Aboriginal kids in care: 4 approaches to improve Canada's track record

From apprehending parents instead of children to asking youth what changes they'd like to see, communities and programs across the country are finding ways to improve Canada's current child welfare model for indigenous families.

A look at what programs are working in a system that isn’t

Cory Gregorashuk (left) stands with Sue Mozdzen (right). Mozdzen said the CLOUT model is the best way of re-parenting the parents. (Nikki Wiart/CBC)

The consensus among experts in social services is this: Canada's current child-in-care system is deeply flawed.

There were nearly 30,000 children in care across the country in 2011, according to Statistics Canada, and nearly 50 per cent of those were aboriginal.

In provinces like Manitoba, that over-representation is even more apparent. Out of the over 10,000 children currently in care in the province, nearly 90 per cent are aboriginal.

Here is a look at four programs that are showing success in a system criticized for its failures.

1. Move the parents, not children

The Misipawistik Cree Nation, five hours north of Winnipeg, passed a resolution in March that gave the council the ability to remove the parents, instead of the children, when intervention was required, stating:

"The disruption and trauma felt by children who may be removed from their homes ... is not an acceptable outcome to a situation where the child has done nothing wrong."

Trained agency workers care for the children inside their homes, while the parents get the help they need so the family can eventually be reunified.

It's a system that has only one predecessor in Canada. The Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, about 10 hours north of Winnipeg, implemented a similar model in 2002.


On reserve, all properties are community-owned, meaning it is within a council's legal right to forcibly remove parents from their home. If this system was to be implemented off reserve, parents would have to leave voluntarily.

2. Reunite with extra support

A program in Edmonton is allowing parents and children in care to live under the same roof, with round-the-clock supervision, until they are ready to be introduced back into the community.

"I think the parents or the parent should be given a second chance to have their children in their own care," said Lizette Gaudry, the director of the Métis Housing Corporation's Family Reunification Program.

Families pay rent and buy their own groceries, but have the constant support of trained staff, who work directly with the parents, and a child and family services caseworker, to build a personalized case plan.

Since it began in September of 2013, all of the families that have gone through the program have successfully transitioned back into the community.


Gaudry said a program like this has a lot of start-up costs, and can't work without the proper funding. There also needs to be staff with experience in working with human services, and who understand the complexities of the program and the clients. 

3. Re-parent the parents

Sue Mozdzen, program coordinator, said in her 20 years of experience, CLOUT (Community Led Organizations United Together) is the closest thing she's seen to be actually putting birth parents and children in the same foster home.

CLOUT foster mom Michelle Berard teaches parenting skills. (Nikki Wiart/CBC)
CLOUT brings birth parents, foster parents, and CFS caseworkers together with the goal of reunification. Through that process, birth parents are able to build lasting relationships with the foster parents housing their children.

"This model is the best way of re-parenting the parents," said Mozdzen.

In the past three years, CLOUT has reported a 70 per cent success rate in reunifying families.

The program is small, with just eight foster homes housing a total of 22 beds. It's also short-term, with children being fostered for six-to-12 months. 


CLOUT is an offshoot of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and is successful because of the deeply entrenched relationships the centre has created with Winnipeg's aboriginal community.

"You could write down the CLOUT model on a piece of paper, but if you don't have the flexibility, the creativity, and the ability to work with people the way we have been given the ability to do, the model doesn't mean anything."

4. Ask the children what they want

The Feathers of Hope (FOH) initiative in Ontario is allowing aboriginal youth to work on an even playing field with adults, and add their voice to issues facing the aboriginal community.

Samantha Crowe, one of the youth amplifiers for Feathers of Hope, said all levels of government need to engage in what the initiative is doing so the young people who lent their voices to the report aren’t left hanging. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
In May, FOH held a forum specifically on the issue of child welfare. Hundreds of aboriginal youth met with representatives from all levels of government, shared their experiences with the child-in-care system, and offered ideas on how to improve it.

"These are the young people that are dealing with the issues themselves right now," said Samantha Crowe, a youth worker with FOH.

"They don't want to be just another number; they don't want to be a case file. They are wanting to make that change to have a better future for themselves, and for any other young people who may be going into the system."


Irwin Elman, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth in Ontario, said for initiatives similar to FOH to work on a larger scale, community leaders need to form relationships with aboriginal youth and let them have a voice.

"It takes the willingness to listen," he said. "It takes decision-makers to say, 'We want to listen; this is a way to helping us get unstuck.'"

Before anything else, intervention

The above approaches focus on improving the system after the children have already been apprehended. But experts agree if there was adequate funding and resources to address the root of the problem, rather than waiting for a problem to present itself, those programs wouldn't be needed.

"The default remains the removal of children from the community, even where there's no protection concern other than their need for resources," said Katherine Hensel, an aboriginal lawyer and head of Hensel Barristers in Toronto.

"There are other far more healthy and effective interventions that can be done within the home and within the family if you dedicate sufficient resources and intelligence and rigour to it."


Nikki Wiart is a Métis journalist living in Edmonton, with roots in the small town of Castor, Alta. She has a Bachelor of Communications degree from MacEwan University and is headed to Ottawa in the fall to complete a graduate degree in journalism at Carleton University. She is a recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation's Aboriginal Fellowship Award.