The government has introduced a bill to the legislature to reform the Child and Family Services Act, including measures aimed at supporting Indigenous youth in the child welfare system that an advocate believes will make a tangible difference.
Bill No. 11 passed unanimously by members of the legislative assembly on March 31.
Shadelle Chambers, executive director for the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), told the News during an April 5 phone interview the legislative changes are a “long-time coming” after “decades and generations” of First Nations calling for changes to the Act.
“The Act is very intrusive and has a detrimental effect on Yukon First Nations families and children, so it’s been a work in progress,” Chambers said.
“Over the last two years, there’s been a strong commitment by Yukon government and Yukon First Nations to collaboratively review the legislation and to ensure that Yukon First Nations are a partner in the amendment process.”
Chambers said she believes the changes will make a difference in the lives of children and youth involved in the child welfare system.
“We’ve seen a difference in practice over the last number of years, for Yukon First Nations are more of a decision-maker and a collaborative partner in case planning for Yukon First Nations children. We’ve seen a number of different initiatives like extended family care agreements, so children can be placed with their extended family and get the parity level of services as foster parents do. We are seeing a philosophical shift in ensuring reunification is a guiding principle,” Chambers said.
The goal, in part, is to reduce the over-representation of First Nations and Indigenous children and youth in the system.
“I think our goal is ultimately to ensure that children and families stay together, are safe, happy and healthy, and that the outcomes for the children can be improved.”
Chambers said the legislative aspect needs to be followed by policy components that build Yukon First Nations’ capacity in rural and remote communities, and work that has financial and human resources support in place and addresses underlying issues such as poverty, socioeconomic factors and intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schools.
Entrenching principles in law
“The foundation and focus of Bill No. 11 are to have children safely supported within their families, extended families and communities,” Tracy-Anne McPhee, the minister of Justice and Health and Social Services, told the House on March 31.
“These amendments will support many of the structural changes that are necessary steps forward toward long-term and significant reform of the child welfare system. These amendments will entrench in law the principles and the provisions to hold children and families up wherever possible in the face of adversity.”
As of January 2022, McPhee said, there were 81 children in the care of the director of Family and Children’s Services, and 96 per cent of those children are Indigenous.
In an interview over the phone on April 5, McPhee said the changes came as a result of recommendations from the Embracing the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow report.
The changes are based on work from the Child and Family Services Act steering committee, which includes representation from Yukon First Nations and is co-chaired by CYFN.
“It requires that plans for children are culturally supportive,” McPhee said.
“It embeds in the legislation the concept of what is in the best interest of the child. It embeds in the legislation the concept that the child’s First Nation and the parents of the child’s First Nations, if there’s more than one are involved in the process, but their perspectives and their values are used when determining what is in the best interest of the child,” she said.
“It requires, in law, that reunification of the family is the primary concern, if that’s the safe thing to do. It supports families long before children are in need of protection or in the requirements for to bring children into care by supporting families, either extended families or communities, to support those children to stay in their communities, to stay with extended family or to stay in their homes with support, if that’s possible.”
McPhee said all of that has been contemplated before “but not entrenched in the law, the same as it has been now.”
Transforming the child welfare system
In an online statement dated April 1, Child and Youth Advocate Annette King called it “transformational” amendments intended to address the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.
“We are pleased to see that overall it is a strong reflection of children’s rights,” reads the statement.
In the statement, the changes reflect the findings of the Office of the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate, particularly the views and experiences of children and youth, families and First Nations.
“Specific attention to keeping siblings together, supporting youth past the age of 24, building cultural plans and reunifying families is exactly what we heard in our review (which included the experiences of 94 children),” King is quoted in the statement.
“Of most significance is the attention to rethinking how children are placed away from parents.”
The statement quotes King saying that “applying a child rights lens is an important step toward healing from the past and providing the best possible outcome for children receiving services from government.”
“We have been advocating to the Department of Health and Social Services to ensure youth participation and a child rights lens by including a formal Child Rights Impact Assessment.”
The advocate’s office tabled a formal impact assessment March 10 in the legislature to compliment Bill 11.
The statement says the office looks forward to working with the Yukon government and First Nations “to ensure the policies and practices that emerge from this transformative legislation will uphold children’s views and rights and address the systemic harm that Indigenous families have endured.”
The next steps involve creating an implementation focus committee, which, McPhee told the legislature, the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate and the Information and Privacy commissioner are invited to participate on, alongside Yukon First Nations and CYFN.
In the interview, McPhee said the committee will meet on April 6.
— With files from Haley Ritchie
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com