Native agency hailed for saving kids

Posted on August 21, 2008 in Child & Family Debates, Equality Debates – Ontario – Native agency hailed for saving kids
Kerry Gillespie. August 21, 2008

KASABONIKA, ONT.–The homes are full of mould, sewage backs up in the bathtubs, power is iffy and food costs twice what it does everywhere else.

But this town, 570 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, and other similarly remote communities are the only place thousands of Indian children have ever called home.

Recognizing that and working with the 30 First Nations communities scattered across Ontario’s vast north to improve the lives of children has earned Tikinagan Child and Family Services this year’s prestigious Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award.

The statistics are well known: rampant drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment as high as 95 per cent and poverty the likes of which can barely be imagined in southern Ontario – but there’s so much more to these communities, says Tikinagan’s executive director Micheal Hardy.

The communities are close-knit, the wilderness is incredible and most importantly: “It’s home.”

As far as Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario go, Tikinagan, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, is just a babe.

But already the native-controlled agency, one of the first in Canada, has helped change things, he said.

“The idea used to be that you had to bring Indian kids off reserves to save them,” he said.

White child welfare workers, who didn’t speak the language, used to fly north to investigate complaints of abuse and neglect. Children in need were taken to cities far away, torn from family, friends, language and culture. All that did was create dispossessed, messed-up teens, Hardy said.

“Now we’re trying to work with the communities to ensure that the answer is from home because that’s the best place to find answers. No system can replace the family,” he said.

“Although kids may still be taken away from parents for alcoholism or whatever, they generally now have the opportunity to stay in the same community.”

Today, some 95 per cent of Tikinagan’s child welfare cases are dealt with out of court, they have more foster parents in the communities, extended family and community members assist in caring for children, most full-time staff are status Indians, and the agency has been decentralized so more staff live and work locally, Hardy said.

These are among the innovations that drew the attention of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation.

“Tikinagan has helped to dramatically improve services in the north. New partnerships with First Nations help keep children safe and connected to their family and cultural identity,” Nancy Hindmarsh, a board trustee of the foundation and chair of the selection committee, said yesterday in Kasabonika where the agency was given the award.

“The active recruitment and training of community members helps establish a strong local presence and quicker response times. The result is strengthened families, healthier children and youth, and a stronger sense of community pride.”

But as Hardy notes in Tikinagan’s annual report, nothing is easy.

“`The answers lie within the communities’ is a very challenging statement when you try to live by it.”

Tikinagan is funded by the province to offer child protection services to one third of Ontario – an area the size of France – but what it really wants to do is get into the business of prevention.

The Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award was granted to Tikinagan to allow it to do more of what the agency thinks is the real key to a brighter future: cultural awareness.

“This award will expand our ability to respond and test innovative ways that can help our children discover their past, seize the present and anticipate their future,” Hardy said.

The annual $50,000 award, started in 1998, is aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged children.

“The excellence of Tikinagan can be measured by the thousand daily acts to counter hopelessness, deep poverty and alarming rates of teen suicide among young people in our north,” said Peter Armstrong, president of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation.

When Hardy first became executive director of Tikinagan, he agreed to stay for three years. It’s now been more than 10 and he’s as committed as ever. “We’re on the threshold of success.”

Queen’s Park Bureau

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