Hopeful — that’s one of the words that echoed through the longhouse at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on June 4 and 5.
That’s where the Council of Yukon First Nations held Family Strengthening: a child welfare gathering.
Over the course of two days, roughly 130 child welfare professionals came together to share stories of their personal and professional experiences.
Social workers from across Canada spoke about programs and models they’ve developed to care for children and families, and Yukoners told listeners what it was like for them to go through the processes of becoming foster parents, adoptive parents and social workers.
As well, there were presentations by members of the recently appointed advisory committee on the Child and Family Services Act.
The committee was struck following recent allegations of violence and mistreatment of youth in care.
“This is continuing the discussion in regards to what are best practices for child welfare and what we can do here in the Yukon to make First Nations stronger,” Shadelle Chambers, executive director with CYFN, told the News.
“We want to have an honest conversation around barriers and challenges.”
And while challenges were part of the two-day discussion, many speakers at the conference remarked on how the event differed from other conferences in that its focus was on what is working in the field rather than what isn’t.
One of the most successful approaches, according to speakers, has been putting First Nations families at the centre of the process rather than outside it.
That’s what Shirley Adamson told the audience at the beginning of the first day.
“We need to put that authority back into the hands of the First Nations governments,” said the Tagish Kwan elder.
“Many of us have spent decades bringing that back into play and it’s time now for the other governments to help us implement that, not because of anything else, but to do what every parent wants to do, which is be responsible in a good way for their children.”
Her advice was supported by presentations from organizations across Canada, including the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Child and Family Services Society of Cranbrook, B.C., which works with families in the Ktunaxa territory.
Julie Birdstone, a coordinator with Kinbasket, told the audience how Kinbasket adopted and adapted Signs of Safety framework for risk assessment.
It’s a model, she said, that is respectful of families, inclusive and transparent, and puts the child and their family at the centre of the process. The social workers, she said, are outside the circle only to support the family and help them come up with solutions.
At every stage of the process, social workers come back to the same guiding principles, which are embedded with an understanding that social workers cannot think critically when they assume they’re the experts, and an understanding of the history of relationships between social workers and First Nations families.
Birdstone told the audience that she became a single parent herself at the age of 19. Her personal experience with social workers at the time was negative.
“One of the things I always believed was that we could practice in a different way,” she said.
Hearing about different ways is one of the reasons Kathleen Johnson, a case manager for Kluane First Nation, said she attended the gathering.
“I’m just hoping to meet people with new ideas I can bring back to my own work,” she said on day two. “Ideas of what you could do in your own program, in your community, what works for people, what hasn’t worked.”
She said the gathering presented a lot of information to take in over two days, but she was especially struck by the story of K’wak’walat’si Child and Family Services in Alert Bay, B.C.
“I really enjoyed their talk,” she said of the organization, which spoke of eliminating the need to apprehend kids from their homes, and instead looked at enabling relatives to raise relatives.
During her presentation, Wendy White, executive director of K’wak’walat’si, said the organization hasn’t had to apprehend a child in 11 years. She credited this statistic to an approach that emphasizes relationships above all else — relationships and a traditional First Nations approach that seeks to keep children with family and community rather than removing them.
“We do have to look at the family as a whole, which we do,” said White. “It’s not an individual client coming through.”
“You have to get to know your clients, not the paperwork.”
Johnson also said she was looking forward to hearing the advisory committee speak about its work.
Chambers said it was equally important for those committee members to hear from other presenters at the gathering too though.
“It’s really timely for them to hear about what is possible,” she said, acknowledging recent allegations of abuse in group homes.
“There’s a big difference, from a while ago to now,” said Johnson at the end of the conference. “We’ve come a ways. It’s not been huge changes, but there’s little changes and that’s really important.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org