Friday, 17 January 2014

Child Welfare Dispute: Six Nations versus Brant Children's Aid Society

Before launching into the controversy going on at present at Six Nations, I thought that it would be useful to look at hauntingly similar disputes that have impacted the children of other Reserves in Canada in recent years.

An excellent overview of the various child welfare issues can be found in Chapter 6, Child Welfare: Strengthening the Abusive Circle found in the book by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, "Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation", Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press, 2008 which I will discuss in more detail in subsequent posts.  First I will examine the problem across Canada, then focus on Six Nations.

The Wider Perspective in Indian Territory Relative to Child Welfare:  Widdowson and Howard discuss the matter of White people adopting Native children, and how the latter sometimes receive the derisive term "apple" - red on the outside, white on the inside.  Many of these children do in fact develop social problems, but the interpretation is not always straightforward.  Native activists would say that the act is little more than "cultural genocide" as the child will always gravitate toward his or her biological heritage.  If culture is such a key factor in adoption, why is it that there are so many successful White parent - Asian child adoptions? 

The rather dramatic example of Michael Cretien, the adopted son of former Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Cretien, is worth exploring.  Michael taped up and sodomized a woman who was passed out from alcohol.  The apologists got to work quickly and said that this is but another example of why Native children must remain in their home community, or be adopted by Native parents.  However, the most parsimonious, and hence the most likely, explanation is that Michael was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Exposure Syndrome (FAS or FAES) due to his biological mother's heavy drinking while he was a foetus in the womb. 

To deny that FAS is a problem on Reserves to to play ostrich.  It is literally in your face, and to the trained eye can often be read in the physical features of the child (e.g., the positioning of the ears).  This exposure causes irreversible brain damage for which there is no remediation.  The behavioural symptoms can include learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other actions that will likely ensure that no matter what sort of loving home they reside in, Native or White, the child will experience serious problems. 

The rate of FAS in Native communities varies between about 100 and 400 per 1000 births, compared to 1 to 3 per 1000 births in the general population.  This is an outlandish difference, and is caused by one factor alone - the biological mother's consumption of alcohol particularly in the first trimester (3 months of gestation).  What is amazing, and sad, is that the government has been less than proactive in addressing this off the charts discrepancy for fear of "stigmatising" the Native population.  So I guess it is better to sweep the problem under the carpet.  Native communities have reacted by blaming the group whose responsibility it is to deal with the fall out the best they can - social workers (particularly if they are non-Native).  So they recommend "community involvement" rather than classical intervention by the Children's Aid Society.  The term is nothing but a platitude since it disguises an excuse for inaction and thus a lowering of the reported rate of the problems.  The root problem is alcoholism.  Anything that deflects away from this reality is just politics.

Incredible as it may sound to some (who know for example the overlap between Native and White communities in many places in the country), aboriginals and their apologists maintain that aboriginal peoples are racially and culturally distinct from non-aboriginals, thus they should determine child welfare policies without outside interference (p.164).  So despite the extensive training all social workers receive in understanding child development (much of which is universal), somehow it can be justified that they cannot be helpful but rather, "overzealous social workers" are part of the problem. Here the belief is that they have "stolen" Native children as part of a conspiracy, in order to commit "cultural genocide".  In other words there is a "conscious conspiracy to steal Native babies" (p.165) and sell them on the black market etc. etc.  As crazy as this sounds, there are those who buy into this explanation, which of course justifies taking back child welfare and giving the social workers the boot.  In the 1950s the government became aware of the dysfunctional character of aboriginal communities, with high rates of child neglect, pedophilia and incest (p.165).  Apparently, in the mind of many aboriginals, it is better to keep the child in the community because if you removed every perpetrator of domestic violence there would be few if any left and the community would disperse.   Anyway, the parents are only neglectful on the weekends when they leave the children to go on drinking binges - and other such justifications.  I am not making this stuff up. 

There is no evidence that social workers remove children from the homes of sober caring parents, but that does not matter, the perception is that the social workers are the problem and they should keep their noses out of Reserve business.  Of course the Federal Government who often gets left holding the bag when crises break out have no choice but to be "culturally sensitive" even if it means glossing over the facts to keep up a pretence.  So they proposed to, revitalize traditional child - rearing practises that are alleged to have protected the child in the past (p.167).  While it may be true that in the past certain practises (such as letting the child decide what time to come home) worked, the world has changed and the wholesale application of outmoded practises would be a catastrophic failure (which tends to be the case when tried).  The Province of Manitoba took a "hands off" approach and sure enough the number of reported cases of abuse went down - because now the abuse was tolerated and unreported - so the stats looked good, and the children suffered.  There are a number of absolutely horrid cases that emerged out of this misguided policy - but what is one supposed to do when aboriginals and their supporters are insisting that with local autonomy they can fix the problem.  Damned if you do, damned of you don't.

As Widdowson and Howard assert, Aboriginal leaders are in complete denial about the extent and severity of abuse that exists in native communities (p.175).  Of course the solution is not only giving local autonomy, but also funnelling in more and more and more money, for example to hire "traditional healers".  There is no evidence what so ever that any of these programmes work, just give the illusion that something is being done, in a culturally sensitive way.  Social workers are now assessed on how "culturally sensitive" they are.  In other words how compliant to the Reserve authorities wishes, and how willing they are not to intervene.  For those who put the interests of the child ahead of the community, they are seen as ignorant of community values or some such nonsense.  Social workers are trained to put the interests of the child first and foremost.  There is no negotiation around this issue, it is part of the training and standards in their profession, and that of medicine.  Hence any real solution will require that the community also accept this principle.

Those who wish to read an assessment of the problem(s) from a Native advocate's point of view might find the well researched information here to be instructive.  I disagree with many of the statements and interpretations in this article, but it does deserve to be heard to balance the Widdowson and Howard assessment.

