Indigenous Child Welfare in Ontario: Reconceptualizing Neglect Investigations

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By: Eliana Sinicropi

The overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canadian child welfare systems is driven by substantiated neglect investigations. Indigenous Peoples are more likely to face structural inequalities which can impede their ability to meet the needs of their children. The understanding of neglect as a parental failure, which is consistent across provincial jurisdictions, does not provide for a comprehensive understanding of the role of community and extended family members in Indigenous communities.

The Ontario child welfare system strives to protect and enhance the well-being of children. Historically, these services have not applied to Indigenous children, whose well-being was insignificant to federal attempts to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian society. The systemic cultural genocide perpetuated by the child welfare system, through Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop, continues to shape child welfare systems today. In Ontario, Indigenous children are approximately two and a half times more likely to have a substantiated case of maltreatment in comparison to non-Indigenous children. In 2018, Indigenous children made up 10% of all substantiated investigations in Ontario.

In 2019, Bill C-92, or an Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Children, Youth and Families, was passed. This federal legislation promotes Indigenous self-government in child welfare and seeks to establish national standards of care in response to increasing pressure from Indigenous Peoples and advocates to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care. Bill C-92 adheres to the Truth and Reconciliation’s fourth call to action: “enact Aboriginal child-welfare legislation that establishes national standards for Aboriginal child apprehension.”

This Act was developed in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations and various Indigenous partners. Beginning in 2018, Indigenous Services Canada consulted Indigenous organizations, advocates, elders, and individuals with lived experience, culminating in over 2000 participants across 65 engagement sessions. In July 2020, the federal government committed $542 million over five years to implement Bill C-92.

In Canada, child welfare is regulated and administered provincially. Where provincial and federal legislation conflict, Bill C-92 has jurisdiction. The most recent child welfare legislation in Ontario, The Child, Youth and Family Services Act (CYFSA), came into effect in 2018. Notably, Section 4 of the CYFSA highlights the government’s resolution of offering more culturally appropriate services by authorizing Indigenous bands or communities to designate their own child and family service authority.

In Ontario, neglect is characterized as a “failure to adequately care for, provide for, supervise or protect the child, or a pattern of neglect in caring for, providing for, supervising or protecting the child,” which may result in the child befalling harm. For First Nations children, neglect is the most common type of substantiated maltreatment investigation. One study determined that 46% of all substantiated neglect investigations in Quebec involved First Nations children. Additionally, according to the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, last published in 2008, Indigenous children comprised one-fourth of all neglect investigations. Among First Nations families, poor quality housing and housing instability, poverty, and substance use contributed to a higher likelihood of having a substantiated neglect investigation. These broader structural issues are more commonly faced by Indigenous communities.

Additionally, the prevalence of substantiated neglect investigations may pose a risk to the reunification of Indigenous children with their birth families following placement in out-of-home care. The likelihood of reunification is reduced when a child experiences neglect or placement instability, both of which are more common among Indigenous children in care.

Indigenous child-rearing practices, which differ between First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, are shaped by community participation. Institutional definitions of family, which prioritize the ‘nuclear’ family, may not be applicable to Indigenous communities. Indigenous families are defined by culture and identity as well as a high level of fluidity. For example, Indigenous children may live with more than one family, have multiple caregivers, and live within complex kinship systems. Conceptualizing Indigenous family structures poses a challenge for child welfare investigations, which define neglect as a caregiver failure without consideration for alternate kinship systems.

Indigenous Peoples have an inherent right to raise their children according to the values and child-rearing practices of their communities. Recently passed federal and provincial legislation strives to acknowledge the right to self-governance and Indigenous cultural identity. However, current policy frameworks fail to recognize how broader structural inequalities and alternative understandings of family and community affect caregiver-child relationships in Indigenous communities.

Eliana Sinicropi is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in Sociology and Neuroscience from the University of Guelph. Eliana’s policy interests include child welfare and health policy.

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