British Columbia

Indigenous kids largely apprehended because of poverty, says former child protection worker

A former child protection worker, once with the Ministry of Child and Family Development, says, in her experience, Indigenous children are largely being apprehended due to poverty, and their parents are being over policed when trying to reunite with them.

'Social workers can only remove a child if they are in immediate danger'

Portia Larlee worked as a child protection worker for MCFD in 2015. She said she was so discouraged by the work she quit only one and a half years in. (Portia Larlee)

A former child protection worker, once with the Ministry of Child and Family Development, says, in her experience, Indigenous children are largely being apprehended due to poverty, and their parents are being over policed when trying to reunite with them.

Portia Larlee started her role in communities in north central B.C. in 2015 and said she lasted a year and a half before she quit out of frustration. She said most of her clients were Indigenous. 

"It was mostly neglect related to poverty that would put parents at risk of state intervention,"  she explained. 

According to a report from B.C.'s representative for children and youth, although Indigenous children are less than 10 per cent of the population, they account for 62 per cent of children in government care.

In a statement, the Ministry of Children and Family Development said "legislation requires that social workers can only remove a child or youth if they are in immediate danger or no less disruptive measures are available or adequate to protect them."

"Those principles apply regardless of a parent's socioeconomic status," the statement added.

In an MCFD 2016 performance management report, the main reason (43%) listed for Indigenous children being apprehended is because their parents were "unable/unwilling to care." The lowest percentages of reasons include sexual abuse (0.7%) and deprived of health care (0.5%).

'If they can support foster parents, why not us'

Larlee grew frustrated at a lack of support for the families whose children were taken, and for herself, a social worker, saying she was not provided proper training around issues like unresolved trauma related to residential school.

She said she witnessed many Indigenous children removed from their homes because their parents were unable to provide basic resources like food and housing. Further, she said, asking for those supports could be used against them. 

"Say I got approval  to get you 50 bucks for the grocery store — this would have to be documented under a support file, Larlee said.

"The issue with this it that every time you come into contact with a family, you have to do a prior contact history [review], and if the family has a bunch of these support files with the ministry, this, in my opinion, gets used against them [when they are trying to reunite with their kids]."

Former foster child Ronda Merrill-Parkin says parents need more supports if they are struggling with parenting, housing or poverty. (Angela Sterritt )

Former Cree foster child Ronda Merrill-Parkin was in the child-welfare system from six until 18 years of age. She had her own child apprehended as a young mother but now has two of her children in her care.

"If they are willing to put these extra supports in for the foster families, then why are they not doing it for our people?" Merrill-Parkin said.

Foster parents get a monthly allowance for caring for children they take into their care. Biological families that are struggling can also get access to relief or respite care paid for by the ministry. 

'Major cultural shift needed'

Child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock says studies show that poverty, poor housing and substance abuse related to unresolved trauma are key reasons for removals. 

"The over-representation of First Nations children in the child welfare system is essentially a symptom of systemic discrimination and disadvantage," Blackstock said.

Bernard Richard, the province's representative for children and youth, says there needs to be a cultural shift at MCFD in order to reduce the high numbers of Indigenous kids in care. (CBC)

The province's representative for children and youth says if kids are in danger, not safe or subject to injury or violence, that should be addressed by the child protection system.

"But taking a child away because they are poor is not an acceptable reason and clearly the system is failing children if they are doing that, and we know they are, and we know the issue is more prevalent for Indigenous people," Bernard Richard said.   

In a statement to CBC, MCFD said it doesn't deny there are problems.

"We agree that, for too long, there have been system-wide assumptions and practices that have failed our Indigenous children and their families," the statement said.

For Richard and Merrill-Parkin, more cultural and bias education and training is needed, for social workers, foster parents and decision makers.

"[Change] requires a cultural shift with more supports going to family much sooner and kinship supports to the family are often down the list in terms of placement," Richard said.

"The changes will require strong leadership and determination and more than good intentions," he added.

This story is part of Angela's Sterritt's new CBC column, 'Reconcile This' that tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in BC. It airs every other Wednesday morning in B.C. on CBC's Radio One morning program. (CBC)


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.