Children shortchanged: CYFN

The territory is withholding money intended for First Nations to take care of their own children, says the Council of Yukon First Nations.

The territory is withholding money intended for First Nations to take care of their own children, says the Council of Yukon First Nations.

“The director of social services in Whitehorse has all the authority,” said Grand Chief Ruth Massie. “There you are, as a First Nation government, standing on the sidelines with your hands tied. Meanwhile, your citizens are looking at you saying ‘We need your help.’”

Annually, the territory gets money for aboriginal care from Ottawa.

Massie knows this because whenever she and other Yukon aboriginal leaders have gone to Ottawa, they are told the money’s already in the Yukon.

“YG doesn’t want to let go of the purse strings,” said Massie. “As a self-governing First Nation, how do you represent and look after your own citizens if another government restrains you through financial resources?”

Yukon First Nations are not looking to take over the system. They are more realistic than that, Massie said, pointing out that child welfare spans across many different areas, including health and justice.

But what they do want is a say in the matter.

Most specifically, they are asking for funds to employ a “child family liaison support worker” in each community.

Basically, it’s an in-between for government, the First Nation, the child, the family and the foster family, if there is one – someone who is mindful of the community’s family values, and the government’s legislation.

Under the new Child and Family Services Act, which was passed in the Yukon Legislature in April 2008 and came into force April 2010, the territory has all the control, said Massie.

“So even if you, as a First Nation, recommend extended family or whatever for the children, if they don’t want to do that, too bad,” she said. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

In addition to communicating between the First Nation and the department, the liaison would develop and run support systems within the community.

Right now, these tasks are being shoveled on to employees that already have a full-time job, said Massie.

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” said Massie. “These people in the First Nations, they already have a full workload, they’re trying to deal with this off the side of their desks. Where’s the fairness in that?

“And who suffers for it in the end? The children do.”

The position is a demanding one, spanning from the community to the police, to health officials, to the courtroom, and it constitutes a lot of on-call hours, said Massie.

“That’s a big job,” said Andy Nieman, Yukon’s child and youth advocate. But it doesn’t fall under his duties, said Nieman.

“It would be beneficial to incorporate it. But the onus shouldn’t be on the First Nations because ultimately, when we’re talking about children and youth in care, the government is responsible for them.”

This is true even for children of the Carcross/Tagish First Nations.

The Tlingit community’s aboriginal government is the furthest, among all self-governing Yukon First Nations, to developing their own Child and Family Services Act.

But while it is the closest, it doesn’t have its own act yet.

Currently there are more First Nation children in the welfare system across Canada then there were in residential schools during the height of that system’s existence, according to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. It, along with the Assembly of First Nations, has taken the federal government to the Humans Rights Commission over this exact issue: underfunding services for aboriginal children.

According to a request put into the Department of Health and Social Services from Nieman’s office, the estimate is approximately 70 per cent.

“Having to compile all that information would take some time, is what they said,” said Nieman. “We still haven’t received exact numbers yet.”

Yukon’s two urban First Nations, including the Kwanlin Dun First Nation that barred government social workers from entering their land in October 2010, have been allocated money for the liaison position, said Massie.

But they are the only two.

Massie estimates the position, with expenses, will total approximately $85,000 annually.

The Council of Yukon First Nations has tried to arrange a meeting with the Department of Health and Social Services for more than 18 months, said Massie. The council has sent Minister Glenn Hart three letters, all of which received a reply of, “Thank you for your request, we’re looking into it,” said Massie.

“How long does it take?” she asked. “Foster care is big business up here and I think they’ve lost the total focus of family and the help and the services that should be provided.”

Child welfare needs to be a joint effort from all involved and the First Nations need authority over their own families, she said.

“First Nations need adequate resources to be able to share the responsibilities of their citizens,” said Grand Chief Ruth Massie. “And I don’t think that’s asking too much because YG is afforded those dollars already, on our behalf. The money’s already here.”

No one from the Department of Health and Social Services, nor Hart, responded to requests for comment before press time.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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