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

The Minister’s Special Representative, Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, met with stakeholders and partners in Ontario who have an interest in the reform process for First Nation child and family services from January 23 to 26, 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 Ontario and highlights:

Key issues and findings

First Nation leadership organizations

  • desire to have First Nations directly receive prevention funding to deliver child and family services, instead of flowing through agencies
  • First Nations are interested in jurisdiction and authority over child welfare, including the designation of authority to agencies to act on their behalf and building on an example of where one Indigenous representative organization (provincial/territorial organization) developed a child well-being law for its communities, including structures, organizational policies and procedures, standards, and assessment tools
  • the federal government must engage communities in any future work/discussions on legislative and/or policy changes to ensure they are culturally grounded and relevant to needs of First Nation families
  • need for community awareness and education to reduce the negative stigma attached to families seeking support through agencies
  • need for sustainable flexible funding arrangements (for example, block funding), including to allow recipients to move from one area to another to support child and family well-being (prevention and protection)
  • provide the necessary child and family well-being infrastructure in communities such as agency offices, cultural centres, family treatment homes, and safe houses
  • prevention funding is necessary at the community level to address the need for aftercare, transportation, after school programs, land-based activities/courses, and band representation
  • Elders should be compensated for their work, and their involvement and support is critical to the well-being of children and their families desire to see an attitudinal shift within the federal civil service in terms of how Indigenous people and the issues affecting them are viewed and addressed
  • need to get rid of the false distinction between First Nation children and youth living on and off reserve to support a more seamless delivery of child welfare services
  • reform efforts must be linked to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action
  • need for an Indigenous child advocate, funded by the justice system, in order to more effectively represent the interests of the children

First Nation child and family services agencies

  • importance of developing comprehensive, trauma-informed and culturally grounded prevention and protection approaches that help children stay in their homes and communities
  • need to look at open adoptions that allow children to stay connected with their culture, history, and community
  • improve communication and coordination of First Nation political representatives and agencies to support child and family well-being
  • strong need for First Nations to have band representatives to work closely with the agencies
  • importance of flowing agency funding early in a fiscal year to support planning and budget management and to and allow funds to be carried over from one year to the next
  • desire to see future funding models for the agencies based on need (not only on population size) and include more support for communities, a focus on prevention and healing, and infrastructure funding
  • need to increase the number of Indigenous employees working in First Nation child and family service agencies
  • importance of having system focused on child well-being, Indigenous values, customs, and traditions and not be a western "Indigenized system"
  • call to increase the number of Indigenous foster homes, develop early intervention approaches, and provide appropriate levels of training and support to agency employees
  • need for funding to help transport children from the reserve to the city for education, counseling/mental health services, and addiction programs and services
  • call for setting up an Indigenous Child Commission that could focus on Indigenous child and family well-being matters
  • more flexibility is needed in legislation, guidelines and standards so that agencies can provide children and families with the services they need and deserve
  • desire to see the age youth stop being in care raised to 25 years
  • necessary to provide children with support from birth through to after youth stop being in care
  • need to support First Nation children living on and off reserve and regardless of where they live
  • suggestion to consider building Indigenous urban institutions such as group homes and transition houses for Indigenous children, given Indigenous people move on and off reserve
  • reform of the child welfare system must take into account the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action

Social and well-being workers

  • desire to see funding for band representatives and strong working relationships between these representatives and front-line social services workers
  • funding support is necessary to assist with community-based healing and prevention work
  • need for more capacity-building (for example, training) for front-line workers need for more training programs for Indigenous people to be social workers and Indigenous
  • need for healing lodges and safe places and spaces at the community level for children

Province of Ontario

  • need for federal supports to align with the province of Ontario’s Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy
  • acknowledgment that governments need to be more responsive and support a whole of community approach
  • desire to separate First Nations from provincial child welfare laws and to bring together provincial and federal laws to reflect Indigenous laws and community-development standards
  • need to promote First Nation communities taking the lead on decision making (and healing) for children and families
  • desire to see more local, community control where communities receive the funding and pay a specific agency for services
  • need to improve communication between Chiefs/communities and agencies
  • focus and build on community strengths and front-line capacity as well as provide training to young people
  • create a new child and family well-being model and funding models that are flexible and focused on community-based outcomes
  • need for improved approaches and more federal funding (through flexible funding arrangements) for infrastructure and other capital requirements at the community level
  • recognize and address the distinct needs of remote First Nation communities such as the lack of services and infrastructure needs
  • need to work together to collect data and address the issue of Indigenous data sovereignty or the right of a nation to govern the collection, ownership and application of its own data

Child advocate

  • importance of ongoing youth engagement and "healing conversations," which means listening to the voices of youth with experience of the child welfare system and other youth in communities
  • hope is a powerful tool for youth
  • need to support youth in conversations, so they are safe and will be supported in their home communities
  • importance of First Nations having a say and determining the outcome of child and family services reforms, rather than solutions being imposed by governments or tribunals
  • need to develop national standards for child and family services on reserve and to have those standards reflect and support the needs of Indigenous communities and Indigenous foster homes
  • consider how new ways of thinking about Indigenous, community-based child well-being practices can improve mainstream child welfare practices
  • increase the types of supports and services for youth after they stop being in care or have "aged out" of care
  • change the current formula for funding child and family services to consider community needs are considered
  • need to focus on children’s rights and provide them with opportunities to have a voice and what is to happen to them, why, and where they are being placed
  • need for good data collection that more accurately represents the unique challenges Indigenous children face
  • necessary to have early intervention so that children can remain with their families and in their communities
  • expand community capacity by funding band representatives, mental health workers, and more front-line workers
  • ensure communities have their basic needs net, including clean water, basic housing, schools (not just elementary), medical and mental health services
  • increase funding to address infrastructure needs, for example for offices, buildings and safe houses for families or children in crisis
  • need to create an Indigenous Rights Commissioner and a Committee on Children’s Rights in order to give children a stronger voice

Key themes

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

  • desire to see a shift toward communities having jurisdiction and receive the funding and access services based on needs
  • call for the Government of Canada to provide more flexible funding that can be moved around to meet needs
  • need for the Government of Canada to provide capital/infrastructure funding to improve conditions in communities and for service providers
  • need to help build capacity at the agency and community level to protect and nurture family development
  • need for early intervention programming to restore healthy families
  • need for band representatives to help families access the child welfare system
  • there are strengths and weaknesses of the 1965 Memorandum of Agreement Respecting Welfare Programs for Indians and it needs to be reviewed
  • need to change/revise the standards of provincial child welfare to reflect the needs and values of Indigenous communities
  • need to examine funding supports to provide services to both on-reserve and off-reserve First Nation members
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