Retooled children’s act adopts broad focus

Barb Hume had a personal stake in rewriting the antiquated Yukon Children’s Act. “I was raised in an institutional setting —…

Barb Hume had a personal stake in rewriting the antiquated Yukon Children’s Act.

“I was raised in an institutional setting — residential schools,” said the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations health and wellness director and a member of the  revision team tasked with overhauling the 23-year-old legislation.

“So I have a personal interest in making sure families and communities are involved in child rearing.”

And that’s exactly what the revised draft does, said Hume on Tuesday.

The 116-page bill, now called the Child and Family Services Act, includes:

• A stated intention to work with children and families and to reduce the use of courts in determining a child’s placement.

• Provisions for First Nations involvement in planning, service delivery and court proceedings.

• Support services for youth between 19 and 24 who have been living in care and are making the transition to independent living.

• Mandatory reporting of abuse and neglect. (This would make it legally imperative to report suspected child abuse in the Yukon, consistent with most other jurisdictions in Canada.)

• And provisions to encourage and facilitate the placement of a child with extended family, where possible.

The bill also emphasizes the importance of culture and community in the lives of children and families.

And it includes support for parents trying to fulfill their parenting roles, even when their children are no longer living with them.

“It means First Nations and communities have a lot of work to do,” said Hume.

“Because now, families and community members will be involved in child rearing.”

In the past, the onus was on the government to make sure children were safe, she said.

 “Quite often children were placed in foster homes or group homes. Now, the new act will allow First Nations to be involved in making decisions as to where and when children will come into care and where they will be placed.

“The onus is on communities to help with child rearing.”

During her four years working on the revisions, Hume and Council of Yukon First Nations health and social director Lori Duncan travelled to Yukon communities.

“We did major consultation,” said Duncan.

Prevention was one of the main issues that came out of that, said Hume.

“We need to be able to look at some preventive measures to help keep kids with families.

“The new act should not just be child focused, it should also look at working with families more, to have them assume their rightful place in rearing their own children.”

There are some very positive things in the new bill, said NDP MLA John Edzerza, citing First Nations’ involvement with children coming into care.

Edzerza was also pleased that support would now be extended to youth 19 to 24.

“Before children in care were cut loose at 18,” he said.

But the new bill also has some problems, said Edzerza, citing the need for a child advocate.

“They need to add a section in the legislation allowing for a child advocate position independent of government,” he said.

The advocate would “ be a voice for young people.”

Lots of children and youth in care are not very talkative in public, said Edzerza.

“But they would sit very comfortably with the child advocate and let their concerns be known.

“And at 15, they should have the right to talk to an advocate and say they don’t want to be in care anymore, and then their rep could go back to court and present their case.”

An advocate could also help youth with placement issues.

“If a kid didn’t want to go live with his uncle, for example, he should be able to say, ‘I don’t want to be placed there, I’d sooner go live with my grandparents.’”

Edzerza also fears the new bill is too vague.

“They need to define a lot of the terms, like custom adoption, family, extended family, spouse, youth and custody,” he said.

“These all need to be defined very clearly otherwise you’ll have the department putting in definitions they feel are appropriate.”

But Duncan disagrees.

“We didn’t want to define those terms,” she said.

“They’re not defined so they don’t limit things like what extended family means.”

Duncan agrees with Edzerza that a child advocate would be a good addition to the draft bill.

But she wants to wait to hear what stakeholders have to say about the draft.

“They’ve already said lots,” she said.

“And most of what they’ve said is in there.”

Duncan is now off on a whirlwind tour of the communities, draft in hand.

“We have to be finished consultations by the end of January because they want to introduce this bill during the spring sitting,” she said.

“It’s a bit rushed.”

Duncan has been part of the revision process from the get go, in 2003.

“It was a bumpy road,” she said.

Members of the team quit, citing lack of First Nations’ consultation.

And in 2005, Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill briefly pulled out of the process.

Kwanlin Dun First Nation has not been involved with the revisions at all.

“First Nations wanted to go down the road of co-governance,” said Duncan.

“And that stalled things a bit.”

The trouble is, it’s government legislation, she said.

“So they can’t do co-governance because they are totally liable.

“It’s their act and their law.

“And it’s going to be the law for everybody in the Yukon unless some First Nations choose to draw down their own child welfare — which I think is a great idea.”

Self-governing First Nations have the right to draw down certain programs and services, said Hume.

“And child and family services could be one of them.”

It will be a long time coming, said Edzerza.

The revised children’s act will be in place for many, many years to come, he said.

“I have a fairly good understanding of the magnitude of what is involved in taking over child welfare issues,” he said, citing legal responsibilities, infrastructure costs and the need to open group homes and establish foster parent programs.

“I could say 100 per cent of First Nations do not really have the capacity to do that at this time.”

However, Carcross/Tagish First Nations are well on their way.

For the last five years, the First Nations have been developing their own family law system.

“What got a lot of First Nations citizens into problems were the laws Canada passed — in terms of residential schools, (First Nations) people not being able to own businesses, go to public school, and laws that said we couldn’t practise our culture,” said Carcross/Tagish Chief Mark Wedge on Tuesday.

“It was these that actually started this whole process of debilitation.

“So we wanted to start a process of laws that can bring the healing back to our citizens and governments.”

While developing their family law, Carcross/Tagish looked at 350 traditional stories related to family. From these, the First Nations pulled out the virtues and values that made the family strong.

They used these principles to help draft their law and develop their family act.

Carcross/Tagish have the authority to pass this law, which would supercede federal and territorial law.

But the First Nations don’t want to rush it.

“We need to dry run this,” said Wedge.

The Carcross/Tagish family council has been up and running for about one year.

Although it’s not yet law, the First Nations are case planning with certain families, “to work out the bugs.”

The long-term goal is not to develop more family and children’s services, but require less, said Wedge.

“Ideally, as we start healing, there is less and less requirement for these services,” he said.

“We should be reversing the trend so there’s less court services, less child-protection services, as we start our healing process.”

 But for now, Carcross/Tagish “plans to work with existing government — we need to learn how to dance together.

“But ultimately, we, as a community, have to take these responsibilities on — that’s what a nation does, it watches over itself.”