous teachings
    • one of the Elders said: "We have to take our rightful responsibility…to centre our children in our life"
  • need to recognize role of Elders and knowledge keepers in helping to heal the shattered spirits of their people
  • need to stop the supply and demand of the child welfare industry in Manitoba
  • want to end the cycle of children being born into the system, where individuals who were foster children later have their children taken into care when they become parents
  • want the federal government to make child welfare reform about the vision of the community and not just about gathering information through an engagement process
  • need to look at what can be changed now, there are policy changes that can have positive impacts  
  • Elders want the "identity crisis" confronted, as they see children and youth being taken into a child welfare system that does not help them to know who they are
  • need to address the uncertainty youth face about their future by sending them back to the land and practicing traditional ways in order to create a spirit of hope
  • want the root causes of why children are brought into care addressed and to focus on community prevention and healing that strengthens families, addresses the role of men and women, and puts children first
  • need for more support for Indigenous social workers and/or those who have experience in working with Indigenous people
  • funding rates need to be the same for foster care and kinship care, and kinship care needs more support (for example, by providing extended families with funding for children in their care or a full allowance for grandparents to keep the children at home)
  • more support for parents and families such as culturally relevant parenting programs (for example, parenting skills/education, healthy lifestyles, family counselling), land-based education, and mental health
  • more resources for children with special needs, including adequate resources at the community level, access to transportation, and mandatory instruction for teachers dealing with disabled children 
  • review and address provincial laws, standards of care, practices, and values to ensure they are responsive to the needs of Indigenous communities
  • review of the Children's Special Allowance guidelines and policies to address concerns that the province is withholding funds from the agencies
  • more provincial attention is necessary to make sure the focus does not incent (or encourage) children being taken into care and to help parents heal and placing Indigenous children in Indigenous foster homes  
  • call to address the issue of the federal government providing funding Jordan's Principle programming, but not for infrastructure to support expansions in services 
  • provincial and federal data collection activities and systems need to be respective of Ownership, Control, Access and Possession principles

Communities and band councils

  • more resources for child and family services in terms of cultural, social and Elder programming
  • restore the sacred responsibility of honouring one another or "listening from their hearts"
  • focus on the strengths of the community (for example, some communities see a single mother parenting her children as a strength) 
  • children at the centre of communities and families taking back responsibility
  • First Nations want to develop their own laws and Indigenous models of care to take responsibility for child and family services
  • a federal or First Nations law on child and family services that helps families that are successful in keeping children out of care instead of penalizing them by decreasing their funding (for example, one director lost $800,000 in provincial funding because he was successful in lowering the number of kids in care)
  • importance of investing not only in community agency staff but in community members
  • expand and fully fund kinship care as a way to decrease the number of children being removed from communities
  • discuss long-term impacts of sexual abuse and violence at the community-level
  • land-based programming as a prevention tool
  • address income differences between those living in the south and those living in the north (the median income in Manitoba is $50,000, while in a northern community it is $19,000)

Child welfare agencies

  • Indigenous children placed in Indigenous foster homes and not in hotels or non-Indigenous homes
  • provincial court system to focus on adoptions within Métis and Inuit families and not pushing external adoptions too quickly
  • helping children stay in their homes and communities by developing circles of care
  • flexible funding models for agencies that support them to provide comprehensive (or wrap-around) services to address trauma and the family network together instead of working in separately or in silos
  • more direct funding to improve agency prevention programming to fund various activities such as gatherings on addictions and children in sporting activities
  • funding model should address the inequities within agencies to support case worker positions, manage caseloads and ensure sustainability
  • funding focus on support services for children in care and youth aged out of care, including:
    • age of majority celebration
    • Roots and Wings
    • Métis Spirit life skills and employment preparation
    • Rails inter-dependent and communal living
    • the Life Program, a live-in family enhancement  program
  • increase the age of youth in care beyond 18 years and adopt a more flexible approach that supports youth, including Métis youth, who have "aged out" of care to remain in school and get a post-secondary education 
  • lack of social workers in remote communities because of high travel costs and a lack of housing and infrastructure, making it difficult to maintain a regular presence at the community level
  • need for new investments in order to have more workers, training and meet the demands of children in care
  • conduct a review of provincial legislation, policies and agency operational practices to reform child welfare
  • need for infrastructure in communities, including for agency offices, family treatment homes and safe houses
  • establish after care programs to better support youth aging out of care
  • need to support foster homes and group homes on reserve so that children in need of protection can remain in their communities
  • additional focus is required on kinship and customary care models
  • additional funding for family support services, including mental health, addiction, in-home support

Social and well-being workers

  • need to shift away from child welfare programs that apprehend children (or take them away from their homes) to a model focused on family group conferencing, land-based education, community living support and strengthening relationships (for example Yellow Shawl community living with a mentor for low- to medium-risk youth)
  • need more sustainable funding for community-based workers and well-being programs for children, parents and homeless youth who have aged out of care, for example:
    • the Better Fathering program
    • Housing First
    • transition housing
    • food security
    • life skills
    • employment readiness
    • mental health counselling
  • importance of  prevention programs to help children living in urban settings to stay with their families (for example, the Fresh Start program linked to education, employment and housing, and the New Beginnings program, which addresses mental health and addictions)
  • review of interprovincial issues that happen when Indigenous children are placed in care in another province that is not the family's province of origin

Province of Manitoba

  • province is examining what improvements may be required to their existing legislation that would support community-based customary care models and approaches
  • provincial support to pilot a global investment model that considers wrap-around services at the agency level, designed to support those agencies that are successful in keeping children out of care
  • discussions are needed with communities on the best approach for taking back the responsibility of caring for their children both on and off reserve

Child Advocates

  • need to analyze agency models, especially in light of the fact that Manitoba's rate for taking children from their homes (or apprehending them) is almost double that of Alberta and Saskatchewan
  • more supports for families to keep children out of the child welfare system with a strong focus on poverty reduction
  • need to lessen court delays that impact the length of time before parents can go to the courts to discuss their children being apprehended
  • recognize early on that children and youth in care may suffer from addictions, grief, loss, or inter-generational trauma prior to labelling and medicating them
  • create a Circle of Knowing that assesses families and parents from an Indigenous worldview as opposed to a western model
  • need to reduce investments in a reactive child welfare system that focuses on apprehension and increase support for prevention and healing
  • more community-based support and resources to address youth suicide crisis (for example, Elders/grandmother's circle)
  • need permanency planning for Manitoba children in care to better assess and understand children's experiences with the system
  • create more opportunities for innovative programs that intervene at the beginning to find support and help for children while their parents get help (for example, Finding Families program)
  • more supports are necessary for children and youth who have aged out of care to address poverty, homelessness, "un-ending feelings of grief," and belonging/identity and sibling separation issues 

Key themes

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

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