The federal and B.C. governments must take urgent action to tackle funding inequities that hamstring aboriginal child-welfare agencies and increase the likelihood children will be taken into government care, the province's independent child watchdog says.
And recent funding announced in the federal budget has done little or nothing to ease the caseloads or otherwise improve conditions for stressed front-line workers, Bernard Richard says.
"Front-line social workers and agency directors constantly tell us, as [recently] as two days ago, that improvements on the ground are just not being felt," Mr. Richard said Thursday on a conference call with reporters.
"Although more money is in the federal budget, God knows where it's going – because it's not going to front-line services where it is desperately needed," he added.
Mr. Richard, the former children's advocate in New Brunswick who took on the role in British Columbia last year, called the current situation in B.C. "an embarrassment for the country" and called on the two levels of government to develop a concrete plan for child-welfare services.
Mr. Richard released a report Thursday that examined delegated aboriginal agencies, which provide child-welfare services to aboriginal families through agreements with the province. Such agencies receive a mix of provincial and federal funding.
The report found federal-funding models for such agencies are "flawed and discriminatory, leading to more children ending up in care."
The report echoes many of the issues raised in a landmark Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision in 2016 that found federal funding of Indigenous child welfare was discriminatory and resulted in more children ending up in care.
Currently, about 62 per cent of the 7,000 children in care in B.C. are Indigenous, although they account for about 10 per cent of the total child population.
There are currently 23 aboriginal agencies in B.C. that operate throughout the province and provide services up to full child protection.
Delegated agencies have come under scrutiny repeatedly over the past two decades over concerns that include screening of caregivers.
A delegated agency, Fraser Valley Aboriginal Child and Family Services Agency, was involved with Alex Gervais. Mr. Gervais died at the age of 18 in 2015 after he leapt to his death from a fourth-floor window of a hotel – a placement arranged by the delegated agency.
In an interview Thursday, a worker with that agency said she was relieved by Mr. Richard's report, because it highlighted the challenges of working with complex cases and emphasized the lack of resources for keeping families together.
Caseloads can be double or triple the recommended level and can worsen if workers off on leave are not replaced, she said.
Mr. Richard's Tuesday report noted that delegated agencies have difficulty hiring and retaining workers because they can't pay competitive salaries and benefits.
He also referred to a report by his predecessor, titled "When Talk Trumped Service," which concluded millions had been spent on Indigenous child welfare without helping any children. He said that report had been mistakenly interpreted as criticizing Indigenous people for spending money without full accountability – when in fact the report's main purpose was to point out the government's confused, ineffective approach to delegation and oversight.
Mr. Richard's latest report underlines conclusions made in several previous studies, said NDP children's critic Melanie Mark.
"People don't understand that these delegated agencies are contracted on behalf of the ministry to deliver the same services [as the ministry]," Ms. Mark said.
"What this report exposes is that they do the same services with less money – less resources, less training and less capacity to carry out the same mandated, legislated services."
Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux released a statement saying Mr. Richard's conclusions don't reflect many of the recent improvements the province has made to help ensure better outcomes for Indigenous children and families.