PROBLEMS in the child and family Services system are not new -- as so many professionals have stated. Overworked social workers, precious few resources, growing numbers of children with special needs, and the need for more qualified foster homes are only the beginning. Children were being housed in hotels long before devolution came into play.
Statistics show that there were many deaths in care prior to devolution. In 2001, 21 children throughout Manitoba died of unnatural causes while in care. In 2002, the figure goes up to 28. First Nations agencies did not receive caseloads until 2003.
What happened in the case of Phoenix Sinclair is tragic. It happened when she was under the care of Winnipeg Child and Family Services. It may have happened because her case was prematurely closed when the devolution process was taking place, but this has nothing to do with her race, Fisher River Cree Nation, nor the ability of First Nation child and family service agencies to look after children.
Placing children in the best possible situation often does mean placing them with their family or family members. In fact, the best possible situation is that the child and family services agencies work with families at risk to stabilize the home. This is what happens four out of five times when child and family services gets involved with a non-aboriginal family. If, however, the child is aboriginal, only one in five times will CFS provide the supports to allow the child to remain with the family. This is why we fought for devolution.
The fact is that the devolution process, which has been in the works since the 1980s, only actually took place in 2003. That's when the cases were transferred over to First Nations child and family services agencies. This is only four years of a system that was flawed in the first place.
Yes, there were challenges and yes, there still are. But I am certain that the First Nations child and family services agencies are up to these challenges and are working hard to meet them. We are in the process of a huge historic systemic change, a change that will affect generations to come, a change that is geared to restore back to First Nations the control and care of their own lives.
It took 100 years to get into this situation, how can anyone expect it to be corrected in only four years?
We inherited a flawed system that we are working tirelessly to fix. That flawed system has been exacerbated by the federal government, which simply will not provide the same level of resources to First Nations children that the province will to its children; yet expects the same level of service.
Finally, the First Nations child and family services authorities are struggling with the same challenges facing all child and family services agencies -- underfunding and overwork.
What this points to is that children are not a priority in our society. The majority of our government dollars go to glamorous portfolios like industry, defence, finance and justice. How much of our government dollars go to the care of families and children?
Then again, how much of our private dollars go the care of families and children? How can we as a society even begin to say that we care for children when the average day care worker earns $18,000 per year?
We need to all work together, people of all races, citizens, governments to address the many complex issues facing children and youth today.
Ron Evans is the grand chief of the
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.