Review of Inuit children in care finds N.L. system lacking in cultural respect

JOHN’S, NL — An independent review of Inuit children in Newfoundland and Labrador’s child protection system says the current system is “crisis-oriented” and lacks respectful involvement of Inuit families and culture.

Provincial child and youth advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh released her report, A Long Wait for Change, Wednesday. It reviews case files and literature on Indigenous children in care and features interviews with people affected by the system.

The report found “pervasive” mistrust and fear among Inuit people towards child protection authorities and reported that separation of children from families resulted in a disconnect from culture, making transitions home more difficult.

“There is an urgent need to begin to work in a different way with Inuit children and youth now,” the report says.

The study was launched in 2018 at the request of the Nunatsiavut Inuit government in Labrador following concerns over the number of Inuit children being placed outside their communities.

As of 2018, about 15 per cent of the province’s 1,005 children in care _ 150 children _ were Inuit, according to the report. By comparison, just 1.3 per cent of the province’s population is Inuit, according to the 2016 census.

Of the Inuit children in care, 65 resided in homes on the island of Newfoundland and 85 were in Labrador.

In a sample review of 67 case files, the report found only one-third of children in the study sample had exposure to the Inuktitut language while in care.

A goal of family visits every six to eight weeks is in place, but the report found “no consistency for access,” and most parents had to travel to see their children. The distance separating families was especially difficult, according to the report, as travel was hindered by cancellations and weather. Children were sometimes afraid of travelling home in small planes.

Some children reported forgetting their language, difficulty pronouncing their own last names and not knowing their siblings’ names. Children said they missed home and felt the loss of their culture contributed to a loss of identity.

“When supported and nurtured, this identity is a source of strength, pride and hope. Our file review showed that this does not seem to be truly appreciated,” Lake Kavanagh wrote.

For the most part, foster parents wanted to help children maintain connections to their families and culture but felt they had not received adequate cultural training from the provincial government.

Gerald Asivak, Nunatsiavut’s minister of health and social development, said the “long overdue” report was met positively at an event in Nain, Labrador on Wednesday.

“There was some weeping and some emotion, but I think in a positive regard for finally being heard,” Asivak said by phone.

He said he’s confident that all recommendations are achievable in collaboration with the provincial government, and expressed confidence in the commitment of his provincial counterpart, Lisa Dempster, who was present in Nain for the report’s release.

Lake Kavanagh identified untapped potential for community-based care, but noted the high vacancies and turnover in Labrador-based social work positions. She recommends the province actively recruit and support care workers in Inuit communities and focus on crisis prevention rather than reaction to better keep families together.

She made 33 recommendations, including that the province begin laying the groundwork for an eventual transfer of child protection services to the Nunatsiavut Government.

Overall, people showed “remarkable” resolve for improving the system, the report reads, but meaningful change is held back by mistrust, partly stemming from intergenerational trauma of residential schools and parents who have lived in care themselves.

“If the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador moves forward with a commitment to genuine and meaningful change with Inuit communities and governments, it will have no shortage of participants in that process. But Inuit will need to be engaged respectfully and as equals,” it says.

The Nunatsiavut government is working towards eventually taking over full responsibility of child protection services, Asivak said, with some social workers already hired and new programs in place for training, but there is no firm date for the full transition.

In the meantime, Asivak, himself a former social worker, said the provincial agency can rebuild damaged trust in Inuit communities by having a positive presence, through things like open houses, recruiting foster parents and coming to community events.

“There’s trauma. There’s a sense that if you go to them, you’re in trouble. So breaking some of those old myths,” he said.

Dempster said in a phone interview her department will analyze the report in detail before accepting all its recommendations.

She said the new Children, Youth and Families Act, which became law in June, includes sections that prioritize keeping Indigenous children with families and communities and care placements that support their culture.

She said the department is a developing a new, more culturally sensitive training model for social workers to improve trust with Inuit families and will work with Nunatsiavut government officials on strengthening the system.

“We all want better outcomes for these children and youth that we are working with, and we don’t want there to be trust issues,” Dempster said.

“We want it to be a positive, healthy relationship. We’re going to continue to strive for that.”

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