Improving child and family services in Indigenous communities: Survey summary report

Table of contents


In 2017, the Government of Canada used an online survey to ask people how to reform and improve the First Nations Child and Family Services program. The survey opened in February 2017 and closed on April 30, 2017 and was designed to reach out to people who did not have the opportunity to meet with the department as part of the engagement on the reform of First Nations child and family services.

We heard from over 400 people across the country.

This summary explains what people told us in the survey and how they think First Nations child and family services can be improved. They told us:

The Government is using these responses to help reform the program.

Who we heard from

A total of 408 people took part in this survey, including many who were Indigenous.

Are you Indigenous or non-Indigenous?

* Note: only 401 of 408 survey participants answered this question, which is why the total percentage does not add up to 100%.

Description of Are you Indigenous or non-Indigenous?

In answer to the question "Are you Indigenous or non-Indigenous?":

  • 5% chose "don't know/prefer not to answer"
  • 38% chose "non-Indigenous"
  • 55% chose "Indigenous"
Are you First Nations, Métis or Inuit?
Description of Are you First Nations, Métis or Inuit?

In answer to the question "Are you First Nations, Métis or Inuit?"

  • 1% chose "don't know/prefer not to answer"
  • 1% chose "Inuit"
  • 5% chose "Métis"
  • 48% chose "First Nations"

Survey participants identified as parents, aunts or uncles, social workers or grandparents. Most were between the ages of 25 and 54 years old (69%), and a large number of participants identified as women (78%).

The survey response levels by province are broadly representative of the breakdown of the Canadian population by geography, with the exception of Quebec which is under-represented. Many of them said they live in cities or other urban centres (58%), and a little less than half said they live in rural or remote areas (39%).

About one quarter of participants said that children in their families are or were in customary, kinship care, foster care, adopted, or in a group home or residential care, though foster care was the most common answer.

What we heard

People who took this survey answered different questions about First Nations child and family services. We asked them for their experiences with child and family services and their opinions on where the system is failing or succeeding. We also asked for their ideas about how to improve the system.

Those who took the survey were provided support and contact information if they required information about the First Nations Child and Family Services program, or if they wanted to get a referral to a crisis line.

Experiences in care

People told us that being separated from their families and communities was very difficult. We also heard that there is not a lot of help or support for children and youth, from either their foster parents or Child and Family Services. In addition, people told us about times when they were bullied or abused. We also heard that children and youth in care feel removed from their Indigenous culture. People described how hard it was to be taken away from their extended family and to not attend family events.

Other people said they always felt like outsiders or different because they were Indigenous children placed with non-Indigenous families. A few people said they felt abandoned by their birth families because caseworkers or foster parents lied, saying their families did not want to contact them. Some said it was hard being separated from their brothers and sisters while they were living with other families. Some people said these feelings of grief and of being alone have hurt their relationships with their biological or birth families now that they are grown-up.

A lot of people said that abuse, bullying and a lack of safety was another negative experience about living in care. They shared stories about emotional, physical and sexual abuse, sometimes by their foster parents or other adults, by people that were supposed to be trustworthy. We heard that their foster brothers and sisters bullied them, making them feel unwelcome and unsafe. These experiences had long-term impacts on their lives, including running away and never finishing school.

Some people said that another difficult part about living in care was a lack of help or support from their foster families and even from child and family services. They said caseworkers and other adults did not understand their feelings or needs, and that they were never given any information about their situation. A few people said that when they tried to talk to their caseworkers about feeling unsafe, they were ignored or not taken seriously. Others talked about being moved over and over again.

Another challenge of being in care was a lack of access to Indigenous culture. Moving to non-Indigenous homes with different cultures and customs was very hard to get used to. Even simple things like the food they ate or talking to their foster parents and new brothers or sisters was difficult because of cultural differences. It was also hard talking to and understanding non-Indigenous caseworkers who had no knowledge of Indigenous culture. They felt they had "lost" their Indigenous identity while living in care. As examples, they talked about foster families and case workers not allowing boys to have long hair and not considering it appropriate for children to attend services and ceremonies when there was a death in their family.

We heard that, for some people, the child welfare system was confusing. Some people also said that they experienced depression and other mental health problems. A few people also said they felt that their foster parents only wanted to care for Indigenous children because of the money they were given by child and family services.

It is important to note that we heard from a lot of people who said there were no benefits to living in care. For them, their stories of being in care were negative and hurtful. Some people said that the experiences they had in care are still hurting them mentally and emotionally now as adults.

However, some people said that that if they had experienced violence or abuse in their birth family homes, being in care helped protect them physically or emotionally.

