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Parents wanted, not custodians, for native children

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Oct. 12 2014, 6:30 PM EDT

The discovery of the remains of Tina Fontaine in the Red River in August, after her disappearance, is a continuing reminder of the disastrous state of native child welfare. Two weeks ago, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs issued a report titled Bringing Our Children Home. It rightly says that it is preferable to place native children who are in need of protection in their extended families’ own communities, rather than in impersonal group homes or in foster homes – often short-term – in Winnipeg or other cities.

Child welfare laws may have requirements designed for urban foster-parents or group homes, but which are not always convenient for relatives on reserves, many of whom nonetheless are ready and able to provide a good home to children.

Manitoba would be wise to consider the advice of the chiefs. They recommend recognizing what in Ontario is known as “customary care” or “kinship care,” which allows exemptions from some of the requirements of that province’s child-welfare statutes for native children being looked after in their ancestral communities.

But even where government is building bridges rather than barriers, there is an unfortunately low rate of adoption among most native nations in Canada.

Adopting parents take on a degree of commitment and permanence that go much further than foster-parent status. Adoption is said to be less of a part of many traditional native cultures in Canada, but it should be encouraged. And though the “sixties scoop” of native children adopted out to white parents in the 1960s has left justifiably bitter memories, those years and practices are long gone. It shouldn’t be a barrier to native kids being adopted by non-native families, where no aboriginal families can be found. The disproportionate number of native children in “care” is a continuing disaster. Loving parents, of whatever race or culture, are better than no parents at all.

At the opposite extreme, Superintendent Danny Smyth of the Winnipeg Police recently said that “chronic runaways” should be placed in “a custodial situation for a temporary time.” The problem is enormous and very real, but this doesn’t sound like the right answer. Jailing wayward children, native or non-native, is probably worse than the alienation of life in a group home.

The Manitoba chiefs’ report is not free from rhetorical excesses, but it contains much common sense, and testimony from tragic experience.


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