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Help for reserve families urged

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OTTAWA -- Urgent action is needed immediately to cope with the overwhelming number of family breakdowns on First Nations such as the home reserve of Tracia Owen, officials said Thursday.

The extent of family problems was summed up this week with bleak statistics: Of 525 children in Owen's Little Grand Rapids home reserve, 206 are in government care.

"If that was (Winnipeg) and there were that many children in care, people would be lining up in masses saying, 'What is happening here?' " Manitoba Children's Advocate Billie Schibler said. "It speaks very loudly to the fact that there aren't enough resources in these communities."

The desperate situation at Little Grand Rapids was portrayed in an inquest report into the 14-year-old girl's string of Child and Family Services placements, her short life as a drug-addicted sex-trade worker in Winnipeg and, ultimately, her suicide.

Provincial court Judge John Guy slammed the federal government for failing to properly fund child welfare services on reserves and even ensure basic needs like housing and food supplies there are up to par.

"These areas fall within the mandate of the federal government and all evidence indicates they are falling short in their financial support to rescue these communities," Guy wrote in his inquest report.

That failure leaves children to bear the brunt of poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction and violence, Guy wrote.

In Little Grand Rapids, where Tracia Owen was born, it costs well over $1 million to operate a child welfare system, including paying for social workers to help protect kids. But Ottawa, which is responsible for funding child welfare on reserves, gave Little Grand Rapids only $424,000.

The lack of funding, Guy said, means the support services available to help kids and families in cities are unlikely to ever be extended to remote reserves like Little Grand.

The shortfall is mainly because funding for child welfare services on reserves is based on the total child population on each reserve, not on the number of children and families receiving services from child welfare.

Elsie Flette, CEO of Manitoba's Southern First Nations Child and Family Services Authority, said it means small communities like Little Grand Rapids lose out because they don't have a lot of kids in total, but they have far more problems and far more children and families needing help than they get funded for.

The only time federal funding is done per child in need is when a child is apprehended from their family and placed in foster care, so that happens all the time.

Manitoba Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh said he's sending the Guy report to the federal government with the hope it will make an impact in Ottawa.

"This report doesn't just speak to the federal government, it screams at it," Mackintosh said.

There is more than a 20 per cent gap in the funding provided by the two levels of government for the same services, leaving kids on reserves shortchanged.

A request for a response from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada went unanswered.

Flette said there have been meetings with Ottawa in hopes of establishing new funding models for child welfare, but so far nothing has happened. Adding to her frustration are documents she obtained through Access to Information legislation that show Ottawa has known about the impact of its inadequate funding since at least 2001.

"Six or seven years ago, federal officials identified the fact their funding was contributing to more kids coming into care, but they've not moved to address it," Flette said.

Manitoba NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis said there is a need for "a complete review and revamping of the way the feds fund First Nations."

"This report is a cry for urgent federal action," Wasylycia-Leis said.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2008

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