Past and Present at Six Nations in Relation to the Brant CAS:  I worked with social workers from Durham County, to Middlesex County, to Niagara and developed great respect for them and what they do despite the horrible adversities they face - including a lack of support from "the community".  In my work as a consultant, visiting with all parties in their homes to make my assessment to be presented in Court, never once was I accused of being "culturally insensitive" despite the number of different cultures I worked with - from wealthy Whites, to Six Nations members, to recent immigrants from Jamaica - not one complaint in years of working in this area.  I was taught a number of guiding principles such as "do no harm", and also that my decisions must always, without exception, be made based on "what is in the best interests of the child" - period.  I don't believe that the social workers are any less culturally sensitive, just frequently disrespected due to the work they sometimes must do - such as removing a child from a dangerous home environment.  I have never met one social worker who did a child apprehension with anything other than the most serious realisation as to what they were doing, acting to protect the child. 

Based on the above synopsis of my experience, I was very upset in learning that the Brant Children's Aid Society is in the process of being removed from Six Nations Territory.  First from their offices on the Reserve, with the plan being to replace all of them with a home grown care programme whose specifics I have yet to see outlined let alone detailed.  What follows is some recent information from Turtle Island News.  I have followed the story for some time, but only recently felt that I must say something because among others I have had experience in working with Brant CAS, and of course know the situation on the Reserve very well.  So I will give an update on the plans for a new child care system, and I will offer my honest opinions based on my experience.

The most recent issue of TIN (15 January 2014, p.15) provides a summary overview of what has been happening to date, and what the plans are for the future.  There are also articles in the Brantford Expositor and the Simcoe Reformer pertaining to this matter.  See here for an example.  Others can be googled.  First, it is odd that the "confusion" on the Reserve about what is happening is being blamed on social workers "mixing up issues" (whatever that means) over their removal.  The real problem seems to be that Six Nations knows what it wants, but has no idea as to how to go about getting it done (my opinion).  The plan is in fact to get rid of the Brant CAS and replace them with an ill defined child welfare service that will supposedly service Native children at Six Nations and all of Brant County.  The programme has a name, "Taking Care of Our Own", O Gwa deni:deo.  It will supposedly operate "through Band Council mandates" (whatever that means), and it will be funded by the Province.  So someone comes up with an idea to completely change what has been in place for 42 years, and replace it with an untried service with personnel whose training and skills are as yet unknown, and the Province will pick up the tab.  Does that make any sense?

Apparently a Child Welfare Services Project Coordinator has been appointed, along with a "consultant" (whose name is unfamiliar to me, and who does not appear to be a Six Nations member - a White "hired gun" willing to play ball by Council rules?).  Their only apparent contribution to date is to offload the problems on the shoulders of the Brant CAS workers (who are still expected to carry on, business as usual, during this "transition period" where they will probably ultimately all lose their jobs).  Apparently the whole matter came up because there have been complaints from the community.  Well, what a surprise!  Complaints against the CAS are legion because they are doing what is amongst the dirtiest jobs, guaranteed to be emotionally volatile because children are being taken from the home, and community if no one is available to take care of the child - so blame the workers diligently doing their jobs.  The "Coordinator" made a point of stating that the present social workers will need to "compete" for their jobs, based on performance and community complaints.  Apparently the officials at Brant CAS were "begging for forgiveness" for not consulting the clanmothers.  That seems very unlikely, and I would like to hear what Brant CAS has to say.

If Six Nations thinks that having their own in house CAS type service will lead to a rose garden they are in for a very big and rude awakening.  Apparently "the community", "want culture integrated and they want clanmothers involved in that process".  How many clanmothers are upset?  Questions of this nature have yet to be answered.

This local initiative is not the first to go this route.  Perhaps they should check out the data on those communities who travelled this path.  What was the outcome - after cutting through all the gloss, and looking only at the welfare of the child, not the community?

Naturally, the Elected Council and the Hereditary Council both have a stake in the matter, and as yet they do not seem to have locked horns - both wanting the CAS off the Reserve to be replaced by "something home grown".  However, I must give two Onondaga Chiefs on the Hereditary Council credit for showing good sense in refusing to sign an agreement about the timetable for the CAS removal.  They have earned my respect for urging caution.  However, the new establishment with the "consultant" have basically stated that not all the Confederacy Chiefs "have a clear grasp" - wow, and this is not an insult to the two Chiefs who "dared" to express concerns?  The Chiefs were worried about the safety of the children, and the liability issues that could arise.  And for this they are called "confused"!  Then there was the accusation that, "Somebody's been feeding (chiefs) misinformation".  However apparently the clanmothers are all on board - although one might question that if this is so, why some chiefs (who in a sense report to them) are "confused".  Apparently though, not only some chiefs are "confused", but also some clanmothers are under some misunderstanding about who will run the new agency.  This returns us to the most chronic problem on the Reserve - factionalism.  The "worry" of the clanmothers is that the Elected Council will get to rule the roost.  They needed to be reassured that the group will be independent - although that is inconsistent with earlier statements of the new entity being mandated by Elected Council.  It appears that the new transition team is obsessed with getting the Brant CAS physically off the Reserve (out of their present offices), expecting that the social workers can effectively do their work, and visit the Reserve, from offices in Brantford.  I simply do not understand the rationale for banishing the social workers here - it will only make their job more difficult, and hence the children will be the ones to suffer.

In my opinion, as someone who is knowledgeable in relation to many aspects of this initiative, it is ill conceived - no matter what "the community" has said.  We have no idea who "the community" is in this context.  Where are the statistics?  Is this just an instance where a few influential members swayed others, who are really not at all upset about things at this point - but to keep the peace ...........


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