N.B. child advocate reviewing First Nations child welfare services

Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard will conduct an independent review of child welfare services in New Brunswick First Nations communities.

Child and youth advocate Bernard Richard will conduct an independent review of child welfare services in New Brunswick First Nations communities, Social Development Minister Mary Schryer announced Tuesday morning.

The review was recommended in a child death review committee report released on March 26.

The government is saying little about the child's death, but noted he or she was in the care of one of 11 child welfare agencies running in First Nations communities in the province. The province's child advocate told reporters that the death was a suicide.

Schryer told reporters on Tuesday that she felt the death was disturbing.

"I worry about all the children in the province. I'm a mother. I've raised two beautiful children. And I've always said children in our province should have the opportunity to live freely without having to suffer, and so it bothers me deeply when any child in the province is harmed in any way," she said.

Child welfare services are delivered on reserves by band-run agencies. They are funded by the federal government and are required to meet provincial standards.

The committee recommended a review of the "reporting mechanisms between the agencies and the provincial government."

The department accepted all of the recommendations from the committee's report and also announced other pending changes on Tuesday, such as developing a training program for social workers who are personally familiar with families they work with, and clarifying written guidelines on kinship placement practices within the department.

Schryer said that in some small communities, the fact that child welfare workers are familiar or have relationships with the child can be beneficial.

"The advantage of it, being so submerged into the community that you know everyone well, that you can help nourish relationships," she said.

"There can be conflicts sometimes in being in that role. So what we want to see in the province is a training model developed to deal with that dual relationship that those social workers find themselves in."

Advocate 'felt we needed to do this'

Richard, who served as the minister responsible for aboriginal affairs in Frank McKenna's Liberal government, told reporters on an afternoon conference call that his office felt compelled to take on the review.

"I couldn't just say thanks but we're too busy. I really felt we needed to do this," he said.

Richard serves as both the province's ombudsman and child and youth advocate.

In order for the review to be a success, he will need full co-operation from the federal and provincial governments as well as First Nations chiefs and child welfare workers, he said.

"It's a significant undertaking, [it] scares me a bit, just the complexities of it: federal, provincial, First Nation, levels of governments," he said 

Richard also said that he will have to sit down with the deputy minister of social development within the next week to discuss a budget for the review. Richard said his office will need to hire outside advisers who have expertise in issues such as cultural sensitivities in First Nations communities.