Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More federal money on way

For years, spending has lagged for children on reserves

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THE federal government is about to approve a new child welfare funding formula that could prevent abuse and neglect in some of Manitoba's grimmest communities.Elsie Flette, CEO of the Southern First Nations Child Welfare Authority, said Manitoba and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada have worked out a new deal that would see Manitoba get $21 million more federal cash each year for children.

Officials hope the more flexible formula will allow child-welfare workers to do more prevention and help struggling families before abuse or neglect starts, said Flette.

"We seem to have this government aversion to helping families," said Flette, of how things are currently done. "We won't give a mom money to get her laundry done so her life is a little easier, but we'll take her kid into care and bill $40 (for foster care)."

The current formula used by Ottawa is more than a decade-old and shortchanges kids and families living on reserves. They don't have access to the menu of programs and counselling available to kids off reserves who are funded by a more generous provincial child-welfare program.

Authorities estimate that for every dollar provincial governments spend on child welfare for non-aboriginal children and aboriginal children living off-reserve, Ottawa spends less than 78 cents on kids living on reserves.

This year alone, a Manitoba judicial inquiry and the federal auditor took Ottawa to task over that inequity and the Canadian Human Rights Commission agreed to hear a complaint about it from the Assembly of First Nations.

Sheila Fraser, Canada's auditor general, found the formula Ottawa uses is outdated -- it's 13 years old -- and is based on the total number of kids on a reserve rather than how many of them actually need help. The formula provides $787 per child on reserve per year and assumes six per cent of a reserve's kids need help.

On-reserve kids get the same funding as off-reserve kids only after they are taken into care. So kids must be formally apprehended before money for most counselling and support services becomes available, said Flette. Since most foster homes and crisis services are off-reserve, places like Pauingassi First Nation have been virtually stripped of all the reserve's children. Flette said more than 60 per cent of Pauingassi children are in foster care, a situation that simply wouldn't be tolerated in non-aboriginal communities.

The Southern Authority, the child- welfare agency that helped lead the charge on the new formula, looked at every agency to figure out what core staff is needed for prevention and child protection. That includes jobs such as experts on fetal alcohol syndrome, social workers, abuse investigators, human-resource specialists and quality-assurance officers at many agencies struggling with high caseloads and a host of new checks and balances in the wake of high-profile child deaths.

The province asked for about $28 million for the southern, northern and general authorities and is expecting about $21 million under the new formula. Flette said her agency hammered out the formula with Indian and Northern Affairs, and the federal Treasury Board only has to approve it.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have already worked out agreements with Ottawa to fund more prevention in child welfare. Alberta will get $98 million over five years, and Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia will each get $115 million over five years for enhanced prevention.

There are still some shortcomings in Manitoba's deal, said Flette. There's not enough capital to build new facilities, and the model could be geared even more to actual cases on each reserve. And there's not enough money for improvements to computer software and information technology.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2008 b3

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