In the wake of a scathing report, which found the territory’s Child and Family Services division was failing children, Dehcho Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian wants Indigenous governments to take a greater role in caring for kids in foster care.
“For years we – First Nations – have been saying we want control of our own programs and services and trying to make it based on our values and principles,” said Norwegian.
Norwegian penned a letter to Premier Bob McLeod and Health Minister Glen Abernethy because she felt that “knuckles were rapped and life goes on,” after a report from Canada’s Office of the Auditor General found that the territory’s Child and Family Services division was failing children in a number of ways.
Among the department’s many shortcomings, the 41-page audit found serious gaps in the way the foster children are monitored and high staff turnover.
According to the audit, the Child and Family Services cares for about 1,000 children per year. The vast majority of them are Indigenous.
A number of MLAs called for Abernethy to resign but he survived a non-confidence vote in the legislative assembly on Oct. 31 by an 11 to 7 margin.
“The majority of the children taken away were Indigenous and they were put at risk. I wanted to tell them there seem to be serious deficiencies in the Department of Health and Social Services,” she stated.
As the Dehcho leads itself into self-government, Norwegian expects Indigenous organizations will take on greater responsibilities in caring for children.
After Abernethy survived the vote of non-confidence, he vowed to fast track improvements to services, staff recruitment and retention.
Despite the department’s struggle to retain staff and a typical 20 per cent vacancy rate, the only Northern program that trains social workers remains in limbo.
Aurora College’s social work program offers a diploma but it will not be offered in 2018 and 2019. The GNWT decided in February 2017 to cut $1.9-million from the program, citing low enrollment.
“We need Northern experience,” said Norwegian. “They’re looking for people with degrees. Efforts should be made to make the diploma program encouraging for people to move on and get their degree.”
Training Northern social workers is just one possible solution, she said.
“At the end we just want healthy people – happy people feeling good about themselves and knowing their identity and not being embarrassed about who they are,” she said. “Can you imagine being a child yourself and being exposed to a lot of loud arguments in your household, then someone comes around to rescue you from that environment, and finding out the home you’re being put in is not that safe?”
Dene Nation Chief Norman Yakeleya said Indigenous governments should play a greater role in caring for the territory’s foster children as the vast majority of them are Indigenous.
“When you see more than 95 per cent of children in care are Indigenous, that’s an emergency situation. Give communities the means to support families and children, rather than putting a child on a plane and sending them out,” he said.
Communities have, “perfectly educated, well-suited, skilled people … that can look after children. They may not have university degrees or college diplomas. However, that’s the issue. We are trying to measure up to another society’s credentials,” he said.
Once a child falls under the care of the Child in Family Services division, it is difficult for them to get out, he said.
“Residential schools are alive and well in child welfare agencies. There is family separation, the disconnect from their culture, language, their traditions, their food and the events. Everything is a separation from their culture and who they are as an Indigenous person,” he said.
In Alberta, the provincial government is working alongside Indigenous governments to reform its child welfare system, said Yakeleya.
In October, the province announced Bill 22 would overhaul child welfare, which would require the province to notify an Indigenous child’s band before they are put in foster care. Yakeleya hopes the territorial government will take similar steps.
“We want to work with the territorial government but they’ve got to be willing to sit down and say, ‘let’s do something creative. Let’s look at our own regional child welfare agencies,’” he said.