New First Nations child welfare agency looks back on one year of work
'The over representation of Indigenous children in the foster care system is unacceptable,' says CEO
A new First Nations child welfare agency released its first annual report Tuesday, outlining the work it's done to protect children in seven communities and what more has to be done to ensure Mi'kmaq children and families are given the supports they need.
The goal of Mi'gmaq Child and Family Services of New Brunswick Inc. is to prevent children from being taken away from their homes, families and communities. The organization was formed seven years after a 2010 report called for First Nations child welfare reform.
Oona Keagan, the agency's CEO, said it's been a year of challenges, but "there is so much to be proud of following a year of operations."
Citing examples, Keagan said a Mi'kmaq cultural co-ordinator has been hired in each of the seven Mi'kmaq First Nations communities her group serves — Eel River Bar, Fort Folly, Indian Island, Bouctouche, Pabineau, Metepenagiag and Eel Ground.
"They are sort of a conduit between the organization and the community itself and they provide beading and drum making and dancing and hunting and sweat lodge and it's kind of a way for the organization to have conversations with children and youth and family in a safe space," said Keagan.
Child protection services
In its report, Mi'gmaq Child and Family Services NB Inc. stated 28 per cent of children in care of the province are Indigenous, while just 1.3 per cent of New Brunswick's population is Indigenous.
"The overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster care system is unacceptable to us, and we're working very hard to reduce those numbers," said Keagan.
"However, we do appreciate we didn't get here overnight and it's not going to be fixed overnight."
Keagan said resources are being put toward keeping Mi'kmaq children in their communities when problems arise. She said two staff members are trained in "family group conferencing."
She said this process brings the family, including the child, together to talk about how to best keep the child safe, while meeting their needs.
"It gives the opportunity for family members to put up their hand and say, 'I can do this,' or, 'I can do that,' or, 'This child can stay with me,'" she said.
"That's so important because it helps to keep children within their community, connected with their culture and traditions and feeling safe and secure."
Keagan said while it is important to keep children in their communities, another aim of the group is to build supports so that families are able to stay together.
"We definitely want to shift the focus from a reactive, strictly child protection-based model to a prevention-based model where we are catching things early enough that we can put the proper supports in place to hopefully support the families and that way we don't have to take children into care," she said.
Keagan said another part of her mandate is to build or find space for a Nukumi house in each community. She described it as a "home that blends into the community … like you're going to visit your grandmother."
"It's intended to be a safe space where people feel comfortable," she said.
In its report, the agency noted their finances are broken down into three parts, with 27 per cent of expenditures going toward prevention strategies and resources, including Nukumi houses.
Twenty-seven per cent of funding goes into maintenance — covering costs associated with children being in temporary or permanent care outside their parental homes — and 46 per cent is dedicated to operating costs.
The group's board of directors is made up of chiefs from each of the seven First Nations communities. And according to the report, "71 (per cent) of our staff are Indigenous and 80 (per cent) of our management team is Indigenous."
The group has a five-year funding agreement with the federal government. One reason it was formed was to cut down on administration costs and allow resources to be more evenly spread throughout Indigenous communities.
The overhaul in child welfare agencies in First Nations communities happened because of the suicide of a teenage girl who was sexually abused in a foster home.
Mona Sock's legacy
Mona Sock was 13-years-old when she took her own life behind the arena on Elsipogtog First Nation on Sept. 26, 2007, the day her abuse was revealed to police.
Sock's death triggered a review by New Brunswick's child death review committee, which makes recommendations to prevent future deaths.
Bernard Richard, former New Brunswick child and youth advocate, proposed a new structure that would see the number of agencies whittled down to three. There would be one each for Mi'kmaq and Maliseet communities, and one for Elsipogtog First Nation, the largest reserve by population.
Richard is now Mi'gmaq Child and Family Services NB Inc.'s senior adviser.