B.C. child welfare system unfairly ‘policing and surveilling’ families, groups say

By Ian Burns

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 23, 2022 @ 3:30 PM

Law360 Canada (November 21, 2022, 1:50 PM EST) -- A number of rights and community groups are calling on British Columbia to reform a child welfare system they say is “policing and surveilling” families — at a time when the province has unveiled legislation aimed at removing barriers to Indigenous peoples exercising jurisdiction over child and family services.

Organizations including West Coast LEAF (Legal Education & Action Fund), YWCA Metro Vancouver and B.C. Association of Social Workers have written an open letter to provincial representatives asking the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) to “dismantle” its current framework for investigation, intervention and child removal.

Currently child protection workers assess families for “risk” using their clinical judgment, and tools like checklists and questionnaires. But the groups say this system causes lasting harm to families and is rooted in “colonial, ableist, misogynist, and classist biases.”

“The reliance on decontextualized checklist tools and clinical judgment is indicative approach to family well-being that views family struggles as individualized failings, instead of rooted in a chronic lack of housing, income and disability rates beneath the poverty line, and lack of metal health support,” the letter said. “This racist system unjustly blames and surveils families and regards them as deficient. This is creating intergenerational cycles of intervention and intrusion in the lives of families across B.C.”

West Coast LEAF executive director Raji Mangat

West Coast LEAF executive director Raji Mangat

West Coast LEAF executive director Raji Mangat said the groups decided to use the language of policing and surveillance because in their view what the system is really doing is bringing too critical a gaze to how people are parenting, rather than looking at what is in the best interests of the child.

“The word policing doesn’t necessarily suggest that people are being staked out by the police in every circumstance, but we wanted to call out the system for what it is ultimately doing to families,” she said. “What we have seen is a number of these tools used by the Ministry just aren’t appropriate to look at the circumstances of families and understand the dynamics of those systemic failures that have resulted in families being swept into the system.”

The letter calls on the province to take up transformative and accountable work with Indigenous nations, communities and impacted families to develop and affirm collective understandings of safety and well-being that “uplift and support families” in B.C.

“I don’t think anyone is saying there will never be a circumstance where a child is removed from the home, but too often that is the starting point,” said Mangat. “The individuals who work in this system aren’t bad people, but this is really about what is the scaffolding in place that leads us down this road. Clearly something has got to change because the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care in this province is not a coincidence — and is definitely something that has to be approached and understood from a different frame of reference.”

But paying attention to child welfare, especially in the context of Indigenous peoples, is not something the British Columbia government has been avoiding. It recently unveiled the Indigenous Self-Government in Child and Family Services Amendment Act, which is aimed at removing barriers for Indigenous peoples exercising jurisdiction over child and family services, becoming the first province in Canada to expressly recognize this inherent right within provincial legislation.

“We know that the current child-welfare system is a continuation of harmful colonial practices, and the solution is to reassert jurisdiction over their children, youth and families in accordance with their customs, traditions and Indigenous laws,” said provincial Minister of Children and Family Development Mitzi Dean. “These amendments are a significant step in the creation of an approach that properly respects the inherent rights and legal orders of Indigenous peoples and reshapes the provincial laws to focus on the best interests of Indigenous children.”

The proposed amendments will recognize that the Child, Family and Community Service Act (CFCSA) must be administered and interpreted in accordance with Indigenous communities’ inherent right of self-government with respect to child and family services; allow Indigenous governing bodies (IGBs) to assume jurisdiction over child-welfare services provided to an Indigenous child in accordance with Indigenous laws; and strengthen collaboration and enable consent-based decision-making with Indigenous communities on adoption placements for Indigenous children, among other changes.

“The colonial era of the province controlling child welfare must come to an end — and this legislation cannot be passed soon enough,” said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “This legislation holds the promise of finally affirming the inherent rights of First Nations to ensure our children are with their families, communities and people. As Indigenous peoples, we have the right to exercise self-determination over our children, and we are glad this is finally being recognized through law.”

Family lawyer Frances Rosner said the proposed amendments were significant and “represent a paradigm shift in the provision of child and family services in British Columbia.”

“This affirms the right of Indigenous self-determination and self-government by creating the framework to enable IGBs to assume jurisdiction over every aspect of planning for Indigenous children,” she said. “Several of the amendments are aimed at accommodating the shift towards self-government and navigating a multijurisdictional system.”

But Rosner said more could have been done to change the current regime, in addition to affirming the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-government, when Indigenous communities and First Nations are at various degrees of capacity building.

“Several of the director’s duties are triggered when an IGB for the child is identified,” said Rosner, who is Métis. “With only 11 IGBs in B.C. — and I hope to see the numbers steadily increase — I would have liked to see further duties imposed on the director of Child Protection to work with First Nations and Indigenous communities that are not yet on the IGB path, as they too have a vital role to play in planning for their children.”

For her part, Mangat said she was “definitely pleased to see something happening” and there are some things in the legislation which are “really good,” such as identifying that poverty is not a reason for removing children from their homes. But she noted the legislation is not “the be all and the end all.”

“We are in a particular context here where we have agreed that Indigenous sovereignty is important, but what does that mean in the context of how much further the province is going to be willing to go in terms of really resourcing Indigenous nations and communities to take advantage of the positive steps being proposed in the legislation,” she said. “There are also lots of situations where Indigenous children would not be impacted by this legislation, because they are not in a process of adoption — they are in a situation of continuing custody orders that result in limbo for families which leads to a lot of delay in how the child protection system is working. The family policing system is complicated and intimidating for a lot of families who are navigating it.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Child and Family Development noted in an email that the province changed child welfare legislation in 2019 to focus on better supporting Indigenous families to safely stay together and has ended the practice of issuing birth alerts.

“We're committed to continuing work to support children and families in B.C. and will be working with families and communities to make sure that the system we build together is supportive and responsive to the immediate and long-term needs of children and families in B.C.,” the spokesperson said.

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