Some people said that support from good caseworkers, teachers, and lawyers was a big help to them while they were living in care. They said that the quality of the professionals made a difference for them because they actually listened to youth in care about what they wanted and needed.

Seeing and staying in touch with biological families and home communities was important for some people. They said visits back home with their families helped keep them connected to their home, community and culture. Many of the people who said this also said that family and community ties are a very important part of care for Indigenous children.

A few people talked about how living in care gave their biological parents the time and space to heal or recover from their own mental health problems or trauma. They said that, when they went home, their parents were healthier and their homes were happier places to grow up.

Other participants said being in care met their basic needs (such as housing, clothing, food, security), improved their access to education and provided them with financial help.

Ways to improve child and family services

Key highlights on what's needed

  1. Better family support services
  2. Funding for a broad range of child and family services
  3. Different roles of customary, kinship and foster care

We asked people who did the survey to tell us their top three ways to improve child and family services for Indigenous families. This was a key question and most participants gave us very detailed answers about what they think is important to change.

Many of the ideas mentioned by participants had to do with prevention, making sure First Nations children are not taken away from their homes in the first place.

1. Better family support services

Most people said that more culturally-sensitive services for Indigenous parents and their children would help make families happier and healthier, and help fewer children be removed from their homes. They added that this support needs to recognize that Indigenous cultures are unique, and there needs to be a flexible approach that allows communities to determine how they want to improve health and well-being. Some said more programs on healthy eating, caring for babies, traditional parenting and money management would help.

2. Funding for a broad range of child and family services

People who did the survey said that more money for Indigenous healthcare, education and social services would help make families less dependent. Most said that the amount of funding that support services receive should be fair when compared to the funding that non-Indigenous services get. They also said that this funding should be flexible and/or fully controlled by individual communities, so they can use it where they need it most to meet the best interests of the children.

Communities should be able to decide how and where funding is spent. A one-size fits all solution doesn't benefit anyone.

3. Different roles of kinship, customary and foster care

Most said child and family services should focus on placing Indigenous children with family members or with Indigenous families in their home communities. A few participants said kinship and foster families should also get more funding. Many also said that taking Indigenous children away from their parents and putting them in care should only be a last resort. But, some others said child and family services should focus more on permanency for Indigenous children once they enter care, to stop youth from being passed around between many different foster families as they are growing up.

In addition, people told us that involving Indigenous communities and Elders in all child and family services is very important. This way, services would be culturally sensitive and meet the needs of individual communities. Some people said that communities should have full control of child welfare services, so that they incorporate Indigenous values and cultural practices. Basing child and family services on culture and expertise was important to people. They said traditional practices and ideas should be a big part of all services or programs for Indigenous children before, during and after their time in care. Where communities do not control services, people talked about the importance of social and case workers building authentic relationships with families, and working with Elders and knowledge keepers to get to know the communities.

Many people said that child and family services workers, like caseworkers and therapists, should be well-trained and caring. They also said workers themselves should be Indigenous whenever possible.

Social workers need to spend time building relationships with families and getting to know the communities where they are working.

People also talked about the importance of addressing the social determinants of health and the impacts they have on Indigenous people. Many participants said health was a big issue, including mental health and addiction support for parents. They also talked about how more health services would help prevent youth suicide, help more people live healthy lives, and help prevent children from entering care in the first place.

Some people also talked about providing good quality education in communities. They said more money for education would give parents and children more opportunities to learn important skills and help keep families together. Some people added that schools need to be closer to communities so that young people do not have to travel so far to get to school.

More money is needed for education, both formal education in schools and for parents and parenting programs.

A lot of people said that families need to have basic needs met, like clean drinking water, access to healthy food, affordable housing and public transportation. Some said parents need a living wage to provide for their families and prevent their children from being taken into care.

A lot of people said that the Government of Canada should honour its commitments, mostly by providing equal or equitable funding for Indigenous children. They felt strongly that the government should comply with ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, ensure Jordan's Principle is applied across the country, and implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Other ideas from people were increasing the resources and capacity of First Nation child and family services, stopping systemic racism against Indigenous peoples, increasing transparency and accountability of caseworkers and government, and making sure federal and provincial services are better coordinated.

Staying connected to language and culture when children are in care

In the survey, we asked people how Indigenous children in care can stay connected with their language and culture. Most people agreed that visiting Elders, traditional land-based programs, visiting their families, calling their families, connecting with other Indigenous youth, visiting community members and First Nation language training are all important. People told us that visiting family members, keeping brothers and sisters together in care, going to cultural and community events, and more phone calls home are all important.

