A Vancouver Island First Nation is hoping to keep its foster children in the community by creating a new model of care.
Of 220 Huu-ay-aht children, 34 are in care. Only nine of those in care are with Huu-ay-aht families, Chief Coun. Robert Dennis said. And some are with families as far away as Victoria, Vancouver and the Okanagan.
The Huu-ay-aht First Nation, based in Anacla near Bamfield, has approved an independent panel that will look at models that might give it more say, as a treaty nation, in determining what happens to children in need.
“We hope when we finish the work, it will be a model that the rest of Canada and B.C. would be proud to have in their communities,” Dennis said.
In 2011, nine per cent of B.C. children were aboriginal, but they represented 56 per cent of the children in foster care. Fewer than half of those children were with at least one aboriginal foster parent, regardless of whether or not they had the same aboriginal identity, according to Statistics Canada.
Most foster children are managed through the Ministry of Children and Family Development. There are also 23 aboriginal delegated agencies in the province, which were created with the intention of returning child protection and family support to aboriginal communities. Their responsibilities range from recruiting foster homes to investigating and removing children.
Huu-ay-aht’s delegated aboriginal authority is Usma, which administers child welfare for 14 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The band hopes the panel will find ways to bring care closer to home.
Coun. Sheila Charles likened the way that so many First Nations children grow up removed from their cultures to residential schools. “If they grow up in the system, they’re more likely to live on the street, deal with mental illness, struggle with substance abuse and end up in jail,” Charles said.
Bringing those children home — and preventing children from leaving unnecessarily in the first place — is about putting an end to a violent cycle, she said. “It’s also been proven that for those who return to their traditional territory and are immersed in their culture and language, that was when they began to heal.”
Kathy Waddell, Huu-ay-aht’s director of community services, believes prevention is where the band can make the greatest impact.
One reason so many children end up outside the community is that there aren’t enough Huu-ay-aht foster parents. So keeping children in the community might mean finding ways to support families and relatives through counselling or other means.
“That means getting in there before families are in trouble,” Waddell said.
Huu-ay-aht also has knowledge of its community members that could be used to keep families together. While she said she would never argue for keeping a child in a dangerous situation, some of the ministry’s existing policies — such as not placing a child with a caregiver who has a criminal record — aren’t always in the child’s best interest, she said.
“Just because someone has a dark spot on their record doesn’t mean they can’t be a good caregiver. Because we know the families quite well, we can assess them; we know the tools they have in their tool box,” Waddell said.
The panel comprises former Tsawwassen chief Kim Baird, First Nations Health Authority chairwoman Lydia Hwitsum, child and youth psychiatrist Myles Blank, lawyer Maegen Giltrow and Jennifer Dehoney, program lead for the Vancouver Native Health Society.
It will consult Huu-ay-aht children, parents, foster parents and existing care organizations, including Usma.
The panel’s first interim report is due in January. Recommendations are due in April and the final report is expected in May.
The band will approach the provincial and federal governments with a proposed plan within the next year, once the panel makes its recommendations.
Huu-ay-aht’s position as a treaty nation could mean it has more authority to manage care internally. It’s one of five Vancouver Island First Nations that signed the Maa-nulth Treaty in 2011, giving them self-governance rights under Canadian law.
“I’m kind of hoping at the end of the day that we can achieve this under our treaty,” Dennis said.
“We know Canada and B.C. can only provide so many resources. This is us stepping up to the plate and saying, what do we have to do to prevent our children from being taken away,” he said.
Ultimately, the goal is to have no children in ministry or Usma care and all children in need of protection under Huu-ay-aht care.
In November, Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the province is committed to First Nations taking over child-welfare decisions in their communities, after a special adviser’s report found the current system has failed aboriginal children.
The report issued 85 recommendations to reduce the staggering number of aboriginal kids in B.C. care, with a major focus on the need to return control to indigenous communities.
In January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child-welfare services that exists elsewhere.
Last year, B.C.’s representative for children and youth released a report that blamed the overdose death of a legally blind aboriginal girl on “professional indifference.”
Aboriginal foster children by the numbers
• Nine per cent: Proportion of B.C. children who are aboriginal
• 56 per cent: Proportion of B.C. children in foster care who are aboriginal
• 44 per cent: The overall proportion of aboriginal children in foster care who lived with at least one aboriginal foster parent, regardless of whether or not they had the same aboriginal identity
Among the 11,700 First Nations foster children:
• 37 per cent lived with at least one foster parent who also identified as First Nations
• Nine per cent lived with at least one foster parent who had a different aboriginal identity
• 54 per cent lived with non-aboriginal foster parents
Among the 9,900 First Nations foster children with registered Indian status:
• One-quarter lived on-reserve, 99 per cent of whom lived with at least one foster parent who was First Nations
• Among those living off reserve, 21 per cent lived with at least one foster parent who also reported being First Nations
Source: Statistics Canada, 2011