Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ottawa called to account

Children on reserves

are a federal responsibility,

but it's been shrugged off

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As the trial for the accused murderers of Phoenix Sinclair gets underway it is once again shining a spotlight on Manitoba's troubled child welfare system.

The province and Manitoba's aboriginal child welfare agencies have borne the brunt of the criticism for children like Phoenix, who die when the system is supposed to be protecting them.

But there's one big player, the one legally responsible for the welfare of children on reserves, who has thus far dodged the brickbats.

The federal government.

But that may soon end.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has agreed, more than two years after being approached, to inquire into a complaint that Ottawa has been shortchanging children living on reserves when it comes to welfare services. Repeated reports have shown for every dollar provincial governments spend for child welfare for non-aboriginal children and aboriginal children living off reserve, Ottawa spends less than 78 cents. It leaves vulnerable, poor children on Canada's reserves without the services that could help keep their families together or that would force those families to get the help they need.

"It places the most vulnerable kids in a very precarious position," said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Grand Chief Phil Fontaine. "Their health and safety is severely compromised."

The AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada filed the complaint in February 2007, after repeated reports and warnings about the problem went unheeded by the federal government. The commission agreed to call an inquiry on the complaint last month, AFN Chief Phil Fontaine told the Free Press Friday.

This year, the remote northern community of Shamattawa became the tragic example for children in crisis on reserve.

In the spring, Shamattawa's mental-health workers went public, begging for help, saying the number of children committing or attempting suicide is soaring. Between January and May, 37 children attempted suicide, including four in just one weekend. One of them was only nine years old.

In late September, Shamattawa Chief Jeff Napaokesik put out a call for more resources after the deaths of two more children in care, one on the reserve and one temporarily in Winnipeg.

The band's health director, Daryl Schweder, said the shortage of federal funds means a lack of everything from social workers to badminton equipment for after-school programs.

A program for children with fetal alcohol syndrome ended about two years ago after funding expired. The band's Brighter Futures youth program has one worker for hundreds of kids and when Schweder was in charge of recreation programs he said he was overwhelmed with the need.

More worried visits from politicians like the ones that took place last spring won't help.

"They're here for an hour or two and they think they've see it all. You try living here all your life. I see the potential. I see what these kids are capable of," said Schweder. "But there's no facility, no recreation program, no youth centre. The only place they have to hang out is the Northern Store. It's no wonder some turn to drugs and alcohol for escape."

Fontaine says aboriginal children are being taken into state care at alarming numbers.

"There are 27,000 aboriginal kids in state care," said Fontaine. "That is three times the number who were in residential schools at the height of the residential school era."

In Manitoba alone almost 80 per cent of the more than 7,800 children in care are aboriginal.

Last January, an inquest into the death of 14-year-old Tracia Owen slammed Ottawa for failing kids when it comes to funding child welfare on reserves. Judge John Guy said Ottawa was leaving children to bear the brunt of poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction and violence. Owen hanged herself in 2005 after a life spent in and out of foster care spiralled into a world of prostitutton and drugs.

In May, Auditor General Sheila Fraser said in her annual report Ottawa had long neglected a faulty formula to fund child welfare on reserves and said the problem "should be addressed as soon as possible. " Six months later, little if anything has been done.

NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis says she fears the current economic crisis will mean the government will delay addressing this problem even longer.

"It was hard to get the attention of the federal government in the best of times," said Wasylycia-Leis. "But it is these difficult economic times that beg action more than ever."

Wasylycia-Leis said she is unhappy, but not surprised, that little has been done since Fraser's or Guy's reports.

"This is an emergency," she said. "Judge Guy said as much and as far as I can tell nothing's happened."

Ottawa has signed agreements with three provinces to test out new formulas and ways to fund child welfare but those agreements have not yet been extended to Manitoba., Vallado could not say Friday where negotiations stood with Manitoba for a new formula.

In 2005, Manitoba was on the verge of signing a new funding formula with Ottawa but that fell apart when the government changed hands and the process started over.

Fraser's annual report said the current formula Ottawa uses is based on the total population of children on a reserve and doesn't take into account how many of them actually need help, what services they should get or how well its programs are working.

She said Ottawa last amended its formula to fund child welfare on reserves 13 years ago and assumes about six per cent of children on a reserve are taken into care.

In reality, some reserves see as many as 40 per cent of their children removed into foster care. Often these are the smallest, most remote reserves, and they get the least amount of money from Ottawa for child welfare because their population is so low.

Larger reserves with all-season road access tend to have fewer social problems, yet they receive more funding from Ottawa for child welfare because they have more children.

In Little Grand Rapids, for instance, where Tracia Owen was born, it costs well over $1 million to operate a child welfare system, including paying social workers. But Ottawa gave the reserve on the eastern side of Manitoba $424,000.

Manitoba Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh has previously had harsh words for Ottawa's lack of funding, especially in Shamattawa where the Doer government has picked up Ottawa's tab for crisis intervention.

But he and other provincial child welfare officials are reluctant to comment on the issue right now. A spokesperson for Mac- kintosh said the province is fearful that any comments on child welfare matters could taint the Phoenix Sinclair trial.

The Phoenix Sinclair case is the first in a chain of high-profile trials expected to underscore the failures of the province's child welfare system -- where overworked social workers and underfunded agencies try to cope with soaring numbers of kids who need help. (The number of children brought into foster care in Manitoba is up over 2,500 in the last decade).

Melissa Audy, charged with second degree murder in the Aug. 2006 death of her daughter Venecia, was slated to have a preliminary hearing earlier this month in a Dauphin courtroom, but that was delayed. Melissa Audy's common-law husband is also charged with aggravated sexual assault and sexual interference in connection with the child.

Venecia Audy was three when she allegedly fell down the stairs in her home near Swan River. But police believe her death was no accident. The toddler's child welfare file had been dormant for about a year before her death.

Shirley Guimond, whose nephew Gage Guimond died in her care after reportedly falling down the stairs in July 2007, will wait a year for her preliminary hearing on charges of manslaughter and assault. It's slated for November 2009.

Two-year-old Gage and his sister, in the care of an aboriginal child welfare agency, were shunted around between family members who social workers knew to be unreliable or had addictions problems or criminal records. Guimond's death was among those that sparked an overhaul of the child welfare system.

The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has until Friday to appeal the Canadian Human Rights Commission's decision to hold an inquiry into the care of children on reserve. INAC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said no decision has yet been made about an appeal.

"Until we have fully reviewed the (commission's) decision it's difficult to comment," she said. "We will review it and decide on the next steps."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2008 A6

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