British Columbia

Indigenous communities need authority over child welfare says legal advocacy group

A new report from Westcoast LEAF identifies what B.C. First Nations need to better support Indigenous families and keep children out of ministry care.

New report calls for better resources to keep First Nations families together

Indigenous children are 15 times more likely to enter government care than a non-Indigenous child in B.C. (Costea Andrea M/Shutterstock)

The current child welfare system in British Columbia has been called the Millenium Scoop because of the high rates of Indigenous children in care and a new report says the government could do more to help First Nations families stay together.

The report, prepared by Vancouver-based non-profit legal group West Coast LEAF, includes the experiences of 64 parents who engaged with the child welfare system, eight service organizations and three communities on the territories of the Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo, Secwepemc First Nations in Kamloops, and the Fraser Salish People in Surrey. 

It recommends that Indigenous communities have authority over the welfare of their children and calls for better resources to establish family support programs in these communities.

"We know that this framework works," said report author Elba Bendo in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition. "The problem is that the progress toward shifting authority to Indigenous communities, and funding community-based supports has been incredible slow."

Ministry money

According to the Ministry of Indigenous Child and Family Development, all 203 First Nations and the seven agencies that serve Métis people in B.C. were invited to apply for up to $30,000 in family-support funding.

The ministry said 167 First Nations and agencies received money for this fiscal year.

In total, $6.4 million was provided for a variety of programs, including parenting classes taught by elders, support for parents from rural communities with transportation to court and counselling appointments, and strengthening traditional Indigenous skills within families, such as hunting and storytelling.

Yet in B.C., Indigenous children remain 15 times more likely to enter government care than a non-Indigenous child.

"The act of removing children from their parents, and then the near cessation in reasonable access is very trauma-inducing," said Frances Rosner, a Métis lawyer with a child-protection practice who was part of an advisory committee that contributed to the report. 

"They are being told about an ideal way of parenting and that particular parenting model may not be what the Indigenous family endorses as the right way to rear children," said Rosner.

Bendo said there is no one approach that will work for all communities, but as it stands now resources are not divided equitably. She knows of families that have had to move to find community-based resources that were culturally safe, meaning they felt respected and safe from discrimination.

A big need, said Bendo, is for programs that the entire extended family can take part in, where child welfare workers coordinate with the parents and extended relatives to assess what they need.

"These programs need to be funded the way that our emergency rooms are funded and our schools are funded," said Bendo, adding this funding should be provided long term so service providers do not have to continuously reapply. 

In a statement, the Ministry of Children and Family Development called the report important and agreed the over-representation of Indigenous children in care is unacceptable. 

"We continue to work with individual First Nations to see them ultimately exercise their jurisdiction over child and family services. And we're working with the First Nations Leadership Council and the Federal government on systemic changes," said the ministry.

With files from The Early Edition and Bridgette Watson