(SHARI NARINE)

Fixing Foster Care

Solutions through an Aboriginal lens

By Shari Narine

Kohkom Kathy smudges before she begins to talk. She asks for grandmothers-past to allow her to speak without anger. But what comes out is a hard laugh that ends on a high note. It’s Kathy’s response to the thought that the provincial government will make changes to the child intervention system—changes that will actually help Indigenous children and families.

“I don’t know if I could live that long,” she says.

The Kohkom (Cree for “grandmother”), a member of Peace Country’s Lubicon Cree Nation, has already outlived one granddaughter. Dani died four years ago when she was six weeks old, 24 days after having been seized from her mother by provincial officials and placed in a foster home. The foster parents had brought the baby into bed with them in the early morning hours. Shortly thereafter they discovered she was no longer breathing. Alberta’s chief medical examiner ruled the cause of Dani’s death “undetermined.”

Kathy’s account of the day Dani was born in an Edmonton hospital in 2013 is heart-wrenching. The grandmother was drumming in the birthing room with her daughter and son-in-law. Her younger daughter was also there. For 24 hours the family cowered every time the door opened, terrified a child welfare worker would walk in and “kidnap” the baby. Kathy likens the atmosphere in the hospital room to the time when an old boyfriend held her captive, put a gun to her head and played Russian roulette.

At the time of Dani’s birth, her two older sisters had been in government care for two years—apprehended due to a misspoken word on the playground, says Kathy. A child intervention assessor told the family that with Kathy’s support, Dani could stay with her parents, who were in the process of getting their two older girls back (they eventually succeeded). But before any of that could happen, Dani was taken “without explanation,” says Kathy, and placed in a foster home. Kathy’s younger daughter applied for kinship care in a process that was “very invasive and degrading”; the assessor was “surprised when he couldn’t find anything wrong” with the home.

Dani’s aunt received approval—a month after Dani died. Formal child intervention and criminal record checks are a slow process. “We found out later a lot of foster parents get children before they get complete clearance,” says Kathy. “It’s a roll of the dice.”

Kathy doesn’t blame the foster parents for Dani’s death. She holds the system liable.

Kohkom Kathy’s granddaughter is one of 225 children, youth or young adults to have died in the provincial child welfare system since 2008. They died after having been taken away from their parents, ostensibly to protect them from harm. Of these children, youth and young adults, 131 were Indigenous. Only 10 per cent of Alberta children are Indigenous, but they make up 69 per cent of the child welfare system. Indigenous children come into care more often, stay in care longer and are less likely to be returned to their families than their non-Indigenous peers.

Deaths of children in provincial care have been the focus of two Alberta governments, spurred on by separate investigations by local journalists. In late 2013 the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald co-published their “Fatal Care” series, which revealed that the Progressive Conservative government had underreported the number of deaths. The investigation found that 145 foster children had died between 1999 and June 8, 2013, but government reports accounted only for 56 deaths. The discrepancy “highlight[s] the failure of a… system blighted by secrecy, disorganization [and] weak oversight,” the series began. “An exhaustive analysis revealed alarming trends the government has never identified: A third of children who die in care are babies, another third are teenagers and the vast majority are Aboriginal.”

Then, late in 2016, Journal columnist Paula Simons, working from a report delivered by the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (OCYA), dug up information outlining the horrific conditions surrounding the death of a First Nations girl. That Serenity had died in kinship care complicated the picture. The review “revealed that the relatives with whom the girl had been placed had been poorly trained and that the home study of their family had been cursory,” Simons wrote. “The review also found Serenity and her two older half-siblings had been left in the guardianship of this couple despite complaints and tips about abuse. No workers had checked on the three children in the 11 months before Serenity died.” Simons was also able to access information unavailable to Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff and unearthed the full circumstances of the girl’s death, including a stalled police investigation because of a lack of follow-up reports.

PC and NDP governments alike have responded the same way: by convening political bodies to review child deaths, and by not including Indigenous representation.

In 2014 the Child Intervention Roundtable, called by Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar, delivered recommendations to improve the system and its account-ability. But party leadership volatility, cabinet shuffling, a provincial election and a subsequent change in government stifled action.

Some 225 young Albertans have died in foster care since 2008.
Of these, 131 were Indigenous.

When Premier Rachel Notley announced her first cabinet in 2015, Bhullar’s roundtable’s recommendations—which included more power to the Office of the Medical Examiner to access government information in order to investigate deaths of children in care—remained buried within the sprawling Human Services ministry. In July 2016 Graff and Auditor General Merwan Saher simultaneously released reports indicating that the government could not make the systemic changes necessary to reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care as long as Children’s Services remained under the large umbrella of Human Services.

