More native kids in B.C. living away from parents
Lives of aboriginals appear to be getting worse, children's rep warns
Lindsay Kines, Times ColonistPublished: Thursday, November 27, 2008
The lives of B.C.'s aboriginal children may be getting worse instead of better, the province's child advocate said yesterday.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond warned that seven of every 10 children living in care or outside the parental home in B.C. will soon be aboriginal if nothing is done to halt current trends.
"We are very concerned about the situation for aboriginal children in British Columbia," she said. "And we are very concerned that there may in fact be a decline in the well-being of aboriginal children in the last number of years and not an improvement in their circumstances."
Speaking to a standing committee on children and youth, Turpel-Lafond noted that when she took office in 2007 about 51 per cent of children in care were aboriginal despite the fact they made up just eight per cent of the population.
She estimates that aboriginal children now account for nearly 60 per cent of children living in care or away from their parents under programs that place them with a relative.
"With the demographic trends, with the vulnerabilities in that community, I would be very sad to see, at the end of my term as representative, if that was closer to 65 to 70 per cent," she said. "But if the trends are unabated, and we do not work more effectively in this area, this will happen."
Turpel-Lafond said in an interview that other factors have influenced her view, such as the health and education outcomes of aboriginal children and their poverty levels.
Her office also recently tracked the lives of all children born in B.C. in 1986 for an upcoming report on youth justice. Disturbingly, the study found one in five aboriginal children ended up in care or living outside the parental home at some point in their childhood.
Children's Minister Tom Christensen questioned some of Turpel-Lafond's statistics, but acknowledged that one of every two children in government care is aboriginal.
"That is far too high, but quite frankly it's much less than in neighbouring provinces," he said. "If we look across Western Canada you get 70 to 80 per cent of the children in care being aboriginal."
Christensen insisted that government is working hard to reverse the trend by meeting with First Nations leaders, shifting more responsibilities to aboriginal agencies, and pressing the federal government to invest in prevention programs on reserves.
"But we are fooling ourselves if we think you're going to wake up one day and all of sudden everything's going to be reversed," he said. "This is going to be incremental."
Former judge Ted Hughes, whose 2006 review of B.C.'s child welfare system led to Turpel-Lafond's appointment, laid much of the blame for over-representation of aboriginal children on the "devastating effects" of the Indian residential school system.
He also cited other reports noting the impact of poverty, isolation, unemployment and inadequate housing, as well as lack of support from governments.
Turpel-Lafond said if the situation is to improve, everyone needs to remain focused on the children. "What are the conditions for the children? How are we going to make progress year to year on the situation like poverty, poor housing opportunities, the need for parental support, over-crowding issues -- things that really pose significant health and safety risks to children," she said.
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