December 12, 2018

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Foster care must include cultural care

Editorial

It’s one of Canada’s bleakest realities, one that stretches coast to coast to coast: too many Indigenous children live in foster care. Too many Indigenous children lose vital connections to their culture, identity and family when they are placed with non-Indigenous families. And too many Indigenous families are ripped apart simply because of their financial status.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has announced legislation, to be introduced in early 2019, that aims to change that. Developed in collaboration with Indigenous leaders, the new law would allow Indigenous leaders to run their own child and family services (CFS) agencies in order to reverse the rising number of kids in care.

And those numbers are alarming. According to 2016 census data, around 52 per cent of the 28,665 children age 13 and younger in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, despite making up only 7.7 per cent of children that age in the wider population.

In Manitoba, 11,000 children are in care, and 91 per cent are First Nations or Métis. Manitoba leads the country in child-welfare apprehensions.

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It’s one of Canada’s bleakest realities, one that stretches coast to coast to coast: too many Indigenous children live in foster care. Too many Indigenous children lose vital connections to their culture, identity and family when they are placed with non-Indigenous families. And too many Indigenous families are ripped apart simply because of their financial status.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has announced legislation, to be introduced in early 2019, that would allow Indigenous leaders to run their own child and family services agencies in order to reverse the rising number of kids in care. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has announced legislation, to be introduced in early 2019, that would allow Indigenous leaders to run their own child and family services agencies in order to reverse the rising number of kids in care. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has announced legislation, to be introduced in early 2019, that aims to change that. Developed in collaboration with Indigenous leaders, the new law would allow Indigenous leaders to run their own child and family services (CFS) agencies in order to reverse the rising number of kids in care.

And those numbers are alarming. According to 2016 census data, around 52 per cent of the 28,665 children age 13 and younger in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, despite making up only 7.7 per cent of children that age in the wider population.

In Manitoba, 11,000 children are in care, and 91 per cent are First Nations or Métis. Manitoba leads the country in child-welfare apprehensions.

A key principle in the federal legislation will complement a change made to Manitoba’s child apprehension laws in November: children can no longer be apprehended simply because of poverty, which addresses a primary criticism advocates have had of CFS for decades. Many children are seized because of "neglect," a nebulous term that too often has more to do with a family’s socioeconomic standing than threat of physical or emotional harm.

"They are taken away, for the most part, on the basis of something that is euphemistically called neglect, but, in truth, they are often taken for reasons of economic poverty, inadequate housing, unresolved health issues," Ms. Philpott said at a news conference.

There are valid reasons why a child must be removed from a home, especially where there’s abuse, addiction and other safety concerns. But there is a wide gulf between deliberately withholding the necessities of life, which is a crime, and being poor, which is not.

There are valid reasons why a child must be removed from a home, especially where there’s abuse, addiction and other safety concerns. But there is a wide gulf between deliberately withholding the necessities of life, which is a crime, and being poor, which is not.

And yet, society often treats it as one. When a kid goes to school on a January day without a proper jacket or falls asleep in class because of a nutritionally bereft breakfast, the too-common impulse is to say, "Shame on the mother/father," instead of asking, "How can we give this mother or father the tools they need to be better parents?"

When we punish people for being poor, everyone loses, especially our most vulnerable citizens.

Moreover, a culture-centred approach to CFS is long overdue. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report characterized child apprehensions as a continuation of residential schools and the ’60s Scoop — which is not an exaggeration.

As the report says, residential schools "were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages." Placing Indigenous children in non-Indigenous homes often means those vital connections to family, culture and identity are broken.

The federal legislation is a critical first step toward reconciliation, a turning point. But it’s just as critical for Canada to address the systemic issues and systems that keep so many Indigenous families in poverty.

The federal legislation is a critical first step toward reconciliation, a turning point. But it’s just as critical for Canada to address the systemic issues and systems that keep so many Indigenous families in poverty.

Poverty is a social determinant. Those who live in poverty tend to have poorer physical and mental health, as well as poorer educational outcomes.

Overhauling an outmoded system of care is just one piece of a complex puzzle. Indigenous families also need to be empowered and strengthened. And that happens when we treat Indigenous communities as those to be supported and valued, not as problems to be solved.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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