Indigenous leaders condemn child-welfare changes


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OTTAWA — First Nations leaders are accusing the Pallister government of imposing changes to child welfare they don’t want, as both sides await a delayed federal shake-up of child and family services.

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This article was published 13/02/2019 (1282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — First Nations leaders are accusing the Pallister government of imposing changes to child welfare they don’t want, as both sides await a delayed federal shake-up of child and family services.

“There’s still no control. We’re still being dictated to, and managed by somebody else,” said Swan Lake First Nation Chief Francine Meeches.

Echoing comments by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Meeches argued that the province did not adequately consult with First Nations about a pilot project she claims has gone awry, while not ending a clawback of the federal baby bonus.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Files "We’re still being dictated to, and managed by somebody else" says Swan Lake First Nation Chief Francine Meeches of the Pallister government's proposed changes to the child welfare system.

On Monday, the Pallister government announced it would soon expand block funding to all CFS agencies, meaning it would provide a baseline of funding that isn’t pegged to the number of cases the agency handles.

Indigenous advocates have long decried a perverse incentive in Manitoba, where most funding doesn’t kick in until a CFS worker apprehends a baby. They argue that leaves agencies overworked and unable to help undercut poverty and other problems that brought a family onto a CFS agency’s radar in the first place.

The Pallister government has long touted Sandy Bay First Nations’ CFS workers, after they found a loophole and bought a family an air conditioner instead of apprehending a baby for living in a house that was so hot it had become unsafe.

‘They didn’t even have the decency, the common courtesy, to contact our agency and say ‘Did it work for you?’- Swan Lake First Nation Chief Francine Meeches

The government argued block funding could help agencies undertake those moves, which keep families together and ultimately save taxpayer costs.

But Meeches said the idea isn’t working. Her tribal council was part of the province’s year-long pilot project on block funding for child welfare, and she said officials found tight rules didn’t actually allow them to reallocate funding and prevent apprehensions.

“They didn’t even have the decency, the common courtesy, to contact our agency and say ‘Did it work for you?,” said Meeches. “Seriously, they need to think before they try to announce something like this.”

The Free Press requested an interview with Families Minister Heather Stefanson, and was given a written statement from a “non-attributable” provincial spokeswoman.

The province said the pilot allowed agencies to take unused dollars from their general care budget and put it into prevention. “Regular reporting by participating agencies has shown increased flexibility to redirect those savings and reduced administrative burden,” the spokeswoman claimed.

She said details on the changes in funding won’t come until next month’s budget, “the Indigenous Leadership Council will be consulted throughout this process.”

“It is our intent to provide predictable three-year funding that doesn’t incentivize bringing children into care,” the spokeswoman wrote. “Block funding will provide the flexibility to allow authorities and agencies to invest in more positive supports for families and children.”

The province is also planning to move the Children’s Special Allowance — a payment similar to the Canada Child Benefit — from provincial coffers to the actual CFS agencies. For 12 years, Manitoba has clawed back that cash into general revenue.

Meeches worries that cash won’t actually help prevent apprehension, given the restrictions around block funding, which was ostensibly meant for agencies to allocate as they wished.

Manitoba has had one of the highest rates of child-welfare apprehensions on the continent, and almost 90 per cent of children taken into care are Indigenous.

The provinces, Meeches and numerous advocates are all watching to see what the federal Liberals will table, after promising imminent legislation on child-welfare reform.

The bill is being drafted through a committee of Indigenous people — an exceptional move in crafting law. A Lakehead University professor who’s been part of that process told the CBC this week that the drafted legislation “doesn’t change a whole lot, as far as I can see.”

Multiple sources like Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart said the bill only lets Indigenous groups craft their own laws with the consent of Ottawa and a province.

That would be a slight change from Manitoba’s semi-devolved system, which sees Indigenous groups run agencies under provincial laws and a mix of federal and provincial budgets (which have long been deemed insufficient). But it’s likely not going to be enough for the AMC, which drafted its own bill last year.

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan wrote in a statement that the bill is coming “shortly” but wouldn’t comment on what it looks like. “The best interests of Indigenous children must come first, and that is our driving force in getting this right,” he wrote.

Meeches was audibly angry at both the federal and provincial governments for what she deems a patronizing set of rules.

“I’m sick and tired of it, I really am. This is what communities have had to go through since we signed a treaty,” she said, referring to an 1871 agreement.

With files from Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

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