Officials with the Council of Yukon First Nations say they hope a promised review of the Yukon’s Child and Family Services Act will look at prevention and reducing the number of children in government care.
Yukon’s Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost has promised a review of the act, which in part lays out how the government can take children away from their parents and into government care, will start in the next three months.
Frost made the announcement after attending a two-day meeting hosted by Federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott on Indigenous child welfare.
Philpott has called the system a “humanitarian crisis” that is reliving the residential schools legacy under the guise of child protection.
Frost promised to start the Yukon’s review within the next three months but didn’t say when any changes might actually be tabled. In terms of specifically what changes could be considered, Frost said it’s too soon to say.
She said she wants to look at best practices and “accelerate” the work the government is already doing.
“We want to look to the future. We want to look at adequate resources. We want to focus on wellness,” she said.
“We want to focus on re-thinking our legislation and being more supportive by implementing legislative changes if necessary.”
Frost said that as of Jan. 30, there are 116 children in care. Of those, 90 are First Nations. That’s about 77 per cent. According to the most recent Statistics Canada data from 2011, 23 per cent of Yukoners identify as Indigenous.
Frost acknowledged that number is “huge.” She said there are currently 33 fewer First Nations children in care than last year.
“We’re working really hard to continue to bring that number down and how do we do that? We work in our communities, we work in kinship models, we work on prevention and not on intervention or apprehension,” she said.
Grand Chief Peter Johnston called the system “an industry.”
“We continue to be an industry and … we want to strengthen the families, strengthen the communities more than the institutions that they’re currently dealing with.”
CYFN’s executive director Shadelle Chambers, who also attended the meeting in Ottawa, said CYFN wants to ensure that the act addresses prevention programming and regulations.
CYFN is hiring its own legal team and technical advisors to review the act in detail, consult with First Nations communities and then provide suggestions to the Yukon government, she said.
“We are having discussions about, what does prevention look like in the Yukon? We know it can’t just be centred here (in Whitehorse) and it can’t just be provided by the Department of Health and Social Services,” she said.
Chambers said it can be difficult for families to ask for help with issues like domestic abuse or poverty when that help is coming from the same department that’s responsible for possibly taking their kids away.
“That’s a fundamental flaw. Do we need to create a service agency prevention program? Maybe, and that’s something that we’re exploring.”
Johnston said Yukon communities “are suffering from a lack of housing or just supports for families in general.”
“The underlying issue is poverty,” Chambers said.
She said she thinks there is political will to make changes. She pointed to the “great momentum” from a recent decision by the Yukon government to help caregivers looking after members of their extended family.
Last November the Yukon government increased the amount of money given through extended family care agreements to match the money that foster parents receive.
Those agreements allow children who require out-of-home care to remain with members of their extended family, rather than being placed in foster or residential care.
Philpott has promised money for reforms would be in the next federal budget, but she did not say how much Ottawa would spend or how that money would be accessed.
Some First Nations have signed individual agreements with the Yukon government laying out how they are to be involved when a family is being investigated.
“I do believe that if Yukon First Nations could get their concerns addressed through the act and through the implementation of the policy, why would we need individual (agreements?)” Chambers said.
In a statement, the Yukon’s Child and Youth Advocate Annette King said her office is concerned about the high rates of Indigenous children in Yukon in need of protection and living in placements away from their families and communities.
In 2016-17, 78 per cent of the advocacy issues addressed by the office were for First Nations’ children and youth.
“The upcoming review of the Child and Family Services Act provides an opportunity to review the effectiveness of the interventions at all stages of the child welfare system, from prevention to permanency,” King said in the statement.
“It is important to put an emphasis on the strengths of community, culture and family for building and restoring community connections with children. Historically this was overlooked and discouraged.”
Frost said there’s always been a desire by the government’s “partners” to look at prevention rather than apprehending kids.
“This act will allow us to look at developing strategies that work for all of our communities whether we’re in rural Yukon or in an urban centre.”
With files from the Canadian Press
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org