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First Nations Agency Goes to Court over Child Welfare Shortcomings

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The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada appealed to the courts on Monday to force the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to face charges that it “racially discriminates againt First Nation children by providing inequitable child welfare services on reserves,” the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) announced on February 28.

“I regret that filing this application was necessary but it is time for the children to come first. They are in vulnerable situations and these repeated delays by the federal government perpetuate their vulnerability,” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, quoted in the AFN's statement. “Children and the facts need to come before legal loopholes and government efforts to keep Canadians in the dark.”

The AFN and the Caring Society filed the case before the Tribunal after a number of reports found that provincial child-welfare services receive more funding and support than those providing for First Nations children.

“First Nations children and families on reserve lack the same prevention services offered to other Canadians, case-workers are overburdened, and many agencies operate without basics like computers or safe office buildings, which are sorely needed to improve planning, evaluation and the effectiveness of the services offered to children,” the AFN said in a press release.

Hearings originally scheduled before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in November 2009 were inexplicably canceled and have not been rescheduled, the AFN said. Next the federal government filed a motion to dismiss the case, and hearings were held on that motion last June. But a decision never came.

“The Tribunal’s own guidelines require a ruling to be rendered within four months. That timeline expired and so did the Tribunal’s second guideline requiring a ruling within six months at the latest,” said the AFN’s statement.

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“As co-complainants in the Human Rights Tribunal matter, we are completely supportive of the steps taken by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society,” said AFN national chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in the statement. “A great deal of time has passed since the parties argued the motion and, depending on the ruling, it is possible that the hearing on the complaint could be further delayed. This would lead to more time and effort being spent on technical, procedural matters while the status quo prevails, which is injurious to our children, families and communities.”

Time is of the essence given recent sobering statistics and stories. In January a report, Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems: Strengthening Supports for Vulnerable Infants, examined the conditions of deaths of 21 infants in British Columbia, 15 of them aboriginal.

The report by the office of the British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth revealed that the 21 families studied were “known to have been facing significant life and parenting challenges, yet the risks to their children associated with these challenges were ignored or the response did not match the severity of the risk,” the agency said.

Although they were not necessarily on-reserve children, they were all under age 2, most lived in extreme poverty and all died under unsafe sleeping conditions, the report said. They were deemed “at risk because of a patchwork of services that exists across the health and child-serving systems,” according to the agency’s January 27 statement.

Atleo said that evidence of this inequality is “overwhelming” and is contained in reports from the Auditor General of Canada (May 2008), the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (2009) and numerous reports and papers authored or commissioned by the federal government.

“It is time to get on with addressing the real issues and ensure safety and security for our children,” Atleo said in the AFN’s statement. “Justice delayed is justice denied."