The seizure of children from Cowichan Tribe and other indigenous families must end, according to a recently released report prepared by band members Madeline Joe and Jennifer George.
The Q’ushin’tul (Walking Together) Project report states that children and youth from Cowichan Tribes and other First Nations are disproportionately being seized and placed in foster care by government workers from the Ministry of Children and Family Development and other delegated aboriginal agencies.
The report said that as of June, 2019, more than 200 First Nations children from the Cowichan Valley were in the care of the ministry and other delegated agencies, and calls for a “drastic overhaul of the foster-care system in relation to indigenous children”.
“Indigenous child and family wellness services must meaningfully take into account the social realities of the Hul’qumi’num people [which includes Cowichan Tribes and other local First Nations],” the report recommends.
“There is a need to create and implement a community-based advocacy program that serves the family, while honouring, recognizing and implementing the inherent rights of the indigenous community. There is also a need to develop and implement a family-led, inclusive model of service delivery.”
Joe and George consulted with almost 300 members of their community who have been impacted by the seizure of children for their report.
Many meetings, which were mainly organized by Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau, were also held in recent months as part of the Q’ushin’tul Project by a group of interested people from various social agencies and other related organizations, called the Cowichan Community of Caring, who expressed an interest in working together to change the system.
The report stated that after numerous interviews and meetings, the writers found many indigenous people feel marginalized when dealing with the child welfare system, many feel that the processes are too complex to understand, there is a lack of local community-based advocacy services, there is a lack of support for parents whose children have been removed, and there are a lot of concerns about systemic discriminatory practices and racism in the system.
Abuses of power by social workers was also raised as a concern.
“There seems to be a lack of resources to respond to the safety, care, and needs of First Nations children and their families,” the report said.
In an interview, Joe said the situation in the Valley in regards to the issue of indigenous children being seized has become a crisis.
“It’s an issue for First Nations communities across Canada, but it has really gotten out of hand here,” she said.
“There have been many reasons identified as to why the children are being seized. Some have to do with social issues, assumptions that are made and poverty. We all live in poverty in some way or another, but everyone in the community works together to ensure breakfast and/or lunch are served in the schools, and other measures as well.”
The report states that it is critical that all levels of government support the ongoing work and recommendations laid out by the report’s writers.
“A report like this requires an investment in the recommendations on the part of everyone involved,” it states.
“The project team is hopeful that this work will lead to the [Cowichan Tribes’] territory to be declared an apprehension-free community where children and families feel heard, are safe, and feel supported.”
Furstenau said that in January, 2018, members of the Red Willow Womyn’s Society approached her to let her know that a baby was going to be removed from the Cowichan District Hospital within days of the child’s birth.
She said that she had been an MLA for a little more than six months at the time and the number of issues related to the Ministry of Children and Family Development and associated agencies was overwhelming her constituency staff.
“The Government of Canada had recently announced the over-representation of indigenous children in government care was a humanitarian crisis,” Furstenau said in a letter that is part of the Q’ushin’tul Project report.
“This announcement was not a surprise to me as it reinforced what I had been seeing in my constituency office. The news a baby would be separated from her mother at birth in our local hospital, combined with the federal government’s announcement of the humanitarian crisis, moved me to do more than advocate for constituents on a case-by-case basis.”
Furstenau said she asked all interested service providers who work with children and families in the Cowichan Valley to participate in a series of meetings to determine how best to navigate the current child welfare system, and to define what a better system might look like.
She said that after many meetings and presentations, the group, which came to be called the Cowichan Community of Caring, arrived at the conclusion that the government needs to relinquish its imposed rights over indigenous children and leave the indigenous communities to care for their families in their own way.
“The Q’ushin’tul Project came about because a diverse group of people engaged in finding a better way forward for Cowichan families,” Furstenau said.
“Thank you to everyone who has participated in this community’s journey.”