How $425 may have kept 2 Indigenous kids out of CFS care

The director of a Manitoba First Nation child-welfare agency hopes an emergency meeting with federal, provincial and territorial ministers on Thursday leads to a more flexible funding model —​ one he says could drastically reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care.

Sandy Bay Child and Family Services director in Ottawa for emergency meeting wants flexible funding

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called an emergency meeting in Ottawa to address the rising rate of Indigenous children in the child-welfare system. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The flexibility to spend a few hundred dollars on a damage deposit may have prevented two more Indigenous kids from falling into the care of Child and Family Services.

Sandy Bay Child and Family Services executive director Richard De La Ronde got an email from a social worker on Tuesday, asking for approval to give $425 to a mother of two who needed help paying a damage deposit on an apartment.

Without the money, the woman's children would have been at risk of apprehension.

"So rather than taking her kids and putting them in foster care and spending an average of $7,000 a month for both those kids, we provided $425 for a damage deposit so she can move into this place," De La Ronde said.

Usually CFS agencies are prevented from providing this kind of direct support to families, De La Ronde said, but Sandy Bay is part of a provincial pilot project that gives block funding to child-welfare agencies instead of funding based on the number of children in care.

De La Ronde hopes an emergency meeting with federal, provincial and territorial ministers in Ottawa on Thursday leads to a more flexible funding model — one he says could drastically reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care.

Nearly 300 child-welfare officials and provincial government representatives are in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday for an emergency meeting to discuss the high number of Indigenous children in care, which Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has described as a "humanitarian crisis."

Philpott called the meeting last November to try to come up with plan to curb the rising rate of Indigenous child apprehensions, which she says is among the highest in the world.

De La Ronde said he's happy to have a seat at the table. It's the first time he's met with officials at this level in 18 years of working in the child-welfare system.

"Historically, service delivery models, policy — those were handed down to us without any real dialogue. And so this is refreshing for me as an executive director to be part of that conversation," he said.

The federal government, which has jurisdiction over child-welfare services on reserves, wants to devolve the provision of child-welfare services to Indigenous groups as part of a larger push to encourage self-governance.

Manitoba model

De La Ronde — who first met with Philpott a month ago, along with Manitoba Family Services Minister Scott Fielding and Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels — said the federal government has a role to play in reducing the number First Nations children in care by addressing socio-economic problems such as poverty, unemployment and housing.

Indigenous people make up 17 per cent of Manitoba's population, but Indigenous children are overrepresented in government care, accounting for almost 90 per cent of the 10,700 children in the province's system.

Two agencies — Sandy Bay and Nelson House Child and Family Services — were originally chosen to switch over to the new block-funding model by the provincial government in October. The number of agencies receiving block funding is expected to increase to 18 by the end of 2018.

Richard De La Ronde, executive director of Sandy Bay Child and Family Services, says block funding provides agencies with much more flexibility. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

"It's a matter of flexibility in doing things that are creative with the funding that we do receive," De La Ronde said.

Addressing caseloads for social workers is also a major concern, De La Ronde said. In Sandy Bay, caseloads have dropped by more than 50 per cent over the last three years, from about 600 cases to around 250 currently.

De La Ronde said his recent conversations with federal representatives indicate they might be moving in a similar direction as the province, although Minister Philpott has expressed concern about some of the province's plans to reform the child-welfare system.

Specifically, she has said incentives to encourage non-Indigenous families to adopt First Nations children should be avoided.

Support for families

Mary Burton works as an advocate for families involved with CFS as part of the group Fearless R2W — a name referring to the postal code for the St. John's and North Point Douglas neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, where the group works to provide education and sharing opportunities for families.

She says more needs to be done to directly support families in order to avoid apprehending children.

Burton recalls one case where a working single mother was between paycheques and couldn't afford a new winter jacket for her son, so she sent him to school wearing a bunch of sweaters underneath a spring jacket, along with mitts, a tuque and a scarf.

"And the school decided to call CFS and the boy got apprehended," she said in an interview with CBC's Information Radio. "And all it would have taken was for someone to get this family in touch with United Way's Koats for Kids and her boy would have had a snowsuit."

Mary Burton is a co-founder of the child-welfare advocacy group Fearless R2W. (CBC)

Burton wants to see the federal government give First Nations more control over child-welfare services.

In a statement released Tuesday, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North said the federal government must close the funding gap for First Nations children in CFS care on and off reserve.

"Governments have been underfunding the First Nation CFS system for over $100 million a year and that is totally unacceptable," North said in the statement.

In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canada was discriminating against First Nations children by underfunding child-welfare services on reserve.

With files from Susan Magas and Marcy Markusa