System must help aboriginal youth: report

Experts say Alberta’s child welfare system is out of touch with the growing number of troubled aboriginal young people in its care and the government should make improvements before the situation gets worse.

EDMONTON — Experts say Alberta’s child welfare system is out of touch with the growing number of troubled aboriginal young people in its care and the government should make improvements before the situation gets worse.

Stark numbers highlight the challenges the government is facing as it grapples with the fallout from problems including widespread poverty, lack of education and conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome. About 64 per cent of child intervention cases in Alberta involve aboriginals under 18, even though they make up only nine per cent of young people in the province. Without decisive action, that percentage of interventions will rise to 75 per cent in a few years, the experts warn.

“Alberta is struggling to adapt to the unique needs of aboriginal populations when it comes to child intervention services,” says the report written for the government by a panel of experts including Peter Dudding, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, and Nico Trocme, a social work professor at McGill University.

The authors quoted an aboriginal leader they spoke with as part of the panel’s year-long review of Alberta’s system: “The biggest change that I would like to see is for the ministry to understand that they do not understand.”

The experts made 14 recommendations, including setting up a special team of culturally sensitive social workers to provide child protection and other services to aboriginal children and families who live off reserve. There is a call for the province’s Child Advocate to spend more time independently advocating for children than providing advice to government. There are also recommendations to make the child welfare system more accountable and to set up advisory councils to provide feedback to the government from communities.

Alberta Children Services Minister Yvonne Fritz rejected those recommendations Friday, but said the province accepts another 10 that would strengthen the system over time.

They include appointing an aboriginal leader to a position at the assistant deputy minister level to bring an aboriginal perspective to policy decisions and making it easier for aboriginal people to deal with problems in their communities.

Fritz said the government will also set up a “quality council” to give it advice about child interventions.

“As we move forward, changes will be made using a thoughtful, planned and measured approach,” Fritz said.

“We will continue to engage our stakeholders and aboriginal community to ensure we are taking the right steps, at the right time, to better provide outcomes for our vulnerable children.”

Alberta New Democrat Rachel Notley said the report is a disappointment and accused the government of dancing around issues that can’t be ignored.

Notley said in the past two years eight children in care have died of violence or neglect and another 20 have suffered serious injuries.

“This report does nothing in my mind to address that,” Notley said, noting the government won’t make clear commitments, set timelines for action or make the people who run the system more accountable to the legislature.

“A good deal of the points made in the report are points made in previous reports and won’t have any meaningful impact on the lives of children in care in Alberta today.”

Former children services minister Janice Tarchuk commissioned the report in the summer of 2009 following the deaths of a number of foster children and after children in care were charged with four homicides. There were also concerns about a growing number of homeless youths.

Fritz replaced Tarchuk in a cabinet shuffle last January.