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Open letter to Premier Eby and Minister Dean regarding the abuse of two Indigenous children in care, leading to the death of one of the children

Dear Premier Eby and Minister Dean

We hold our hearts in sorrow after learning the horrific details of abuse against two young children in foster care, leading to the death of one of the children. We extend our deepest condolences to the family, community, and all those who are affected by this loss. As Indigenous Child & Family Services (ICFS) Directors, we are deeply impacted on many levels by this tragic event.

Many of us have worked within the child welfare system for decades. We have seen how the system fails our children, youth and their families and we have seen the tragic consequences of those failures. We have dedicated ourselves to reforming this broken system, but the death of this child makes it clear that there is more work to be done.

As Indigenous people, we have worked very hard to redress monumental wrongs against our children. Wrongs that have caused deep trauma and harm that will reverberate for generations to come. Our traditional ways of kinship and family strengths provide a pathway forward.  Culture is healing and creates a healthy community, where children feel a sense of belonging and identity. We want our children to feel embraced by safety, love, and culture. This is how we nurture healthier families and keep our children safe.

For decades we have made specific recommendations for reforms to the child welfare system, and our Indigenous leaders have advanced those recommendations in their negotiations with government. But we have not seen the changes that are needed. The death of this child in care must move us all to immediate action.

There are immediate measures we can implement to bring safety, love and culture to our children. We urge British Columbia to work with us and with our Indigenous leaders to make the following immediate changes.

1. Establish Indigenous Oversight of Investigations

The Representative for Children and Youth (RCY) has committed to a full and prompt investigation of the death of this 11-year-old and the abuse of his sister. Additional investigations, such as a coroner’s inquest, are likely. We fully support a thorough investigation of this case: we need to understand how the system and the people working within it failed to protect these children. More importantly, we need strong recommendations to spur meaningful change.

The child who was killed was Indigenous, as is his sister and their family and community. Any investigation of their lives must be Indigenous led or co-led to ensure that Indigenous perspectives, values and ways of knowing are respected.

We call for the creation of an advisory committee to guide the RCY’s investigation—and any other investigation—into the abuse and murder of our Indigenous children. The advisory committee must: include strong Indigenous voices; provide input into the scope and parameters of the investigation; uphold and advance the intentions of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act; and ensure that the work honours the sacred lives of the boy who was killed and of his sister who has endured grievous abuse.

2. Support all Indigenous Children and Families through Relational Practice

There is no need to wait for the results of a full investigation before taking action to make our children safe. We already know that building and nurturing relationships with children and families is critical for keeping children safe.

As Indigenous agencies, our work is rooted in relational practice: relationships are and must be the foundation for everything we do. Our responsibility is to our children, youth, families and communities and we recognize the great efforts needed to build trusting and respectful relationships, due to the damage this system has caused. We are also responsible for transparency and accountability in those relationships and for ensuring the sacredness of our children is always protected. This is how we keep our children safe.

Social workers need time for this relational work. That is why the Aboriginal Operational and Practice Standards and Indicators (AOPSI, which guide the work of ICFS agencies) specify a maximum caseload of 20 children per social worker and a minimum of one social worker visit every 30 days for every child in foster care. These are the minimum standards for relationship-based practice: in many cases, the work requires more frequent visits and lower caseloads.

Currently, the AOPSI standards are more stringent than MCFD’s, which specify that children in care should be visited every 90 days and do not provide any caseload caps. The AOPSI guidelines should apply to all children in care, whether they are served by an ICFS agency or by MCFD—as recommended by the Auditor General in 2008. To be clear, we are not suggesting that social workers need only tick a box every 30 days: we are arguing for relationship-based practice, which is incompatible with large caseloads and infrequent visits to children in care.

3. Immediately Create the Position of Indigenous Child Welfare Director

The Child, Family and Community Services Act (CFCSA) identifies the position of Director of Child Welfare. Since 2001, the Indigenous Child & Family Services Directors have been calling for the designation of an Indigenous Child Welfare Director (Indigenous Director). The recent amendments to the CFCSA allow for this designation.

