New Brunswick

Reform First Nations child welfare: child advocate

New Brunswick's child and youth advocate is calling for a sweeping reform of the child welfare system in First Nations communities after his review found aboriginal youth have higher rates of obesity, illiteracy and placement in foster care.
New Brunswick child and youth advocate Bernard Richard found aboriginal youth have higher rates of obesity, illiteracy and placement in foster care. ((CBC))
New Brunswick's child and youth advocate is calling for a sweeping reform of the child welfare system in First Nations communities.

The root causes of aboriginal poverty and unemployment also have to be addressed, said Bernard Richard, who released a report in Fredericton on Wednesday.

Richard made 93 recommendations.

Aboriginal youth are six times more likely to end up in foster care and four to five times more likely to be charged in court, he found. They also have higher rates of obesity and illiteracy.

The need for change is urgent, said Richard, who is also the New Brunswick ombudsman. Unlike the rest of the province, First Nations communities are experiencing a baby boom, with children and young people forming a growing proportion of the population, he said.

Richard's report comes on the heels of news that six First Nations communities in New Brunswick are among the 10 poorest communities in Canada, based on median income data from Statistics Canada.

Kingsclear, Eel Ground, Tobique, Elsipogtog, Red Bank and Esgenoopetitj all had median incomes below $14,000 in 2006. Esgenoopetitj ranked as the poorest in Canada, with a median income of $9,200.

The Liberal government had asked Richard to review New Brunswick's 11 First Nations child and family services agencies last May after the death of a child receiving care from a First Nations agency.

System in crisis

Children drum before the release of Bernard Richard's report into child welfare services on New Brunswick reserves. ((CBC))
Richard, who met with elders, youth and child welfare workers, said he discovered a system in crisis, with a confusing web of jurisdictions.

Ottawa pays for child welfare services, while First Nations band-run agencies provide them, and the province oversees compliance with laws and policies.

"They have archaic information management systems, only one community works with computers, the others are pen and paper," Richard said. "They don't share information."

To make matters worse, there's not enough money in the system, and the three layers of government can't agree on a new funding model, said Richard, who was minister responsible for aboriginal affairs in a previous Liberal government.

As a result, many of the 11 agencies lack the people and training to operate efficiently, he said. 

Richard has recommended replacing them with three agencies — the existing one at Elsipogotog and one each for all Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people.

They should be co-ordinated by a central office, funded by the province but run by Aboriginal people, which would free up the staff on reserves from administrative work and allow them to focus on children, he said.

Richard previously said his review would be the most in-depth review there has ever been of First Nations child welfare services in New Brunswick.

Before Richard finished his presentation Wednesday afternoon, Elsipogtog Chief Jesse Simon interrupted to voice his frustration that the report had nothing new. 

Simon's criticism, however, was not aimed at Richard, but at previous governments.

"Bernard, I totally agree with you [on] all the findings, but we've been saying that year after year, [for] hundreds of years," Simon said.

Report dedicated

Richard dedicated his report to Mona Charlotte and Hilary Bonnell. Hilary, 16, was found dead in November after disappearing from her home on the Esgenoopetitj First Nation in September. Mona, 13, grew up on the Elsipogtog First Nation. She ran away from her foster home three years ago and hanged herself behind the local recreation centre.

In addition to the streamlining of services, Richard's report also stressed promoting native language and culture.

"Self-esteem is important to quality of life for every community in the world and it's true for First Nations as well," he said. "And self-esteem comes from knowing who you are and where you come and what community you're a part of."

Building a positive self-image is one goal of the new headstart program for at-risk children on the Elsipogtog First Nation.

Peggy Clement, an early childhood intervention worker, said the children get structure, snacks and a solid meal at the headstart program. They also have a chance to learn their own language in a safe environment.

"When you think of parents having difficulties at home, they might be having discussions, heated discussions, at home," Clement said. "And children don't need that kind of exposure."