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Latest foster care death clear indication change needed.

Until the child welfare system changes in Alberta, Aboriginal children in government care will continue to suffer, said advocates for change.

The most recent death, a 13-year-old Paul First Nation boy, is just the latest tragedy that Alberta's Aboriginal people as a whole are facing.

"There's a sense of hopelessness," said Bernadette Iahtail, executive director with the Creating Hope Society, in Edmonton. Iahtail's organization recently joined with Friends of Children in Care and Metis Mothers Society to host a candlelight vigil at the Sacred Heart Church, in Edmonton, to mark the loss of the young life.

It's the second death in two months. On March 3, a 21-month-old baby died in the care of a foster family in Morinville.

The Paul First Nation boy died April 30 in a home in rural Spruce Grove, which was not his foster care home.

The two incidents are under investigation by their respective RCMP detachments and Alberta's Children's and Youth Services, said Trevor Coulombe, director of communications with the government department.

"I've felt (a sense of hopelessness) for many years," said Don Langford, executive director with the M'tis Child and Family Services Society.

Langford's organization works with approximately 50 foster families, training them and providing support to them and their foster children.

Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley, the NDP's critic for children and youth services, attended the vigil.

"(Some speakers talked about) how long this has been going on. (They've been) raising these issues way back when my dad (former NDP leader Grant Notley) was alive, 25 years ago. And there's no question that the trend in some ways seems to be getting worse. I don't think we can deny that," said Notley.

The figures for Aboriginal children in care are staggering. As of December 2009, said Coulombe, there were 5,443 Aboriginal children and youth as wards of the province, representing 62 per cent of all children under care.

"It's an epidemic really," said Langford, noting Aboriginals make up only four to five per cent of Alberta's population. With his own organization, 10 to 15 per cent of caregivers are Aboriginal, while 90 to 95 per cent of the children placed are Aboriginal.

"Children Services doesn't know how to work with our communities. They find it easier to apprehend. There's still that residential school mentality," Langford said.

The Children's Welfare Act became the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act in 2004, shifting the department's focus from apprehending children to working with families in early prevention strategies. Part of that shift, said Coulombe, resulted in the start of kinship care placements. Kinship care allows families who have a relationship with a child to take temporary guardianship of the child until the family can take the child back. Kinship care is specific placements for specific children.

"It's the preferred option with the Aboriginal community. Aboriginal culture has been doing this for millennia," said Coloumbe.

At the end of March 2005, there were 756 Aboriginal foster care and kinship care families. Following a 2007 campaign launched by the government to recruit more Aboriginal foster care families, the numbers of care homes, both foster and kinship, sits at 857 at the end of March 2010.

"Because kinship care comes into operation for specific children it's easy to see why that number hasn't moved up significantly," said Coulombe.

"Kinship care is not Aboriginal friendly. They're telling us how to do it. They're putting in a lot of roadblocks," said Langford.

Efforts to redesign the system, as far as Langford is concerned, only end up covering the department's liability issues.

Even the latest review by the department, which began last September, is met by skepticism by Langford, who wasn't aware it was happening.

"It's just one more way the government is not consulting with the community," said Langford.

"A panel of experts is conducting a comprehensive examination of our system," said Coulombe.

A large part of that review, he said, includes support and services for Aboriginal children and their families. The 10-member panel includes three members with significant experience in the Aboriginal setting.

A report with recommendations will be made to Minister Yvonne Fritz by the end of June. Recommendations will be made public, but Coulombe didn't know when or how much more of the report would be shared.

An Aboriginal Children Services in Alberta needs to be created', said Langford

"There are a lot of things we can do as a community," he said. "But right now we're on the periphery of all the decisions that are made for our children."

BY SHARI NARINE

Sweetgrass Writer
COPYRIGHT 2010 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:Narine, Shari
Publication:Alberta Sweetgrass
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:758
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