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(Re) Conceptualizing Neglect: Considering the Overrepresentation of Indigenous Children in Child Welfare Systems in Canada

Abstract

The current overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canadian child welfare systems continues a history of government policies that have separated Indigenous families over the course of many generations. Political and legal developments in recent years are creating the possibility to both disrupt Indigenous children’s overrepresentation in child welfare proceedings and support Indigenous self-determination in decision-making related to child welfare. However, the potential to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canadian child welfare systems is still limited, in part, by the absence of a comprehensive framework for transforming existing child welfare legislation. Because the disproportionate representation of Indigenous children is driven largely by investigations of child neglect, there is particular need for a framework for understanding and shifting away from the current approach to assessing neglect cases. In this article, we examine theoretical and legislative conceptualizations of child neglect in terms of their relationship to the disproportionate involvement of Indigenous children in child welfare across Canada and, more specifically, in Quebec. We also briefly examine the concepts of child well-being and cultural safety which we see as useful complements to the current conceptualization of neglect. Our goal is to support ongoing critical dialogue related to the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canada’s child welfare systems, and in so doing contribute to the development of a new framework for understanding and operationalizing “neglect” in Indigenous contexts which at its core could bolster Indigenous self-determination.

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Notes

  1. Canada has a decentralized system in which child welfare falls under the domain of individual provincial and territorial statutes. This means there are many systems within Canada governing the conceptualization, legislation, and operationalization of what is understood to be child well-being and child neglect (Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal 2018).

  2. The language used in discussions regarding Canada’s First Peoples is contested and evolving; it has differed across time and contexts. In this article, we use “Indigenous” to refer broadly to communities whose histories in North America reach back before settler colonialism began in the 16th and 17th centuries. For consistency, when citing original sources that use the term “Aboriginal” to describe this group of people, we also use Aboriginal. When citing original sources that use the terms “Indian” or “status Indian,” which refer to the Canadian government’s ‘official’ registration of First Nations people dating back to the nineteenth century, we similarly use that language for consistency.

  3. “First Nations,” “Métis,” and “Inuit” are settler colonial terms for three categories of federally recognized Indigenous peoples. First Nations account for nearly 60% of the 1.7 million Indigenous people in the Canadian population, Métis represent roughly 35%, and Inuit represent 4% (Statistics Canada 2016a).

  4. In writing this article, we build on ideas that emerged in discussions with the research team for an ongoing project of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission (FNQLHSSC). We would like to express our gratitude to the research team on this project: Patricia Montambault, Nancy Gros-Louis Mchugh, Richard Gray, Julie Bernier, and Maude Ostiguy-Lauzon (FNQLHSSC); Terry Young (Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services); Mélanie Courtois (Mashteuiatsh First Nation); Carl Lacharité (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières); and Tonino Esposito (Université de Montréal).

  5. When we present comparisons between available data on First Nations and non-Aboriginal children, Inuit and Métis children are excluded from analysis due to insufficient data for these groups.

  6. This is an important gap in existing research. Without available data across jurisdictions, we are unable to learn from the natural variation that exists from place to place.

  7. See Grammond (2018) for more discussion of this shift toward provincial – rather than federal – legislation applying to Indigenous communities.

  8. “Status Indian” indicates recognition as Indigenous under the federal Indian Act. Political and historical dynamics have complicated which Indigenous people have this status, meaning there are Indigenous children not captured by this statistic.

  9. Johnston (1983) notes that these data do not include “non-status Indian children,” off-reserve status Indian children, or Métis children – indicating that this disproportionality would likely increase further had these numbers been included.

  10. For example, there is an overall lower rate of investigations in Quebec than in other provinces (see Fallon et al. 2015).

  11. There were 41 retained reports of neglect of First Nations children per 1000 children in the child population compared to 6.8 retained neglect reports for non-Aboriginal children (Sinha et al. 2013a).

  12. The focus on a “mother” here both reflects and perpetuates a mother-blaming and caregiver-focused aspect of the dominant discourse around neglect.

  13. The discourse of parents being “unfit” traces back to the Canadian government’s arguments to justify removing Indigenous children from their families to be placed in residential schools (e.g., TRC 2015, p. 60; Johnston 1983, p. 73).

  14. For example, Nova Scotia’s Children and family services act states the following in its preamble: “the family exists as the basic unit of society, and its well-being is inseparable from the common well-being” (Children and family services act, Acts of1990, c.5).

  15. We discuss operationalizing neglect further in the next section.

  16. The jurisdictions which do include notions of risk in their child welfare laws are as follows: Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

  17. By comparison, 25% of child welfare investigations related to non-Aboriginal children were for risk of maltreatment (Sinha et al. 2011). For First Nations children, 22% of these risk reports were substantiated while for non-Aboriginal children, only 19% were substantiated (Sinha et al. 2011).

  18. The ICBE is based on the Child Well-Being Scales, a validated instrument using 43 parent, child, and family factors associated with neglect and abuse (Magura and Moses 1986; Gaudin et al. 1992).

  19. The Canadian child welfare focus on the nuclear family reflects a widely accepted paradigm of dyadic “attachment” (Ainsworth 1979), which assumes that healthy child development results primarily from early interactions with one sensitive, responsive caregiver, may ignore the importance of significant relationships with extended family members in Indigenous families (Lewis 2012; Neckoway et al. 2007; Muir and Bohr 2014). Alternative models to a lens of dyadic attachment are proposed in academic literature, such as extending this concept to attachment to community and culture beyond family members (McKenzie et al. 1995) and reconceptualizing attachment as “connectedness,” which incorporates “a broader grounding in a person’s total environment,” including connection to extended family, culture, and the natural world (Carriere and Richardson 2009, p. 57).

  20. Indeed, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ([UNDRIP] 2008) recognizes the “right of Indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child” (p. 3).

  21. Cultural safety arose as a framework for healthcare service delivery in the late 1980s from Indigenous Maori nurses in New Zealand who saw worse outcomes for Indigenous patients who experienced marginalization and disenfranchisement related to residual settler colonial dominance (Ramsden 1997). Brascoupé and Waters (2009) note that cultural safety is a departure from earlier health and social service concepts of “cultural competence” and “cultural sensitivity” which do not acknowledge power differences and structural inequities in settler colonial contexts (e.g., Ramsden 1997; Herring et al. 2012; Cannon and Sunseri 2018).

  22. E.g., Youth Protection Act, R.S.Q. 2007, p-34.1, 37.5

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Funding

This research was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Grant and by a gift from the Royal Bank of Canada foundation to support the McGill Centre for Research on Children and Families’ Children’s Services Research and Training Program.

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Correspondence to Vandna Sinha.

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Caldwell, J., Sinha, V. (Re) Conceptualizing Neglect: Considering the Overrepresentation of Indigenous Children in Child Welfare Systems in Canada. Child Ind Res 13, 481–512 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-019-09676-w

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Keywords

  • Neglect
  • Indigenous children
  • Canada
  • Child welfare legislation
  • Well-being
  • Cultural safety
  • Self-determination