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January 3, 2010

Child welfare for natives

Reuel S. Amdur

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How can we solve the problem of large numbers of native children in state care?

Reuel S. AmdurHow can we solve the problem of large numbers of native children in state care? 

Let non-natives adopt them, is one view. While non-native adoptions should not be totally barred, there are other approaches to provide stable native homes.

Certainly, there should be no repetition of the farce that played itself out in Hamilton in the case of two half-Squamish infants whom the CAS which was involved attempted to send to a foster home in B.C., even though they were born in Hamilton and though their white foster parents wanted to adopt them. 

The foster parents did finally adopt when the Squamish plan of placing them in foster care with a single white woman collapsed, when she moved away to live with a man. 

Let’s begin with children’s aid societies. 

According to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, child protection services for native children receive 22 per cent less funding than for non-native children. 

That statistic is unconscionable, considering the poverty and general social disadvantage that is so rampant in native communities, not to mention the continuing effects of the residential school experience. 

The main problem is how to increase the supply of native foster parents and adoptive parents to meet the need. 

The foster parenting problem, however, is not just one of having an adequate number of homes.  It is also a question of stability, to avoid a constant shifting of children from home to home. 

Currently, the Canadian child welfare approach to fostering is to locate volunteers to serve as foster parents.  They are paid an amount that is supposed to cover expenses. 

Volunteers are in short supply because of financial pressures making it necessary in many if not most families for both parents to be in the workforce.  This situation is doubly the case for native parents, who are likely to have low incomes. 

So what can be done?

Instead of relying on volunteer foster parents, native foster parents could be hired by children’s aid societies, at decent wages.  The societies should treat them as full-fledged agency employees, with fringe benefits including pensions and union membership. 

Adequate supervision and in-service training are the norm in child welfare agencies, and foster parents need to be a full part of that kind of program.  The advantage of this kind of a program is that it would make constant shifting from foster home to foster home less frequent.

Another advantage is that it would provide a stable source of income in impoverished native communities. 

While social dysfunctioning is a not-uncommon problem in native communities, this potential employment opportunity would be an incentive for improved functioning. 

The program might offer advancement opportunities, for example in training other foster parents.  There is a shortage of aboriginal social workers and social service workers, and scholarship opportunities for full or part-time preparation in these fields might be made available to natives in general and foster parents in particular. 

Then there is the matter of adoption.  Adoption is preferable to long-term foster care, even the kind suggested here.  It is simply more secure. 

However, expense can be a problem, with native families frequently living in poverty or near poverty. 

Ordinarily, adoption involves a total transfer of financial responsibility for the child to the adoptive parents.  Yet, since stability is so important, why not take another look at that way of doing things? 

Part of the answer to the problem may be to provide ongoing financial support to native adoptive families, perhaps even at an incentive rate.  Again, benefits would flow to the wider community as well: positive role models, opportunities to move beyond poverty, and so on.

Child welfare for natives is not the only underfunding for natives. 

Funding for education is also lower.  The conditions of Canada’s native population make it essential to provide not equal funding but greater funding to make it possible for native children and native communities to contribute more fully to society.

The current situation in which a native child is several times as likely to end up in care and in which school completion is significantly lower for natives needs to change. 

Four per cent of Canadian adults are aboriginal, but 24 per cent of those in provincial or territorial custody are native, as are 18 per cent of federal prisoners. Pay now or pay later. 

We need our native fellow citizens. 

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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