It took the release of OCYA’s November 2016 investigative review on 4-year-old Serenity (then known as “Marie”)—and Simons’s report—for the NDP government to respond. In January 2017 Notley announced the creation of an all-party panel to investigate the child intervention system and named Danielle Larivee as minister of a new, standalone Children’s Services.

From the very beginning, Indigenous leaders were critical of the creation of yet another panel. That money would be better spent supporting families and children on the ground than on talking about the issue again, says Donald Langford, executive director with Metis Child and Family Services. He points to a bookshelf in his office full of reports with recommendations commissioned by various PC governments and later abandoned. “I’ve been involved in so many working groups and committees that I just quit going to them,” he says. “I’ve seen no progress.”

Langford says the new panel’s first recommendations, released in April 2017, have already been presented in some form or another through other panels or studies: increased authority for the OCYA, greater accountability for preventable deaths, timely completion of reviews, better supports for families, greater cultural sensitivity and improved information sharing.

Worse than retreaded recommendations, he says, is yet another panel lacking Indigenous representation. Patti Laboucane-Benson, a Metis woman with Native Counselling Services of Alberta, was included only as an expert witness as the panel considered the death review process. In May, when the panel moved into its second phase—to look more broadly at the child intervention system—Larivee responded to criticism from the Indigenous community by appointing Siksika Health CEO Tyler White.

But two Indigenous people on the panel doesn’t satisfy Langford. “We still have a residential school environment being run by an Indian agent mentality,” he said. “Unless you’ve got Aboriginal eyes, you’re not going to look at it through an Aboriginal lens.”

That “Aboriginal lens” means engaging with families in a holistic manner—placing children in kinship care (i.e., with family, in their own culture) whenever possible. It means providing foster families with supports and checking in with them regularly. It means building respectful relationships between Indigenous families and government service pro-viders. But forming those relationships is difficult considering the high turnover of frontline government staff, their lack of knowledge of Indigenous culture, and the lack of Indigenous caseworkers. Couple that with limited resources both for organizations working with Indigenous children in cities and for designated First Nation authorities on reserves.

He points to a bookshelf of reports with recommendations by various PC governments and later abandoned.

Liberal MLA and panel member Dr. David Swann believes more Indigenous representation—on the panel and throughout child intervention services—would help the government better understand the problems it’s dealing with. “If you don’t have staff that come from that community, I think it’s somewhat disingenuous for us to say that we’re going to have a First Nations cultural lens,” Swann told media in April. ​“How do we get more First Nations people trained and into the child services programs?” He also wants bands to be more involved with the death review process.

Frieda Alook-Gambler with the Bigstone Nation Council presented to the panel in May 2017. “If you guys want to make decisions and really impact the number of cases that are happening on our First Nations, talk to us and ask us how we can help our kids,” she told the panel. “We want as First Nations to provide the services we need for our kids because we understand and we know where these kids are coming from and living.”

Langford has been involved with child and family services for 32 years and doesn’t believe that any government—this one included—understands the concept of true engagement. “To engage our community, you form a relationship, and that relationship moves forward built on respect, consideration and optimism,” he says. “Work with the families, get to know them.”

Working with families means pursuing a cultural connection, says Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff. “A young Indigenous person who has a sense of identity, knows who they are, knows where they belong, knows what their value base is, that has people around them who both support them and challenge them to continue to develop their sense of identity and strength—those are factors of resilience that help the young person when they face difficulties.”

“Voices for Change,” the July 2016 report from Graff’s office, was nearly two years in the making, with information gathered from government, social workers, children, youth and caregivers. Previous reports were reviewed and the OCYA’s experience considered. Eight recommendations were made, including “increasing the use of kinship care for Aboriginal children by improving support for kinship caregivers.” The report notes the “onerous” approval process and that kinship families are assessed on their past, not “for who they are today.”

Indeed, many Indigenous families have a past relationship with Child Intervention Services, including Kohkom Kathy. Her children were once wards of the government, and she says that reason was given for why she didn’t qualify to care for her granddaughters—including baby Dani—when they were apprehended.

She admits no care model is flawless. The treatment leading to Serenity’s death occurred while the little girl was in kinship care. Kathy and other critics say a culturally appropriate placement with family is still the best option in most cases and that all options need to be diligently monitored by caseworkers.

