AFN chief hits some right notes, some wrong

Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine is taking aim at the federal government for underfunding on-reserve child-welfare services.

Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine is taking aim at the federal government for underfunding on-reserve child-welfare services.

The AFN will be filing a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, charging discrimination.

According to Fontaine, one in 10 aboriginal children is in foster care, compared to a Canadian figure of one in 200.

He also claims a difference of 22 per cent in funding for aboriginal child-welfare services.

The child-welfare situation is perpetuated, he explained, by extreme poverty and its correlates: “poor schools, poor access to quality health care, poor drinking water.”

Fontaine is absolutely right in focusing on the issue of poverty as an underlying factor in the condition of children in aboriginal communities.

One might add the consequences of the attack on native cultures during the residential school era in Canadian history, where children were taken from families, deprived of language and customs, half-made into little white boys and girls and then returned to homes where they no longer fit in.

Long-term solutions require strong measures aimed at elimination of poverty. They also involve the need for building self-esteem and pride in heritage.

An attack on the disparity in child-welfare expenditures is also an appropriate response.

However, the focus on child-welfare services does not end with the issue of the 22-per-cent gap.

In fact, much more money is needed for innovative approaches.

In the face of these pressing needs, the federal Conservative government’s priorities are in building up the military, promoting a newly discovered need for green policies, however ill-defined, cutting taxes and throwing more people in prison for longer periods of time under harsher conditions.

Of course you can guess who will be filling the jail cells — the people who were ill-served by the lack of adequate child-welfare services.

The old customary ways of dealing with child-welfare problems are clearly inadequate to the challenge.

Foster care as a tool, using volunteer foster parents, has often meant a merry-go-round of placements almost guaranteed to damage those tangled in the system.

As well, few aboriginal families become foster parents.

We come back to the issue of poverty as the central problem. The need, then, is to identify other approaches.

It is time to think beyond voluntary foster parents and to move to a system of foster parents employed by child-welfare agencies, with built-in incentives, such as healthy salary increases for seniority.

The move from a system based on volunteers to one based on employees with agency supervision would greatly improve the turnover problem.

Another measure that can be considered is subsidized adoption.

Adoptive native families are few and far between.

Again, we come face to face with poverty.

If native adoptions were subsidized on an ongoing basis, we could predict improvement in this area.

The ongoing crisis in native childwelfare calls for strong measures: adequate funding together with sound innovations.

These measures may well be money-savers in the long run.

Think again of the expensive lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key correctional approached favoured by the Conservatives.

Another positive element in this approach is the increased living standard for those employed as foster parents or subsidized as adoptive parents.

This approach will bring many of these families out of poverty.

Unfortunately, the AFN and Fontaine, instead of calling for such innovative approaches, have consistently endorsed more of the foster care merry-go-round for aboriginal children, preferring temporary placements to permanent ones whenever a white family is involved.

Permanency is the preferred option, to provide stability and nurturing in young lives.

The AFN and its leadership are back in the past, still battling the ‘60s scoop, rather than addressing the pressing needs of today, thereby endangering young lives in the process.

One of the most bizarre examples of this approach occurred in Hamilton.

Two infants were taken into care when their Squamish mother, seriously besotted by crack, was unable to care for them.

The father was white.

Few crack-abusing mothers are ever capable of resuming normal parenting responsibilities.

Both little girls were placed in foster care, and in both cases, the non-native families wanted to adopt.

Then complications arose.

The Squamish band in British Columbia, with Phil Fontaine’s support, intervened.

As an alternative to this permanent placement, the band proposed a foster placement with a single white woman known to the band.

They spent many thousands of dollars fighting in court.

Then nature threw a spanner into their plans.

The would-be foster mother decided to move away to live with her boyfriend.

Imagine what would have happened to these two girls — apparently special-needs children — had they been placed before her move. They would have been on the merry-go-round, and would probably have suffered more damage.

The kind of leadership needed in the aboriginal community is forward-looking, to programs and policies that respond to real problems here and now, not ill-conceived squandering of money to fight last century’s battles on the backs of helpless children.