Register Thursday | October 21 | 2021

"Step up to the plate": Cindy Blackstock on foster care and funding

In Canada, Indigenous children are more than six times more likely than their non-Indigenous peers to be removed from their families by child welfare agencies. 

Changes are coming in an effort to drive down these disproportionate numbers. In November, the federal government announced that it would put First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments in charge of child welfare services for Indigenous children. 

Maisonneuve spoke with Cindy Blackstock, a professor of social work at McGill University and the executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada about the proposed changesand why she’s not celebrating yet.

Jane Gatensby: Could you tell me what led you to become an advocate on this subject?

Cindy Blackstock: I worked in group homes when I was in university, as a part-time job, and I started to see the overrepresentation of First Nations children in child welfare care. As I became a social worker, I started to understand that many of the reasons that were driving them there were related to inequalities in federal funding. Not just in child welfare, but in basics like water, housing, education, early childhood programs, and so on.

JG: What was your reaction when the federal government announced it would be handing over control of child welfare services to Indigenous governments in November?

CB: A mixed reaction. My hope was that they would also step up to the plate on their responsibilities to fund the drivers of the overrepresentation—namely things like housing, addiction services, mental health services, and child welfare services—to a proper level.

JG: How could a lack of funding threaten the success of the handover? 

CB: It could cripple it. We have good knowledge of the reasons why First Nations children are going into child welfare care, which are poverty, poor housing, and caregiver substance misuse related to trauma. If we targeted the funding to those issues, we could really make some good progress. But if there isn't adequate funding for these things, even the best-designed child welfare program is not going to achieve the results that we'd all want to see.

JG: You recently said, “If you don’t have water or a house, parenting programs aren’t going to do you a lot of good.” To what extent are child welfare agencies removing children from parents who are simply poor, or poorly served in terms of utilities and housing, but not abusive or neglectful?

CB: Child welfare agencies are already governed by legislation that says that they have to exhaust every other possible measure before thinking about removal. The problem has been that the funding models that govern agencies leave social workers in a position where there is no other “least disruptive measure.” 

The child is still at risk, so you remove the child to remediate that risk. If social workers had a broader range of options, they would be using those options. That’s what the law requires that they do. Then, removal would become a last resort.

JG: Has the funding situation improved at all under the current federal government?

CB: It improved on Jordan's principle [the principle that the government department of first contact must pay for the service an Indigenous child requires, to avoid jurisdictional disputes] as of the order made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in June of 2017. 

Since that time, Canada has been applying the proper definition of Jordan's principle. That's resulted in well over 100,000 instances of services getting out to kids that otherwise would not have been provided. But we’re not at full equity yet. Under oath, [Canada] has testified that it has no comprehensive plan to eradicate the inequalities, even though they know they exist.

There’s no excuse for any government at any level using racial discrimination in the provision of public services to children as a fiscal restraint measure. We don't want to raise another generation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who have to recover from their childhoods when we could prevent that.

JG: What sort of reaction to this announcement have you seen among Indigenous families?

CB: I think that people are waiting to see what it means for them in reality. I’ve seen many good announcements being made over the years that haven’t translated into the difference that families need to see. I’m hoping that this one is different, and I'm glad to see at least the recognition of the importance of affirming First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples’ rights to care for their children. Now, it’s the next step about how to make that real. 

JG: The handover of child services to Indigenous governments will be a major undertaking with its own set of challenges. If the imperative is to keep families together, are you sure that children in truly dangerous homes won’t slip through the cracks?

CB: I've been doing this now for forty years. I’ve not heard First Nations saying, “we want our kids to be unsafe and at home.” That’s why my focus has not been on reducing children in care, it’s been on improving the health of families. When you focus on creating healthy families and communities, then the number of children in care will go down as a result of that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.