Graff’s report into Serenity’s case identified two systemic issues: risk assessment and case planning. Along with better support for kinship caregivers, his recommendations include a culturally relevant home study specific to kinship care and its unique challenges; mandatory kinship care orientation training; and that caseworkers be just as diligent when a child comes out of kinship care as when a child goes into care. This report was the third by Graff that included recommendations on kinship care.

Echoing Langford, “Voices for Change” also called for the province to establish a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, outlining the need for “establishing full and equal partnership between governments and Aboriginal communities in the development of authorities, resources, practices and outcomes.”

Graff says that new relationship shouldn’t get hung up in jurisdictional battles. “You have like-minded people who want to make a change—federal, provincial, First Nations, political groups. If they all want change, how can jurisdiction possibly be a barrier? It’s just a problem to solve.”

Seventeen designated First Nation authorities operate within Alberta’s 46 First Nations, handling child welfare services legislated by the province’s Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act while being federally funded. Debbie LaRiviere, director with the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council, told the panel in May that provincial programming “doesn’t seem to fit some of our families we work with on the First Nation.” Unique factors include isolated communities, three or four households in a single home, extreme poverty, and a lack of services such as psychologists and child intervention workers. Yvonne Johnson, director with Bigstone Cree Social Services Society, adds that caseloads are too heavy—her local authority has two caseworkers handling 56 cases. “It’s straight crisis management,” she says. “No real meaningful work can really happen with that.”

Lack of federal funding is also an issue. In 2016 the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canada discriminates against families on reserves by providing child welfare funding at a much lower rate than provinces’ off-reserve funding. The CHRT also upheld Jordan’s Principle, which says First Nations children must receive the health and social services they require before different levels of government wrangle over who covers the costs. But despite a Trudeau government statement in February that it is “working swiftly” to implement Jordan’s Principle, the gap remains.

Most past OCYA recommendations haven’t been imple-mented—despite the province ostensibly having accepted them. New legislation, including the Child Protection and Accountability Act, passed in June 2017 following the panel’s first phase of recommendations, does not guarantee implementation of anything brought forward by the OCYA. It does, however, increase the OCYA’s mandate to review every death of a child under 20 who was receiving government services or had received services within two years prior to their death. “I would have liked to have seen the government be held to stronger account for the recommendations we make,” says Graff.

That view was also expressed by Saher last October. The Auditor General proposed a legislative standing committee that would help ensure the implementation of the OCYA’s recommendations.

But giving such power to the OCYA doesn’t sit well with the Children’s Services Minister. “Independent legislative officers are there to provide information, advice and guidance to the government—but nowhere are these actually directives,” minister Danielle Larivee says. “That would actually take away the power of the government and [its] independence to be able to fulfill its role.” The Standing Committee on Legislative Offices, an all-party body, agrees with Larivee. None of the nine recommendations it brought forward on June 21 upon completing its year-long review of the Child and Youth Advocate Act gives more strength to Graff’s office. The standing committee recommends only that a member of the OCYA be present, along with relevant department officials, when an OCYA report is being considered by a committee of the assembly.

Larivee points out that Graff delivers his reports publicly and as such the public can hold the government responsible. To her critics, she’d say: “Just please engage in good faith. Please know we are committed to this. Give us the opportunity and I’ll show you when we’re done and we’ll take action.”

Graff, however, doesn’t believe the situation is high on the public’s priority list, and therefore isn’t high on the government’s. “Politicians pay attention to what’s being demanded by constituents,” he says. “If constituents care about an issue, they elevate it and politicians respond. When I speak about apathy—at a community level we’re not hearing concern for vulnerable Indigenous children and their families. We’re not hearing enough volume to create a demand for change that politicians need to act on.”

As Indigenous people account for 6 per cent of the province’s population, change won’t occur until the non-Indigenous population speaks out, contends Graff.

Larivee says she’s proud of the legislation her government has passed, saying it strengthens recommendations made by the panel. She also points to what she calls a “culture shift” towards openness within public organizations that now must share relevant information with the OCYA in its investigations.

She says her government should be judged on the work it’s undertaking now, which includes building relationships and capacity with Indigenous communities. “I’m not going to say I’m going to turn it around overnight,” says Larivee. “It’s a complex issue rooted in very complex problems that have existed for a very long time. We will just continue taking steps forward.”

But those are stuttering steps, Graff says. “The government isn’t responding fast enough and in a complete enough way…. [it’s] certainly nowhere near where it has to be to actually change the tide in child welfare.”

Edmonton’s Shari Narine has spent the past decade covering Indigenous issues for provincial and national publications.

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