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‘Appalling’: AFN Chief says Indigenous youth shouldn’t be placed in for-profit care

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak says First Nations children shouldn’t be placed with for-profit companies in Ontario’s child-welfare system.

She made her remarks in an exclusive interview with Global News after the broadcast and publication online of a year-long, three-part investigation that revealed allegations of targeting and mistreatment of Indigenous youth by some group homes.

“That’s appalling to hear,” Chief Woodhouse Nepinak told Global News. “We’ve always known that our kids were a target.

“I don’t think our children should be for-profit at all,” she said.

“It’s time that we give our children back to the people that have cared for them for thousands and thousands of years.”

Chief Woodhouse Nepinak said she would be renewing calls for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize in the House of Commons to all the Indigenous youth who’ve been wronged by Canada’s child-welfare systems.

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“Unfortunately, our kids have been taken away since residential schools, day schools, the ’60s Scoop and now the child welfare system,” she said.

Click to play video: 'The New Reality: The Business of Indigenous Kids in Care'

The New Reality: The Business of Indigenous Kids in Care

The Global News investigation revealed how Indigenous youth from remote communities in Northern Ontario and Nunavut are allegedly targeted by some for-profit group home companies because their owners can charge more for Indigenous children or because the kids provide a steady source of revenue, according to interviews with more than 50 former group home workers, former children’s aid employees and child-welfare experts.

The results are horrendous experiences some likened to the abuse that took place during the residential schools era, according to some workers, child-welfare experts and youth.

In northern Ontario, Indigenous child-welfare agencies care for kids who have experienced family crises or abuse or who have complex needs.

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These agencies serve some of the most resource-starved communities located near the Manitoba border all the way up to Attawapiskat on James Bay, which can lack basic services like housing, running water, or mental health care.

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Faced with few options, these Indigenous children’s agencies are often sent to group homes thousands of kilometres away in cities in southern Ontario — separating them from family, friends and culture.

Click to play video: 'How Grassy Narrows is fighting to keep its kids out of the child-welfare system'

How Grassy Narrows is fighting to keep its kids out of the child-welfare system

A Global News analysis of spending data by children’s aid societies (CAS) across Ontario revealed that northern Indigenous agencies are paying higher daily fees for such care than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

On average, northern Indigenous children’s aid societies paid 26 per cent more per day for a child to live in a group home, not run by a CAS, compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts between 2012/2013 and 2021/2022.

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This discrepancy meant Indigenous children’s agencies in northern Ontario spent nearly $28 million more over 10 years than if they’d been charged the average rate paid by non-Indigenous agencies across the province.

Chief Woodhouse Nepinak called the situation “disgusting.”

“It’s hurtful to communities, it’s hurtful to families, it’s hurtful to the next generation.”

Global News also spoke with multiple former workers from group homes across Ontario who said that staff and management at some companies allegedly referred to Indigenous youth as “cash cows,” “money-makers,” or even “paycheques.”

“It’s disgusting. … How could you label children like that?” Chief Woodhouse Nepinak said. “They’re our children. They’re First Nations children. And to treat them less than is horrific.” 

She said child welfare should be under the jurisdiction of First Nations, pointing to a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that upheld the federal government’s Indigenous child welfare law.

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Known as Bill C-92, An Act Respecting First Nations, Métis and Inuit Children Youth and Families, the act became law in 2019 and establishes that Indigenous nations have jurisdiction over child and family services. It also outlines national minimum standards of care.

”It’s time that we bring our children home,” Chief Woodhouse Nepinak said, adding that communities will have to be “well-resourced” to meet the needs of their children.

Feds offer to help Ontario with potential probe

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Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Patty Hajdu said in a statement that seven agreements have been signed under the Bill C-92 framework and that there are ongoing discussions with over 20 other Indigenous governing bodies to restore control of child and family services as well.

The provincial government oversees the child welfare system in Ontario, while Ottawa provides financial, governance and infrastructure support to First Nation communities through two agencies.

“The Federal Government is ready to help the province with an investigation should they pursue one,” Minister Hadju said.

Michael Parsa, Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, has not yet responded to a request for an interview.

Global’s investigation also showed that some Indigenous youth receive little to no cultural services and the conditions of the homes were compared to a “prison” where staff frequently use physical force to restrain children, according to interviews with group home workers, youths and children’s aid employees.

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In Ontario, there are just over 300 group homes, with 135 run by for-profit companies that each negotiate a daily rate with the province. The remaining homes are run by non-profits, like children’s aid societies, Indigenous children’s agencies, and independent or religious organizations.

Group home companies contacted by Global News rejected any comparison with residential schools and denied they are targeting Indigenous kids from northern communities for profit or gouging.

The companies said Indigenous youth are placed in their group homes and facilities by children’s aid workers from their home communities and that their care isn’t funded differently than other youth.

“You always want to make sure that your kids are safe, and we’re not,” said Chief Woodhouse Nepinak, holding back tears. “We’re not keeping them safe in this country.”

&© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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