Saturday, August 22, 2009

Are We Creating Healthy Villages for Aboriginal Children & Families?

The timing of this story, as quick as it came and went, is very important, as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal social service agencies and MCFD child protection teams are bracing for cuts. The rumour mill is in overdrive and fear is rampant about funding cuts to already maxed out agencies, trying to meet the needs of a growing mass of marginalized people in BC.

By Marc Storms and David Hill,

Special to Times Colonist

August 20, 2009

The axiom that "it takes a village to raise a child" is true in any culture, and particularly within Canada's aboriginal communities. Unfortunately the mandates of our appointed government ministries and their delegated aboriginal agencies to protect children too often work in opposition to this concept.

Rather than supporting the "village," under-resourced agencies typically resort to apprehending children and placing them in government care -- care that too often is not culturally appropriate and may not even be safe.

Paul Willcocks' recent series of columns highlighted a case that shows how clearly devastating this practice can be. New parents -- the mother just 20, barely out of the system herself -- were unable to find adequate housing and were forced to stay with relatives whose home was considered unfit by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Subsequently, the child was removed and placed in foster care, where he was injured and left with severe and permanent disabilities.

Although the child was eventually returned to his parents -- along with government financial support to help deal with his disabilities -- how unbearable must it be to know that you have had your family life turned upside down because you are poor and your family and community are not healthy enough to provide the support you needed.

Aboriginal communities struggle daily with the sad legacy of more than a century of non-aboriginal government "interference" -- including but not limited to the imposition of residential schools and the resulting loss of language and connection to family that has left a massive gap in the knowledge and confidence of aboriginal parents to raise their children effectively.

While today's aboriginal children and younger adults may have no direct memory of residential schools or the abuses suffered by their parents and grandparents, they continue to be impacted, and the result is the continuous cycle of greater government involvement and a further deterioration of parenting and family development capacity, exponential increases in child apprehension and a greater reliance on state-sponsored supports.

Government agencies have a responsibility to intervene to provide protection and support, but bureaucracies make poor parents in any culture. The solution is not found in merely placing aboriginal children in foster homes; rather, we should be investing in building capacity to create healthy communities that provide safe and effective parenting, using the traditional cultural knowledge and practices that are specific to each community.

Training, skill development and ongoing support for community-focused and culture-based programs delivered by and for aboriginal peoples represent an opportunity to make a critical investment in the future of aboriginal communities, their children and the province as a whole. As a Tlingit elder told us, aboriginal people "don't need to be told how to raise our children; we just need to be reminded."

Government has made sporadic investments toward building capacity, typically through short-term, proposal-driven funding opportunities that few communities are able to access. While we have seen positive results from these efforts, what is required is a shift in policy and a sustained financial commitment to ensure that communities are able to continue to build their strengths over the long term. This investment will in turn reduce the need for government intervention, lessen strains on the child protection system and help aboriginal communities to have greater control and responsibility for their families. Ultimately this will benefit us all.

It does take a village to raise a child, but it must be a healthy village. By making a focused and sustained investment in the inherent skills, knowledge and culture of aboriginal people, our government agencies will contribute to the health of the village, and help to end the unnecessary cycles of intervention that perpetuate the crises facing aboriginal families.

Marc Storms and David Hill are two of three co-founders of GMG Consulting (Good Medicine Group), a firm that has provided building services for aboriginal communities and agencies across Western Canada since 2001.

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