The federal government is pushing a new approach to child welfare by emphasizing prevention and early intervention instead of social workers seizing children from troubled homes, but the funding to accompany those changes has yet to be committed.
"That, I believe, is our biggest challenge – the lack of resources," said Yvonne Niego, recently appointed deputy minister of Nunavut's Department of Family Services, who attended an emergency meeting on child and family services at the behest of the federal government in Ottawa Jan. 24-25.
"In a way, it was a bit of a disappointment that there was no federal funding announcement out of this meeting yet. I hope in the future there will be," Niego said, adding that poverty and food insecurity are relevant factors in Nunavut's communities.
However, during the second day of the meetings, Jane Philpott, minister of the new federal Department of Indigenous Services Canada, met with Inuit stakeholders in attendance and said she would convene another meeting with them in the future.
"We need the resources. We need to put our plans in place," Niego said. "We need to meet with our partners. We need to make sure that families and children's voices are heard."
Although there are social worker positions in all of Nunavut's communities, there are barriers created by a lack of housing in some places and by high turnover among social workers. This results in some positions remaining vacant or filled by relief workers temporarily, Niego acknowledged.
The department has created new family resource worker positions and is aiming to recruit more Inuit social workers who better understand the culture within the territory, Niego noted. She added that the Department of Family Services would like to see infrastructure in place to accommodate children in custody within Nunavut rather than sending them out of territory.
Sarah Jancke, director of social and cultural development with the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA), also attended the emergency meeting. She said she left with a sense of optimism.
"I feel like this conference was a catalyst for discussions to happen at all levels to work together to update policies around Indigenous children and care, to meet the needs of Indigenous people," Jancke said, adding that many of the objectives expressed by Inuit in Ottawa were in line with the KIA's policies. "Inuit language and culture has foundational values that will assist our communities to become stronger and give skills needed to ensure children are safe and growing up with their communities, family and culture."
Addressing the delegates last week, Philpott said she is "acutely aware" of the need for funding to ensure more of a prevention focus rather than a child apprehension focus.
"Unfortunately, many children are removed from their homes when they could have remained at home if more prevention services were available. I have heard time and again that the current focus is too much on protection and not enough on prevention," said Philpott.
- There are 434 Nunavut children in custodial care or in their family homes but on a social services care plan
- Approximately 70 of those Nunavummiut children are in custodial care outside of Nunavut
- Nationally, Indigenous children aged 0 to 14 make up 7.7 per cent of all Canadian children, but represent more than 52 per cent of children in foster care in private homes
- The Department of Family Services' estimated operations and maintenance budget for 2017-18 is $138 million (nine per cent of the GN's overall budget)
Source: Department of Family Services, GN budget 2017-18 and Census 2016