A cultural shift is required to reform the child protection system that causes significant harm to the families it is meant to protect, said members of a GNWT committee on Wednesday.

Members of the standing committee on social development held the briefing that at times became emotional as part of a review of Child and Family Services (CFS).

The committee heard from Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society (YWS), who in the past worked as a lawyer with legal aid and with families who interacted with child protection services.

System ‘bullies families’

She described a system that “bullies children and families who have already been traumatized by colonialism and residential schools.”

“I saw families, parents (and) children who were struggling with homelessness, poverty, the intergenerational trauma caused by colonialism and residential schools, and facing a system that was incapable of offering them what they need to succeed and what they need to keep their children in their family,” she said.

Rao told the committee about her first case as a lawyer in the NWT, when she worked with a couple and their two young children, one of whom was a newborn. The father was kicked out of the income assistance program because he didn’t meet its “productive choice” requirements.

The family fell behind on rent payments and were eventually evicted from their accommodations.

To make matters worse, while the mother was in labour with her new baby, she disclosed that she had used drugs during her pregnancy, an admission that put her under the surveillance of the child protection system.

“The parents were terrified that they were going to lose both of their children. And that case ended with the parents being evicted, and then desperately requiring support to relocate to Norman Wells, where they could be with family,” Rao recalled.

Indigenous peoples should be providing their own child protection services and Indigenous-led addictions treatment programs in the NWT, said Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler. GNWT image

While she acknowledged that in five to 10 per cent of cases there are parents who aren’t capable of caring for their children, in the remaining cases it’s factors like overcrowded housing, addictions and parents who have nowhere to take their kids that draw the attention of protection services.

Root causes must be acknowledged

A cultural shift is needed so that the system stops failing families, according to Rao. She said two issues need to be recognized: separating children from parents inflicts huge trauma, and the root causes of families’ interactions with protection services must be acknowledged. Those root causes include poverty, racism and the legacies of colonialism and residential schools.

The causes combine so that “essentially 100 per cent of the families who interact with the child protection system are Indigenous,” Rao said.

The 2019-2020 Annual Report of the Director of Child and Family Services found that Indigenous youth comprise 98 per cent of children receiving protection services, even though only 54 per cent of youth in the NWT are Indigenous.

However, the report also found that the proportion of children receiving protective services in their family home or community has risen dramatically over the last decade, helping them maintain cultural and familial connections.

NWT treatment centres needed

Among some changes needed for support systems are more counselling and treatment services in the NWT so that people don’t have to leave the territory to seek treatment, Rao recommended.

That issue has been championed by Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty and other MLAs, who have repeatedly made calls in the legislative assembly for NWT-based treatment centres.

Rao told the committee about a past client from Whati, who didn’t want to leave his community to attend a residential treatment program in Alberta. He had to sign a plan of care agreement that put his children into foster care, separating him from his kids.

She also said that revisiting the Child and Family Services Act to improve standards of procedural fairness could give the NWT an opportunity to be a leader in piloting programs that help families.

Support for new mothers

Another area where the NWT could improve is investing in support for cases where a young mother discloses that she used drugs during pregnancy.

“I think that there are a lot of great midwives, doulas and others doing birth work (support) in the territory, and we can really reimagine a system where young families with newborns are met with love and compassion and care – and not with a system that they’re afraid is going to take their baby away. We need to give families and community members options for support, other than reporting to CFS (Child and Family Services).”

Indigenous control over child protection

One encouraging sign is the federal government giving Indigenous governments jurisdiction over their own child protection services, such as the $542 million allocated to support the implementation of the Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families.

But Rao said people should be wary of the government passing the “hot potato” of a broken, colonial system onto Indigenous peoples. More money is needed, she said, for housing solutions and support for children and families.

Responding to Rao’s presentation, Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said CFS doesn’t want to hear that it operates a racist system or that it “inflicts its opinion on another culture.”

Semmler added that the best thing that can be done for now is Indigenous peoples providing their own child protection services and Indigenous-led addictions treatment programs in the NWT.

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said Rao’s presentation resonated emotionally with him because he believes that if he hadn’t been adopted and raised by his great-grandparents that he would probably be in jail today.

He then asked Rao what legislative changes she thinks could be made to the Child and Family Services Act.

Guaranteed supports for children

She responded that the most important thing in the short-term would be guaranteeing that every child has access to culturally appropriate counselling and housing and that every child and their family not be cut off from income assistance.

With regards to legislation, she said the standard of proof in the child protection system could be raised to bring it under greater judicial scrutiny.

“(That way), before we made a decision to remove children from their parents, or before kids are placed in foster care, there was a pretty high guarantee that we’ve done everything that we could have done,” she said.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson asked what kind of creative solutions might be brought forward to remedy the situation.

Judicial mediation a possible solution

Rao recalled a case where her client had several children taken away and was on the verge of having another child removed when she entered a judicial mediation session with the chief justice of the territorial court.

The judge spent a day listening to Rao’s client speak about past traumas of having her children taken away. Eventually, the two sides found a middle ground and the child wasn’t taken away from the family.

“It was good for everyone to have a chance to hear from the parents in a really fulsome way – and in a room that wasn’t a courtroom, which can be intimidating,” she said. “It would be great if we invested some research into judicial mediation case management of child protection cases with judges who understand and know a lot about families and family law.”

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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