Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/6/2020 (465 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The University of Manitoba last week released a report on the overlap between the child welfare system and the youth criminal justice system. The report contains lots of very bleak statistics about the extent of the overlap, the characteristics of kids who are involved in both systems, and the number and types of crimes youth (aged 12-17) are charged with. But the underlying theme of the report is the structural racism in our province and in our country.
The report shows us that about one-third of kids who have been in care of Child and Family Services (CFS) end up charged with a criminal offence as youths. And nearly half of them will have been charged with a crime by the time they are 21 years of age.
The province of Manitoba becomes the legal guardian of these children when they come into care. It is hard to fathom how setting this staggering number of children on the path to incarceration is "in their best interests," as laid out in the CFS Act. These children are often left to their own devices to navigate the Manitoba Justice system, from first contact with the Winnipeg Police Service or the RCMP to Legal Aid and through the Manitoba courts. Where is their legal guardian through these processes?
While it is tempting to lay the blame for youth becoming involved in the justice system solely on CFS, holding just that one system accountable would be over-simplifying the complex and multi-faceted issues that are the true origin of child welfare and youth criminal justice involvement.
Consider that almost 90 per cent of the children in care in Manitoba are Indigenous, and more than 80 per cent of youth incarcerated in Manitoba are Indigenous — this is how we know this story is rooted in structural racism.
So while there is a critical need for changes to both CFS and the youth criminal justice system, these changes will not affect the root causes of structural racism. As desperately as these changes are needed, they will not be sufficient to address the underlying societal and structural barriers that Indigenous peoples in Manitoba face on a daily basis.
For more than 150 years, there have been consistent policies in place that separate Indigenous children from their families and communities: residential schools, then the Sixties Scoop, and now the child welfare system. All of these forms of removal cause irreparable damage and are the basis for many social issues, impacting subsequent generations of children.
There is a design and intent to the removal of Indigenous children: it strips them of their identity, their connection to land, their languages, traditions and spirituality.
Further evidence of structural racism is found in chronically underfunded prevention and support services in Indigenous communities, the denial of the right to self-govern, and inequitable access to basic human rights and resources, such as clean drinking water and education.
Too many Manitoba children are institutionalized from birth through to adulthood. So many of these children are living lives that they are not meant to live.
Historically, when First Nations children were born, from the moment they were delivered, midwives would read the birth water and reveal the gifts and talents of that baby. From that moment forward, it was the responsibility of parents, family and community to provide the tools and invest in the children. For children removed from their families, all of this is ripped away. For far too many of them, their trajectory leads them to jail.
If Manitoba wants to reduce child welfare involvement, and subsequent youth criminal justice system involvement, then we need to commit to changing policies, systems and structures so that Indigenous peoples are not systematically discriminated against and disenfranchised.
We must take action against these long-standing, complex and multi-faceted social and structural factors using innovative, intersectoral approaches and genuine collaboration with Indigenous partners. In the spirit of reconciliation, we owe it to all Manitoba children to ensure they can achieve their full potential.
Cora Morgan is First Nations Family Advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. Marni Brownell is a professor in the community health sciences department of the University of Manitoba.