Story of Gitanmaax child deeply disturbing

Robert Hart practiced child protection social work in BC and Yukon for over 20 years. He worked on social research with the federal government focussing on models of family support and lectured on social policy at UNBC for 16 years. (Submitted photo/Robert Hart)

The story “Judge rules against province’s appeal to remove Gitanmaax minor from community” (Interior News, Nov. 11, 2021) is deeply disturbing at many levels.

Over two decades ago the province began a process of returning the responsibility for ensuring the safety of Indigenous children back to their communities. So why was Gitxsan Child & Family Services not more involved in this case? Within that same time period, the Ministry introduced Family Group Conferencing as the preferred way of working with extended families to keep parents supported and children well connected. Based on both the cultural value of family responsibility and the social work focus on healthy relationships, its introduction was welcomed by Indigenous families and it was more successful in developing good plans for children than anything tried before, or since.

So the first question is why neither the Ministry nor Gitxsan C&FS were working within their mandates? Court is supposed to be the last place one finds a social worker, not the first. When queried, the Ministry always defaults into silence, citing the need for confidentiality to protect the people using its service. This is an understandable public and professional position, expected and acceptable as far as it goes, but that is not very far. One would think that a Ministry that depends on public understanding to keep children safe would take every opportunity to explain its policies so as to encourage that necessary cooperation. The public does not need to know any family’s situation but they do need to understand how their government works.

Bluntly, the reason is that a public discussion of policies shows them to be lacking and, as policy drives practice, undercutting of good social work. We have a public assistance policy that keeps families below the poverty line where it is impossible for them to thrive. Politely, it is a form of social neglect. We have a policy of removing children from harm but not one to offer them enough therapy to address the damage. We have a policy to work cooperatively with families, but social workers with high caseloads do not have the time to invest in this slower but surer approach. We have a policy to set up Indigenous agencies but not to fund them adequately and not to work with them cooperatively and collegially. No one is served well.

Chief Councillor Woods is right. None of this serves reconciliation either. The removing of children from their community removes them from their culture, creating secondary trauma for them and continuing trauma for their communities. Until the government funds the Ministry and Indigenous agencies adequately, neither can focus on the long term collaborative work with families that is required to support parents and keep children healthy. That lack of long-term support and respectful partnership makes the government’s commitment to the rights of Indigenous peoples a hollow gesture that does nothing to strengthen their communities. It simply stinks of our 200 year history of colonialism and racism.

No good social work can possibly occur without respectful long-term relationships between everyone involved. Our children require that of us. The impasse at Gitanmaax shows we have a long way to go.

Robert Hart, MSW

Terrace, B.C.

Robert Hart practiced child protection social work in BC and Yukon for over 20 years. He worked on social research with the federal government focussing on models of family support and lectured on social policy at UNBC for 16 years.