Federal government promises to prevent First Nation youth from aging out of care during pandemic

Calling it an “exceptional measure” the federal government announced late Friday it won’t let First Nation youth age out of the on-reserve child welfare system because it’s going cover all costs for youth to keep their supports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indigenous Services is calling it exceptional because it usually stops funding First Nation youth at 18 in the on-reserve system, outside of Alberta, and for days the department had been deferring to the provinces when asked if it was going to step in.

Now it says in light of the circumstances it is “taking action” to protect First Nations children.

“As an exceptional measure, our government will cover the costs for First Nations child and family services agencies across the country that are providing services to youth who would normally be aging out of care during this period. The age of majority will continue to be followed as defined in each jurisdiction,” said Vanessa Adams, spokeswoman for Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.

Just two days ago the department told APTN News there were on-reserve funds and programs aged-out youth could potentially access for supports, among other things.

“Children aging out of care also have access to existing supports needed to make a positive transition,” wrote spokeswoman Leslie Michelson in a Mar. 25 email.

“The decision to implement a moratorium is within provincial and territorial jurisdiction. This would then be implemented by the First Nations child and family services agencies as they follow their respective provincial and territorial child and family services-related legislation.”

Behind the scenes Cindy Blackstock said she pushed the department to pick up the costs to keep the youth in care, which is usually covered by the provinces. In Ontario, these extended benefits go up to the age of 21.

As executive director of the First Nations Children and Family Caring Society, Blackstock had her lawyer write the federal government Wednesday asking it to reconsider its policy of not covering costs and estimated between 328 and 410 youth will age out this year.

“Their circumstances are urgent,” wrote lawyer David Taylor, of Conway Litigation.

“We ask that you confirm that Canada will continue funding these individuals’ placement until the end of the current state of emergency, with provision for time for a discharge plan to be made once society’s normal operations resume.”

The following day the Ontario government said it wouldn’t let anyone age out at during the pandemic.

The move was far-reaching and applauded by people in the child welfare system and even regular people on social media saying the same, many of whom mentioned being surprised they supported a Premier Doug Ford decision.

But Blackstock wasn’t done trying.

During another meeting Friday with the federal government Blackstock said she told everyone she would take the matter to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, again – a familiar place over the last 13 years where she won her historic case Jan. 26, 2016 against Canada for purposely underfunded the on-reserve system for years.

Blackstock told APTN Friday afternoon a deal was agreed upon before the meeting ended.

Later Friday night the department confirmed it.

Indigenous Services said it would be reaching out to First Nations child and family services agencies and partners across Canada.

APTN couldn’t reach Blackstock late Friday.

The age of majority is 19 in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Yukon.

(Editor’s note: APTN had been pushing the department to explain if the funding will also cover youth about to age out of extended benefits that typically go up to the age of 21. Finally, on April 2 it provided the statement below.)

“This expansion of funding has been made available … for First Nations children and youth who are approaching the age of majority or who are past the age of majority but are in special arrangements related to their care, as defined by the province or territory,” said a department spokesperson.

 

Producer Nation to Nation - Ottawa

Ken is an award-winning investigative journalist with a decade of reporting experience who played a key role in breaking the Bruce Carson story on APTN in 2011 which led to an award from the Canadian Association of Journalists. Ken has worked out of APTN’s Ottawa bureau since October 2012.