Overrepresentation of Young Aboriginal People in Residential Care

Throughout our consultations we heard many service providers and community organizations express concern about the overrepresentation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth in residential care, especially in the child welfare and youth justice sectors. Aboriginal youth comprise 3.4% of the Ontario youth population but have represented approximately 9% of youth admissions annually since 2008/09 (Youth Justice Services Division, 2015). The overall number of self-identified Aboriginal youth admitted to detention or custody has declined by 20% from 2003/4 to 2012/13, albeit at a lower rate than the overall decline in youth in detention or custody; as a result, the proportion of Aboriginal youth admitted to detention or custody has increased during the same period from 10% to 12%. (calculations based on slide 6 of Youth Justice Services deck entitled The Youth Criminal Justice Act and Programs and Services for Aboriginal Youth In Ontario, June 2015).

The Ministry generally does not report on trends with respect to Aboriginal youth involved in the child welfare sector. According to information collected as part of the annual Crown Ward reviews, the Ministry reported that in 2013 15.5% of Crown Wards were identified as Aboriginal. The report to Canada’s Premier’s on Aboriginal children in care states that “in Ontario 3% of the child population under age 15 is Aboriginal, and 21% of the children in care are Aboriginal children living off-reserve”. In a recent analysis of people identified as foster children by respondents to the 2011 National Household Survey, Sinha and Wray (2015) examined disparities between the rates of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal foster children. In Ontario, First Nations children were 12 times more likely to be identified as foster children than were non-Aboriginal children: 3.1% of First Nations children were identified as being in foster care compared to 0.25% of non-Aboriginal children. Similar disparities have been noted in the Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect which found that 9% of investigations involved Aboriginal children, whereas less than 4% of the Ontario’s children and youth are Aboriginal (Fallon, Van Wert, Trocmé, et al., 2015).

Given the extent and persistence of the problem of overrepresentation, the Panel was surprised that there was limited reporting and analysis with respect to young Aboriginal people in residential care. The youth justice sector has made important strides in disaggregating youth justice statistics on the basis of Aboriginal status as identified by youth; disaggregated trend data are not, however, available from the child welfare sector. The first two recommendations from the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission report speak to the critical importance of documenting and understanding problems related to overrepresentation for First Nations children and youth (1) reported to child welfare because of neglect and (2) placed in out-of-home care (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

Monitoring rates and patterns of overrepresentation is very important. Without such analyses important differences over time and between groups are easily missed. Failure to disaggregate statistics by placement type, can for example mask important differences with respect to the use of kinship, customary and other forms of alternative out-of-home placements. Placements in Aboriginal foster homes may need to be distinguished from placements in non-Aboriginal homes. Tracking changes over time can identify incremental shifts in practices and policies that may not be otherwise noticed. In Alberta, for example, using provincial child welfare placement data, Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate was able to show that while the overall number of placements had plateaued and was starting to decrease, what was actually happening was that the number of non-First Nations placements had been decreasing while the number of First-Nations placements was continuing to increase at an alarming rate. The policies and programs that had been developed to help curtail out-of-home placements appeared to be having their desired impact for non-First Nations children and youth but were not effectively reaching First Nations children and families. As confirmed by the recent Canadian Human Rights finding of discriminatory practices, the systematic Federal government underfunding of on reserve community based family support services is one of the drivers of this over-representation of young First Nations people in residential care.

Access to Appropriate Services

In addition to concern about over-representation, inadequate access to appropriate services for Aboriginal youth was identified in many of our consultations as a pressing issue. Concerns ranged from the lack of residential services in reasonable proximity to young people’s communities, to the limited access to cultural programming or spiritual guidance, to concerns about racist attitudes or insensitivity to the historical context of Aboriginal young people.

The lack of residential placement options in reasonable proximity to young people’s communities was frequently mentioned as an issue needing urgent attention. One Nothern agency described its extensive efforts to “repatriate” young people placed in residential settings in the South of the Province. In addition to concerns that these young people were being cut off from their families, friends and communities, staff talked about the challenges inherent in providing any kind of oversight with respect to the quality of care or the appropriateness of treatment.

The cultural appropriateness of some residential settings were issues raised by several of the young people, staff and foster parents the Panel spoke to. Several Aboriginal youth found that menus rarely included any of their traditional foods; this was a particular concern for several Inuit youth who craved fish. Even non-Aboriginal youth talked about how much their Aboriginal peers missed “home food”. Limited access to cultural programming was noted by several young people and staff, and the lack of spiritual support was of particular concern given its potential importance for some of these young people. These concerns echo several of the themes that emerged from the Feathers of Hope youth consultation where First Nations youth spoke to the critical importance of connecting “First Nations young people to their culture and identity and de-coloniz[ing] [their] minds” through stronger bonds with family, opportunities to learn their languages, participate in community ceremonies, and to incorporate traditional knowledge in health, healing and education systems.

Comments about perceived racism or lack of cultural and historical awareness pointed to the critical importance of developing resources either run by Aboriginal communities or staffed by people who were adequately trained and supervised to provide appropriate support and care. We spoke to several young Aboriginal people who felt well-supported by staff who encouraged traditional healing practices and appeared to understand some of the challenges they faced as young Aboriginal people. We were concerned, however to hear about less positive experiences, especially one situation where two youth were forbidden to speak together in their native language. While there are situations where it could be important for staff to be able to monitor conversations between youth, alternative measures should have been developed given our history of abusive restrictions on indigenous languages in residential schools.

More generally we heard from a number of service providers and organizations about the importance of continuing to adapt legal, regulatory and funding structures that support Aboriginal communities’ control over their services. Métis organizations spoke in particular about the lack of legislative and funding mechanisms specific to Métis communities and young people. Many child welfare services are already delivered in the province by First Nations and urban Aboriginal organizations, but these organizations report that they lack resources to fully meet the needs of their communities. In the youth justice sector an Aboriginal dedicated secure detention/custody facility in Fort Frances and an open detention/ custody residence operated by Ininew Friendship Centre, provide services to Aboriginal Youth in Cochrane and James Bay Coast. We were encouraged to hear about Aboriginal community organizations that describe collaborative partnerships with child welfare agencies that allow them to effectively incorporate Aboriginal approaches. While developing more culturally appropriate resources closer to their communities is urgently needed for young Aboriginal people who are currently in residential settings, the Ministry, the Federal government and Aboriginal leaders must continue to work together to find more effective mechanisms to support Aboriginal communities to develop their own responses to their needs. Models of prevention, protection and care need to be re-thought.

The lack of appropriate supports and services goes well-beyond residential care. Many of the themes identified in the Panel consultations were also reflected in the Feathers of Hope First Nations youth consultation. Issues of identity, culture and language were identified as being at the core of many of the challenges faced by First Nations youth. Lack of access to quality education, mentorship, role models, sports and recreation were concerns raised for youth living in First Nations communities.