Discourse‘s child welfare reporter, Brielle Morgan, spoke with B.C.’s Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy on Feb. 9, 2018.
Brielle reflected on that conversation in her newsletter, and has published the full conversation, below.
Brielle Morgan: Thank you so much for making time. I know that we only have 10 minutes … Last year I heard from a lot of parents who say they don’t feel heard, or they don’t feel that they’re represented very often in media coverage of the system. So my questions are really focused on their experiences of this system.
For example, when families need serious support because of poverty, intergenerational trauma or some other combination of barriers, what are some alternatives to separating kids from their family and their community?
Katrine Conroy: When I first got appointed I recognized that that was an issue. I have a new deputy as well. We both started at the same time, and that’s our commitment — to work with the ministry staff to make sure that we are providing supports to families.
I think the best example, like an actual example I can give you, is there was a couple of kids who the school reported that they thought they were being neglected. And when the social worker went and did an investigation, she realized that their water system had broken down. They lived in rural B.C. They couldn’t afford a new water system. So the ministry, instead of apprehending the kids, paid for a new water system, and their kids are happy. The parents are happy, and they got to keep the family together, which is what I think needs to be the goal.
It’s a change in how social work practice has been carried out. I mean, it’s always been the bottom line … making sure children are safe, but I think we need to look at the reasons of why there are concerns. Housing is a big issue. And I think that our government has recognized that. Housing is a priority for our government, as is poverty reduction. We have a ministry now: Social Development [and] Poverty Reduction. We’re going to be looking at things like what can we do to alleviate poverty for parents … A lot of young people I talk to, young families, housing is one of the biggest issues, as is child care.
Child welfare leaders across the country are always talking about [the need for] more funding and more efforts to support families before they’re in a position where you have to make the unfortunate call to remove kids.
I’ve been hearing about [approaches] in other jurisdictions … [like] the LIFE program in Winnipeg … where both the kids and their parents are placed in a foster home together for eight months. And then they work with a mentor called a “life mom,” who models parenting skills for them. The Yukon government recently launched a similar program. I’m wondering if there are any equivalent programs coming up in B.C.
There are alternative programs … specifically working with some First Nations communities. We’re working with Indigenous communities to begin to return the jurisdiction — “return” is probably not the right word — to ensure the jurisdiction of child welfare becomes their responsibility.
If the Nation is responsible for child welfare, there’s things that can be done … even though the parents might have an issue. They can keep their children in the community. They can keep them with their culture. They’re not taken away from that culture, that identity, and we can do things like work with aunties and grandmas or extended family members to ensure the kids can stay.
Before there wasn’t the ability for social workers to do that, but we’re working with Indigenous communities to begin that process. We’ve worked with the Wet’suwet’en, the Splatsin … and the Métis. We actually are in the midst of coming to an agreement with the Métis. We actually work really well with the Métis and have two delegated agencies now with the Métis; Kamloops just became fully delegated. And that’s what we need to work towards.
The tone of the relationships seems like it’s changing between the provincial government and First Nations.
Oh, we have to. We have to … As an MLA, I’ve never been involved with the ministry as a critic. You become immersed in your critic areas, and MCFD was never my critic area. But I worked in the sector before I became an MLA, and I was shocked to hear the numbers, to hear the stats. Sixty-two per cent of the kids in care in B.C. are Indigenous, and [they make up] only 10 per cent of kids … in the entire province. We have to change the way we do our work, so that we can begin to change that [overrepresentation.]
And you’re right. We have to look at families. We have to work at keeping families together, as opposed to automatically apprehending.
A lot of these parents who I’ve been connecting with — they were kids in the system. And their parents were. It’s this intergenerational, cyclical removal of children from families, which is of course traumatic for these families. The RCY is a designated advocate for children, but I’m curious about whose job it is to stand with these parents who are working to try to reunite their families.
I think it’s the ministry’s job. I think it’s the delegated agency’s job. You know, I think it’s all of our job. I think it’s the First Nations leadership. I mean, we’re all working together. Children don’t stand by themselves, just like children aren’t standing by themselves in poverty. Children are in poverty in a family. And we have to ensure that we keep the families together.
… Some of the most impactful conversations that I’ve had, since I’ve been appointed minister have been with former youth in care. And they’ve talked about losing their cultural identity, losing their heritage. The ones who’ve had good foster parents have talked about the amazing foster parents, how [their foster parents] loved them, but some of them said they finally found themselves when they found their cultural identity — got back to their families. We have to do more of that. We have to make sure that we can support kids in that way. The bottom line is that if kids can be with their birth families then that is so important.
