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Review of Child and Family Services Act evokes tears, anger

Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Friday, April 9, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The child welfare system in the NWT is tearing apart families and inflicting trauma on children the same way residential schools did, according to aboriginal parents who spoke at a public consultation on the Child and Family Services Act on Tuesday evening.

Emotions varied from anger to anguish at Northern United Place as people shared their grievances with a panel of MLAs and child welfare experts.

One mother, whose two daughters are currently in foster care, said Health and Social Services isn't listening to concerns she has about her daughters being raised in a non-aboriginal home and being taught different religious beliefs.

She pleaded with the panel "not (to) make it so difficult that I'd go out and use (drugs or alcohol)."

Under the Child and Family Services Act, there is a publication ban that prevents the naming of foster parents, parents, or children involved in custody hearings.

"It really hurts ... Why didn't someone come to me and say they could help me?" another woman asked softly, as she related the story of losing her child 20 years ago, being homeless and not knowing how to become a better parent.

Another woman sobbed as she told of losing her three children after being abused by her partner and said she's been fighting for eight years to get her daughter back. The Inuk woman said her daughter is living with a non-aboriginal family in Alberta, far removed from her culture, all because she said she wasn't given the benefit of the doubt when she tried to leave an abusive relationship.

More than 25 people, including aboriginal mothers who lost their children, foster parents, social workers, lawyers and community justice workers voiced their frustrations and highlighted aspects of the act they want revised.

Criticism didn't just come from aboriginal parents.

One non-aboriginal foster mother said an unproven accusation of mistreatment destroyed her family.

"One phone call ripped my life to pieces," she said. "They came into my house and I was treated like I was a murderer. They had no respect for me whatsoever in the world. They didn't even give me time to change the babies."

She said her six-year-old adoptive son, who has since been returned to her after going through court proceedings, was now so traumatized from being separated from her and his father that he is scared to go to school.

Another former foster parent pleaded with the panel to take another look at how long children stay in the system.

"I don't feel any child needs to be a foster child for their entire life. They deserve someone to call Mom or Dad regardless of the parents' background," the woman said. "At what point do you say and decide they need love and stability?"

She said she believed children should be with their biological families first, but worried about cases where children were passed between foster homes. She argued that adoptive families would be more likely to stick it out with children who ran into trouble than foster parents would.

People working in the community justice system said children need child advocates who aren't the social workers. Others said the technical language used in the act intimidates parents, and their legal rights are violated because they don't know them.

Arlene Hache, executive director of the Centre for Northern Families, called the system "classist and racist," referring to how frequently judges remove children from their homes while they're investigated.

"I believe really strongly in a family-resource model where you work with families and put resources into families, you don't take children out of families," she said.

"We need to stop blaming parents for being poor," said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, who participated in the panel as a consultant.

She said across Canada there are three times as many aboriginal children in child welfare custody as non-aboriginal children.

Neglect, not physical or sexual abuse, is driving the number of children in the system, Blackstock said, adding many parents don't have the tools to properly take care of their children.

The Standing Committee of Social Programs is holding eight more public meetings across the territory this month.

The Child and Family Services Act became law in 1998. MLAs passed a motion to review it last June after critics said it gave too much power to social workers to take children away from their parents.

The purpose of the legislation is to protect children from physical, mental and emotional abuse and sexual molestation. It also aims to provide protection to children in homes where they are neglected or malnourished.

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