Vulnerable indigenous families worried about losing their children will now have a stronger voice in court through the Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference pilot program that includes band Elders in proceedings as a source of support and guidance.
“Today’s announcement marks an important step toward our goal to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and families,” said Suzanne Anton, Attorney General and Minister of Justice. “It’s important to note that it was the Elders who brought this idea to us. We listened carefully to their ideas about keeping families together and are pleased to help bring a new approach to B.C.’s courtrooms for Aboriginal families.”
By changing the way families interact with the child protection system, the program aims to:
- Reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal children in government care.
- Reduce the number of cases that go to trial by channelling Aboriginal families through this program.
- Improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and families by giving them the opportunity to speak for themselves, in a culturally supportive environment, and receive the guidance and support of trusted Elders.
“The time to reclaim our children is here and now,” said Chief Clifford White of Gitxaala Nation and Elder of the New Westminster First Nations Criminal Court. “This initiative is an Aboriginal-led solution based on Aboriginal values, principles, and practices, with Elders leading the development of this urban Aboriginal model. We expect communities can adapt this model to use in a various child welfare process, from assessment to resolution.”
Up to 15 families will take part in the project delivered by Spirit of the Children Society in New Westminster, beginning February 2017. Participation is optional and each family will be supported by their lawyer, Elders, program staff, friends, family and their band to create a healing plan with treatment options and cultural ceremonies to support their progress.
“This project is a positive step towards reconciliation, and complements several of the recommendations made by Grand Chief Ed John in his recent report,” said Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Development. “Like my ministry, the goal of the new program is to keep families together and children connected to their sacred traditions, communities and culture. The program will help turn Grand Chief Ed John’s recommendations into action for the benefit of Aboriginal children and families in the New Westminster area.”
The program is the result of the work and insight of many partners, including Elders of the New Westminster First Nations Criminal Court and the Gitxaala Nation, the Spirit of the Children Society, youth with lived experience, the ministries of Children and Family Development, Justice and Attorney General, and Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, Métis Nation BC, Provincial Court judges and the Legal Services Society of BC.
The Province has contributed $90,000 for the first year of the program, with the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary providing court resources and judge time. Funding for future years will be based on the successful evaluation of the program.
- Aboriginal children are 12 times more likely to be in government care than non-Aboriginal children, and once in care, Aboriginal children tend to remain for a significantly longer period of time.
- The Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) is helping to reduce the number of Aboriginal children and youth coming in to government care by working with First Nations, Inuit and Métis partners to ensure that services and supports reflect an Indigenous perspective and approach, as this project does.
- In May 2016, the Children and Family Gathering brought together First Nations leaders, government, child and family-serving agencies, individuals and communities, to better understand historic and current challenges and to identify immediate and long-term opportunities to improve outcomes for all First Nations children in every community.
- In November 2016, Grand Chief Ed John produced a report recommending systemic changes in government’s approach to Aboriginal child welfare. This report is now being considered in the context of the MCFD operational plan and budget.
- In his report, Grand Chief Ed John called on MCFD to continue support of the Aboriginal Family Healing Court in New Westminster and to improve court proceedings relating to child welfare through a more collaborative approach with Indigenous communities at the beginning of a child protection file, and in advance of the court.
- He also recommended that court decisions better account for historical circumstances and intergenerational trauma, and highlighted the importance of a child’s connection to his or her natural parents, or extended family and community rather than being taken into care.
To learn what the Spirit of the Children Society is doing to help Aboriginal families in the Burnaby, New Westminster and the Tri-Cities area, see: www.sotcs.ca/
To read Grand Chief Ed John’s report on Indigenous child welfare in B.C.: http://fns.bc.ca/pdf/Final-Report-of-Grand-Chief-Ed-John-re-Indig-Child-Welfare-in-BC-November-2016.pdf