Alberta government ‘not going to wait’ for feds to close First Nations child welfare gap


The Alberta government plans to provide more money and services to children at risk on reserves, then later “fight with the feds if we have to” about the cost, the deputy premier says.

In the wake of another troubling report, deputy premier Sarah Hoffman said Wednesday the province will step in with more cash and other help where child and family services are underfunded on First Nations.

“The federal government obviously has a responsibility to address those funding gaps,” Hoffman said. “We’re not going to wait for them to step up and do the right thing. We’ve been fighting for decades and children deserve better.”

Last year, a landmark ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the federal government discriminated against First Nations children on reserve by chronically underfunding services for children in care. Cindy Blackstock, the social worker who persisted with the complaint, has said child welfare services on reserves receive between 22 and 39 per cent less funding than provincially run agencies. The complaint was brought forward by the Assembly of First Nations, and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, where Blackstock is executive director.

The federal government has increased its funding to delegated First Nations agencies that oversee child welfare on reserves, promising $120 million more over five years for Alberta services.

Traezlin Starlight, Jay Johnson and Shalaina Arcand are the focus of child and youth advocate Del Graff’s latest report. Two of the children had been under the care of First Nations child welfare agencies.

The Journal contacted several First Nations child welfare departments Wednesday, but was unable to reach any directors for comment.

Hoffman didn’t have a timeline or a budget for getting more resources into the hands of the on-reserve agencies. An agreement will have to be reached with each one depending on their needs, she said.

For example, the provincial system has more robust support for children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other disabilities, she said. The province could help provide more prevention services in hopes children won’t be apprehended.

An Alberta child is an Alberta child
Alberta child and youth advocate Del Graff highlighted three cases in his report Tuesday where children died violently after being returned to their mothers from government care. Two of the children had been under the care of First Nations child welfare agencies.

In addition to recommending agencies work more closely with families when children go home, Graff said he was frustrated by the lack of government action on similar recommendations he’s made in the past. Graff has also said jurisdictional lines stop some children from getting the protection they need.

Opposition members who sit on an all-party child intervention panel studying Alberta’s child death review system said they support the idea of a provincial system blind to boundaries.

“An Alberta child is a Alberta child and we should not be letting lines on a map (stop) us from going and helping a little child that’s in serious danger,” Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon said.

Nixon, PC MLA Ric McIver and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark all said they were frustrated with the government’s lack of transparency about accepting or implementing Graff’s past recommendations.

The ministry posts its responses to Graff’s reports online.

McIver said Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee is disrespecting Graff’s expertise, and accused Hoffman of deflecting attention away from criticism.

Clark said he’s heard repeatedly in panel hearings how front-line workers are prevented from making improvements by the minister’s and top bureaucrats’ fixations on following procedures.

“There’s a culture of fear, and it’s very closed,” Clark said.

In 2016-17, the Children’s Services ministry served about 10,250 children a month.

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