Last October, [youth from care organized a] Policy Solutions Day in Victoria. The young leaders brought together dozens of MLAs. And those young leaders put forward four key recommendations for systems change. I don’t think that the government has issued a public statement in response to those recommendations. And so I’m curious about whether you’re committed to implementing them. And if so, by when?
We’re working towards them. And some of them I can’t talk about right now. Stay tuned, I would say. We are definitely — I mean, we recognize the issues. From my perspective, I have four kids and nine grandkids. And [to] none of my kids did I say, at 19, “Okay, you’re on your own. Take care. Never see ya again.”
We have to take responsibility. [For] children in care, the government is the parent, and we have to be good, responsible parents and ensure that we’re there for them. Just because you turn 19, doesn’t mean you magically become an adult … I have four amazing kids. They all came back home and got help and we were there to support them. I just, I think that’s what we have to do. And I’ve been speaking out a lot about it.
Maybe you could speak to the first [recommendation]. I know they called for a task force. Is that in the works?
We do have a Youth Advisory Council, and it’s made up youth who are in care or who have been in care. They meet regularly, and they advise me as a minster. They advise our director of child welfare. You know, they advise the ministry on any issues that do come up. And they are a really well-spoken group of young people. I think that the more we can reach out to youth and bring their voices to the table, the better it is for everybody.
Yeah, I’ve met [YAC member] Bryant Doradea a couple of times. He’s a force.
Bryant’s amazing. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Bryant. His spoken word is very powerful. I actually went to the Foster Parents Association’s AGM in Whistler in the fall, and Bryant was one of three youth (that have aged out of care) who sat on a panel and spoke to the foster parents about their experiences — and some [of their experiences] were good and some really weren’t. The three of them were just open and honest. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was really, really powerful. I think that’s what we need to do. We need to make sure that people talk about their experiences.
If we don’t learn from the experiences, we’re not going anywhere. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We have to change the way we do things.
Just to go back, the task force I was asking about is the inter-ministerial committee [that the youth asked for].
Oh, sorry. There is an inter-ministerial committee of deputy ministers. They do talk about youth issues, so that definitely is front and centre. It’s discussed and brought back to ministers. There’s also an inter-ministerial committee of assistant deputy ministers, depending on what the issues are.
… One of the things I’ve tried to do is get around and meet with staff … I ask how long they’ve been with the ministry, and I’m just so impressed, blown away by the commitment of the people that work in the ministry. You know, it’s a tough ministry. And they’re positive and they’re excited about change and moving forward in a direction that is family-friendly. And the work that people are doing with Indigenous communities — it’s exciting.
You tend to hear the negative, and you don’t hear about the positive stuff that’s happening. You have to learn from those experiences that aren’t so great. But there are still many good things that are happening within the ministry. It gives me hope.
A quick point about the media coverage: last year we organized Child Welfare Media Day [and] you supported that. I’m working with a team to plan a second workshop series for media who are interested in improving coverage of the child welfare system. And then we’re going to do another Child Welfare Media Day on Nov. 20.
I’d love to see you guys get more involved this year. Last year the ministry kind of jumped on at the very last second, and we were hoping that we could have worked more collaboratively with you guys in the lead up to it.
That would be great. Because it’s so frustrating. I can’t speak to specifics about cases, by law. Even if there’s things that have been reported in the media, I’m not allowed to confirm or deny it. By law, I can’t. And it is so incredibly frustrating because [I] know there’s information out there that might not be accurate, and I can’t speak to it. It’s really, really hard.
The bottom line is the information about kids has to be kept. Confidentiality and the privacy of people involved in the system has to be maintained. But it’s hard. It’s hard to not be able to say, “Well, no, that’s not accurate. This is actually what happened.” That’s one of the hardest things about my job.
I understand how slowly systemic change comes. What is the one thing you’d most like to achieve during your tenure as minister?
Sign off on jurisdiction’s responsibility to First Nations communities — as many as we can. It’s not something that happens over night, but the more commitments we can make, and the more First Nations communities that are willing and want to take on that responsibility, I think that’s what we have to work for. That’s what leadership wants to do.
It’s part of UNDRIP — the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous [Peoples]. And it’s part of the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission’s] Calls to Action. The first five are child welfare. Every minister has that in our mandate letters, so we’re looking at legislation, the policy of what we can do to change the trajectory of how the ministry operates. The more that we can work with Indigenous communities the better — making things better for youth.
Thank you so much, Minister Conroy. I really appreciate your time.
Okay, thank you. Talk to you later. I hope we can carry on this discussion.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.