Transforming Child Welfare

10 April 2019

“Transforming Child Welfare: Interdisciplinary Practices, Field Education and Research”
edited by H. Monty Montgomery, Dorothy Badry, Don Fuchs and Daniel Kikulwe, editors
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Madonna Hamel
ISBN 9780889774513 $39.95

The authors of Transforming Child Welfare begin with a focus on The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by196 nations (except for the United States) in 1991. Nelson Mandela described the Convention as a “living luminous document that enshrines the rights of every child without exception to a life of dignity and self-fulfillment.” While the UNRC and dozens of organizations, institutions, parliamentarians, individuals and even the children themselves work for change, UNICEF’s recent report card measuring overall well-being among children in twenty-nine countries in the world reveals Canada in seventeenth place. (The top three being Netherlands, Norway and Iceland). In fact, Canada is among a group of five countries that has seen no improvement and actual regression when it comes to the welfare of the child. And those “left furthest behind are Indigenous.” The authors insist “this is an uncomfortable truth but not an inevitable situation.”

The rate of children in foster care in Canada is among the highest in the world, with most children coming from Indigenous homes. Again and again, case studies reveal that systemic causes are affecting the lives of children who come from “poverty, poor housing, racial white injustice going back to residential schools” and other ways of segregating a group of people from their way of life, inevitably from life.

A history of vocabulary filled with blame and shame is critiqued by several authors. Runaways, often escaping harm, are described as “criminals” and instead of the word “care”, implying safe haven, the term used is “custody.” Children have a right to know what is going to happen to them, say the authors. But they just get “sugar-coating”. And despite the UNCRC, there exits no means for the child to report the state’s failure to provide them “care”.

While education is a solution to the problem of a “well-meaning but inept” child welfare system, research is not. Research is “one of the dirtiest words” in the vocabulary. “First Nations have been researched to death”, says Mary Teegee in the chapter “Researching Ourselves Back to Life.” Rarely is research material shared with the subjects. Nor is surveillance information. Many First Nations experience “over-surveillance” while being “under-served.” When Child Protection (and I’d add, the news media) files a report it acts as “judge rather than investigator”. Following Indigenous ways, say the authors, is a healthier way to get information. Their advice for youth applies to us all: “Seek advice from an old man or woman. Be respectful. You’re not their saviour. Do more listening than talking. Be humble.”

Authors who work on the front lines give us a vocabulary focused on asking children the important questions: “Do you feel safe? Can you think of anything that would help you feel safer?” Silence doesn’t mean agreement, it can mean confusion. Ask: “Do you understand what I’m saying?” The authors of this frank book are not silent. In their case- and ours – to be silent is to be complicit.


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