The intention for the Indigenous Director is two-fold: (1) to breathe life into the inherent jurisdiction and responsibility of Indigenous Nations to make decisions with respect to their families and children; and (2) to ensure that all Indigenous children and families in BC receive substantively equal services that are culturally safe and distinctions based.

To realize those intentions, the Indigenous Director must have responsibility for all Indigenous children served under the CFCSA, as well as a robust mandate and the autonomy to make meaningful changes. To ensure those changes are aligned with the needs of Indigenous communities, the Indigenous Director must be accountable to Indigenous leadership.

The legislative framework for an Indigenous Director of Child Welfare is in place. The remaining steps must be completed urgently so that the first Indigenous Director can begin the work as soon as possible.

4. Support for Nations Resuming Jurisdiction

Our Nations are working hard to resume full decision-making authority for our children and families, but our children will not thrive until their families and communities are healthy. We have to acknowledge that our communities are still healing from generations of violent colonialism. Nations that exercise their jurisdiction and affirm their rightful place in the lives of their children and families need support, resources and tools to keep their children safe.

Our Nations are pursuing jurisdiction to save their children and families from the harms caused by a colonial child welfare system. The path to jurisdiction is new, complex, and full of unforeseen challenges, but there is no room for error: we cannot allow any further harms to our children.

We are not arguing for the status quo: the current system fails too many children. We are arguing for an informed approach guided by the collective wisdom of our elders, our leaders, our knowledge keepers, and our service delivery experts. We must work collaboratively to develop tools, such as Indigenous practice standards, to support communities, uplift their work and to keep all our children safe.

5. Establish Substantive Equality for all Indigenous Children in British Columbia

There are currently four different levels of funding for Indigenous children and families in BC. When our Indigenous Child & Family Services (ICFS) agencies provide services to children and families living on-reserve, those services are federally-funded. As a result of several Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) rulings secured by the First Nations Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations, Canada is required to provide needs-based funding, which means we can wrap services around vulnerable children and families, support their needs, and keep children safe.

In contrast, when our ICFS agencies provide services off-reserve, those services are provincially-funded. The province is not bound by CHRT rulings, so the funding is formula-based—rather than needs-based—and we are limited in the services we can offer to children and families living off-reserve.

For Nations that are not affiliated with an ICFS agency, MCFD provides services and Canada reimburses BC for the associated costs. As a result of the CHRT rulings, MCFD can provide needs-based, wrap around services to the on-reserve families they serve and bill the full cost of those services to Canada. In our view, MCFD is not doing so.

For Urban Indigenous children and families who are not served by an ICFS agency, MCFD provides provincially-funded services. In our view, that funding and those services are not needs-based.

As a result of inequitable funding models, services for our children and families are not substantively equal across this province. This is well-documented in the RCY’s recent report, At a Crossroads, and we have repeatedly urged BC to address these inequities.

BC can take immediate steps toward substantive equality by committing to abide by the rulings of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. With the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, the BC government has already committed to upholding the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The CHRT rulings articulate very clearly what that looks like in the context of Indigenous child & family services.

The death of a child in care must move us all to action. A robust investigation of this catastrophic failure within the child welfare system is needed. However, immediate action is also needed to: support all Indigenous children and families through relational practice; create the position of Indigenous Child Welfare Director; support Nations resuming jurisdiction; and to establish substantive equality for all Indigenous children in BC.

In 2002, First Nations and Métis leadership signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Province of British Columbia to establish a joint dialogue and decision-making process to address issues relating to the safety and well-being of Indigenous children and families. Now, more than 20 years later, it is time to move from dialogue to action. The time for change is now. Our children’s lives depend on it.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Teegee – Maaxswxw Gibuu

Chair, Indigenous Child & Family Services Directors Our Children Our Way Society