Globe and Mail: British Columbia is overhauling its child-welfare system to ensure First Nations are able to assume complete control over the care of their children.
The move was hailed by Indigenous groups as an important step forward toward recognizing the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The government said B.C. will become the first province in Canada to legally recognize the right of Indigenous communities to provide their own child-welfare systems.
The legislation “allows us to develop our own laws and make decisions for our children,” said Mary Teegee, executive director at Carrier Sekani Family Services, in an interview.
The amended legislation also includes a provision for a new Indigenous Child Welfare Director position in the province; the role will have as a goal reducing the number of Indigenous children and youth in care.
The move means the provincial government will no longer have a role in oversight and B.C.’s children’s watchdog can get involved only when invited. How standards of care will be monitored under the new system is unclear.
Mitzi Dean, Minister of Children and Family Development, confirmed that the provincial government will no longer audit or oversee the welfare of children in the care of Indigenous governing bodies. Nor will it investigate deaths of children in their care.
B.C.’s Children’s Representative Jennifer Charlesworth confirmed that her office no longer has jurisdiction to intervene or advocate on behalf of Indigenous children and youth being abused or mistreated by foster parents, group home workers, social workers or other child welfare authorities if they are under the care of Indigenous governing bodies.
Rather, when someone comes forward with an allegation of abuse of an Indigenous child, it would be up to the First Nation providing that child’s care to ask the representative to investigate whether the care the nation is providing is appropriate.
In addition, Ms. Charlesworth said her office will no longer investigate deaths or systemic concerns involving children in the care of Indigenous governing bodies unless invited to do so.
Ms. Charlesworth’s office was established two decades ago after an inquiry into the death of Indigenous toddler Sherry Charlie, who was killed by her great uncle after she was placed in his home by an Indigenous child-care agency under a program aimed at keeping families together. The coroner’s inquest found the program had less stringent standards of care than the province’s foster care program.
Ms. Charlesworth said she is supportive of the changes announced Wednesday. “It is a key step forward in reassertion of jurisdiction by Indigenous peoples over the welfare of their children and youth.”
A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year into the death of Cree teen Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux found the delegated Indigenous agency responsible for his care failed to meet standards, including that his care be culturally appropriate. A Globe review of Xyolhemeylh’s recent practice audits found a pattern of omission and neglect on a range of metrics, including a failure by social workers to meet regularly with young people in their care or to plan adequately for their care. In some cases, they never met with them at all.
The audits found similar deficiencies across the five largest agencies.
Sarah Rauch, a lawyer for Traevon’s mother, said under the new system, oversight could be provided by the new Indigenous Child Welfare Director. “From my understanding, Indigenous peoples seem much more equipped and willing to share jurisdiction and responsibility than non-Indigenous entities, and oversight is inherent in Indigenous ways of caring for children,” she said.
Ms. Dean did not directly respond to a question about how oversight would be provided under the new system.
First Nations will decide what services are going to be delivered in their communities, the minister said at a news conference on Wednesday. “They will decide the relationship that they want to continue having with the ministry in a positive way on what services they want to continue to have from the ministry or from Indigenous Child Youth and Family Service agencies,” Ms. Dean said.
Four B.C. First Nations are already preparing to assume jurisdiction over child and family services, it was announced Wednesday: Cowichan Tribes, Sts’ailes, Splatsin and Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw. Officials said there are 32 governing bodies comprising 81 First Nations that have received funding to help them move toward this goal.
“The colonial era of the province controlling child welfare must come to an end and this legislation cannot be passed soon enough,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said in a release.
Despite making up 10 per cent of the population in B.C., Indigenous children represent 68 per cent of children and youth in care in the province.
“This is a pivotal shift toward real and meaningful change that respects Indigenous rights and improves services and supports for Indigenous children, youth and families,” Premier John Horgan said in a release.