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Children in poverty perceived as neglected

Phoenix Sinclair inquiry hears from child-welfare expert

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CANADA'S aboriginal children end up in care so often mainly because of poverty that's perceived as neglect, the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair was told Monday.

"There's a tendency in child welfare to codify poverty as neglect," said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. The woman, born in British Columbia and part Gitxsan, got her start as a front-line social worker with B.C's Squamish First Nation.

She said she often saw aboriginal children making up the majority of kids in care not because their families didn't care about them but because they couldn't access the resources needed to care for them.

"Poverty, poor housing and substance misuse are things we can do something about," she said. Generations of people taken away from their families to residential schools never received counselling for trauma and they're echoing forward," Blackstock told Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs' lawyer Jay Funke.

"There is tendency for those with unresolved trauma turning to substance abuse," she said at the inquiry that began in September. It was ordered after the 2005 death of five-year-old Phoenix was discovered in 2006. The Winnipeg-born child had been in and out of care her entire life before ending up with her mother Samantha Kematch and stepfather Karl Wesley McKay, who tortured and killed her on the Fisher River First Nation.

The inquiry heard earlier the couple had collected welfare benefits for Phoenix even after they'd killed her. It also heard Kematch smoked crack cocaine and Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, who cared for her off and on until she was nearly four, was known to binge-drink. Both Kematch and Sinclair grew up in care after being taken away from parents with residential-school roots.

Blackstock didn't refer to Phoenix's case specifically, but said study after study shows the single best indicator of child welfare is income level, and as long as aboriginal kids are the poorest in Canada, they're going to end up in care more often.

Every dollar spent on prevention of child-welfare problems saves society $7 down the road in social problems, said the woman, who holds a doctorate.

Her non-profit organization developed a program for First Nations communities called Touchstones of Hope that became a pilot project in northern B.C. aimed at improving the lives of children.

The program brought people from all parts of each community together to look for strengths in the community and how people could put them to use helping kids have a healthy life, said Blackstock. It could access housing funds if housing was the problem keeping a child down, for example, she said.

Child-welfare visitors from Australia with similar problems who wanted to see how the program worked were most struck by how well the First Nations people and the child-welfare workers worked together, said Blackstock.

"They focused on what was best for kids," she said.

The program saw the growing number of kids in care level off until it lost its funding, she said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 A6

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Updated on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 8:03 AM CDT: adds photo

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