By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor
November 15, 2016.
The death of a four-year-old girl who had transitioned out of care has prompted the child and youth advocate to push for changes in the way the province handles kinship care.
On Tuesday morning, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate released a report on Marie (not her real name), who died of physical injuries incurred almost one year after Child Intervention Services concluded its involvement. Marie was in a home that started off as kinship care. The kinship caregivers had become her private guardians by the time Marie died.
The investigation resulted in Advocate Del Graff identifying the “need for Child Intervention Services to address and support those elements of kinship care that make it unique from foster care.”
In Voices for Change: Aboriginal Child Welfare in Alberta a special report from OCYA delivered in July, Graff called for “increasing the use of kinship care for Aboriginal children.”
There is no doubt in Don Langford’s mind that kinship care is the preferred method by which to meet the needs of Indigenous children taken into care. Kinship care provides familiarity, cultural, community and language continuity.
“I believe it’s the way to go, but it’s hard,” said Langford, who serves as executive director with the Métis Child and Family Services Society. “Kinship care is far more difficult than foster care because the demands on the family are different.”
Kinship care means that a child, who has been apprehended, is placed with a family relation. It also means an existing relationship that adds pressure and often times results in interference from one or both of that child’s parents.
The difficulties that kinship caregivers face are not recognized by the province, says Langford, noting that kinship caregivers do not receive the same orientation, training, supports and funding foster care parents do. Another difference, he says, is that kinship caregivers have up until nine months after the child has arrived in the home to complete their home assessment, while foster care parents need to have the home assessment completed – by an outside party - prior to a child’s placement.
Home assessment is an area that Graff targets as a recommendation in his report on Marie. Presently, kinship caregivers can undertake self-assessments of their homes and do not require outside professional input. The OCYA is calling for “the collection of collateral information in the completion of the home study from community professionals, who are familiar with the applicant, regarding the demonstrated ability of the kinship applicant.”
The OCYA is also recommending that policy be consistent, including mandatory orientation and training for kinship caregivers.
Langford says that how agencies deal with kinship caregivers depends upon each agency.
“I like to think we provide good support to our kinship parents and our foster parents and anybody that comes in because we work under a cultural program,” he said. That cultural programming provides an enhanced Aboriginal service delivery element, which means embracing an Indigenous world view.
Cultural appropriateness is also another recommendation from Graff, who calls on the ministry to “implement a home study tool specifically for kinship care that is culturally relevant and addresses the unique kinship circumstances” and “provide a continuum of culturally relevant, supportive services for kinship caregivers.”
In responding to the OCYA report, Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir said in a statement, “Creating culturally appropriate supports for Indigenous children and families must be done in collaboration with Indigenous partners. We will continue to listen to Indigenous leaders and families to ensure our practices support their needs.”
Langford says provincial governments have been promising for decades to work with Indigenous communities.
“We have not been involved in the way we should when it comes to setting policy on how service should be delivered,” he said.
Marie’s report is the third report from the OCYA that has included recommendations on kinship care.
All three reports call for specialized training for kinship caregivers and more supports.
“We have already taken action to strengthen a number of areas the advocate highlighted. Work is underway on assessment tools that meet the unique needs of kinship caregivers, a support program to help caregivers and staff better understand how trauma affects child development, and approaches to family reunification that put children first,” said Sabir.