Thunder Bay

More recommendations needed to address Indigenous overrepresentation in child welfare, lawyer says

A lawyer who made submissions to the Motherisk Commission says she's disappointed that only one of the report's 32 recommendations directly relates to Indigenous people.

Aboriginal Legal Services says 1 of 32 Motherisk commission's recommendations directly relate to First Nations

Caitlyn Kasper is a staff lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. (Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto)

A lawyer who made submissions to the Motherisk Commission says she's disappointed only one of the report's 32 recommendations directly relates to Indigenous people.

That's despite the fact First Nations families are overrepresented in the child protection system and in cases where the discredited Motherisk alcohol and drug testing had a substantial impact, said Caitlyn Kasper, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.

The one recommendation from the commission calls for adequate funding and training for First Nations band representatives to participate in child protection proceedings. In her comments made when unveiling the commission's report, judge Judith Beaman said that funding should come from Ottawa but that "there is also a role" for the province to play in supporting ongoing training.

"It just seems like this idea that these jurisdictions (federal and provincial governments) are going to have to work together and at the end of the day ... what ends up happening is discussions take place, consultations happen and then nothing gets done at all," Kasper said.

Another recommendation in the report says that Children's Aid Societies work with Indigenous and African Canadian communities to "identify and address systemic racism to achieve better outcomes for children, youth and families."

The independent commission found that the Motherisk test lab, which was run by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto until it was closed in 2015, used bad science to remove vulnerable children from more than 50 families. The province set up the commission to analyze over 1,200 child welfare cases dating from 1990 to 2015.

Of those cases, 15 per cent involved Indigenous families and, of the 56 cases that the commission determined Motherisk hair testing had a substantial impact, 12.5 per cent involved First Nations people. That's despite the 2016 census showing that Indigenous people make up 2.8 per cent of Ontario's population, Aboriginal Legal Services said.
For more than two decades, Motherisk performed flawed hair-strand tests on thousands of vulnerable families across Canada, influencing decisions in child protection cases that separated parents from their children and sometimes children from their siblings. (CBC)

The commission made a number of recommendations around things like changes to legislation and rules on the use of expert evidence, strengthening parent representation during child protection proceedings and more education for judges.

Kasper said she would have liked to see recommendations aimed at bettering data collection surrounding the number of Indigenous families impacted by the child welfare system and what funding or resources are available to them, as well as improving cultural competency training among lawyers working in the field.

"We have a lack, first off, of child welfare lawyers who are knowledgeable in Indigenous background, in colonialism and the implications of the residential school systems on how the child welfare system is playing out," she said.

"I can't see that a recommendation like that would have received any pushback, or there would have been any issues about it; in fact, I think it probably would have been embraced."

In her speech, Beaman said that her most of her recommendations "focus on encouraging partnerships and dialogue among the people and sectors involved in child protection."

With files from CBC Health