Family reunification is key.

More programming and cultural resources for foster parents were other top ideas. Some also talked about supporting foster parents to make sure they are connected to Indigenous practices and history, and children's cultural and spiritual goals.

Foster parents need to learn about Indigenous history, practices and communities. They have a role in supporting children's connection to language and culture.

We also asked people how we can better help children who are leaving care. This could mean children are leaving care to reunite with their biological families, or because they are turning 18 or 19. Most participants said that programming would make it easier for children to leave care: things like trauma counselling, education, life skills training, career counselling and culturally-based healing.

Programs and services

The survey asked people about what programs and services they think would help prevent Indigenous children from being removed from their families.

Which programs or services in the community do you think would help prevent Indigenous children from being removed from their families? Choose all that apply
Description of Which programs or services in the community do you think would help prevent Indigenous children from being removed from their families? Choose all that apply

In answer to the question "Which programs or services in the community do you think would help prevent Indigenous children from being removed from their families? Choose all that apply":

  • 17% selected "Other"
  • 69% selected "Programs to prevent poverty"
  • 70% selected "Violence prevention programs"
  • 71% selected "Programs/activities for youth"
  • 76% selected "Housing"
  • 76% selected "Parenting and healthy family programs"
  • 79% selected "In-home supports and family based services"
  • 80% selected "Health care services, including mental health services and addictions treatment"

Others said that basing programs and services on Indigenous culture and knowledge would help prevent the removal of children, because parents and families could rely on traditional skills and Elders for support and guidance. Others felt that more funding for programs and services would go a long way toward keeping children with their families. Indigenous-specific family programming was also mentioned, like holistic crisis prevention and early intervention services.

Others said that programs should be fully controlled by communities instead of by federal and provincial governments. A lot of participants also said First Nation child and family services should focus on prevention instead of removal, keeping children in their homes whenever possible. To accomplish this, they mentioned the development of legislation, policies and regulations developed by and for Indigenous peoples so that they are connected to their culture resonates with families and communities.

What is working well

When we asked people what is working well to help First Nation children and families, the number one answer we heard was child welfare caseworkers. People said that the First Nation child and family services system works when well-trained, caring caseworkers work closely with parents and children to stop children being taken away from their birth parents. Some also said more caseworkers are needed, and that they should be Indigenous.

People said well-funded, culturally based parent and family support programs work well to support parents and families. They agreed that more of these programs (such as language classes, recreation, skills training, health education, counselling) would have a positive effect on communities. Participants also said that support for kinship, customary, and foster care families is important, like providing cultural training (for example, on pow wows and other ceremonies) for non-First Nation foster parents.

Supporting parents to develop their skills is important. For families dealing with the generational impact of residential schools, culturally-based parenting programs can make a big difference.

We asked people to tell us what child and family services and programs are available where they live, if those programs and services help prevent the removal of children from their homes, and how these programs and services can be improved.

Many people said that schools, health care services, parenting programs, mental health support, youth programs and cultural programs are available to some extent in their local communities. But, they also said most of these services are underfunded, not consistent or poorly-run. They explained that programs meant to help Indigenous families lead healthy, happy lives are not working properly because there are not enough qualified staff to run them, or there is not enough money to keep them going.

Some people said they have to travel long distances to reach any programs specifically for youth, because these programs are mostly in or near big cities. Some people said the wait lists for services offered in cities are usually long.

Most people said they found out about programs and services available to them through their personal networks (such as friends and family) or from social media and websites (such as Facebook). Some said they were told about the programs from professionals like doctors and teachers, or that they have seen advertisements in community centres and in the newspaper.

Legislation and standards

We asked people to share their thoughts on the creation of national federal legislation or national standards for Indigenous child and family services. Almost half of participants said that federal legislation and national standards are equally important. A few people said they were unsure or chose not to answer the question.

Some people said that any national federal legislation or national standards to improve Indigenous child and family services should either be based on the ideas of Indigenous peoples or created entirely by Indigenous communities themselves. Some explained that federal legislation and national standards will not make child and family services better unless the government complies with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision and provides equal funding for Indigenous children. They said that national standards could identify a baseline of services to be delivered to help ensure equity across communities.

Several participants said that any national standards created for Indigenous child and family services must be culturally appropriate and that legislation or standards should be community-specific, meaning different Indigenous groups can determine what works best for their own communities. A few participants pointed out that the entire Indigenous child and family services system does not fit with Indigenous culture and values, and that it should be completely rebuilt.

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