In BC, when there are child protection concerns and the family disagrees with the Ministry of Children and Family Development about the way forward, a case conference is often scheduled. A case conference is an informal meeting between the parties and a judge to try to resolve the disagreement before positions become hardened and the case escalates to a trial. A pilot project in New Westminster is working to make this process more effective for Aboriginal families.
For several years the Provincial Court worked with a group of Elders in New Westminster and representatives from the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, and the Ministry of Justice to create a new process for aboriginal families in child protection cases. The result of this work was the launch of the Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference (AFHCC) pilot project on January 24, 2016.
The AFHCC project provides families with support before, during and after the case conference, with the following goals:
- To reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal children in care by providing cultural interventions that increase the effectiveness of court processes for child-protection cases.
- To improve the effectiveness of the court process with respect to Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Service Act (CFCS Act) matters by reducing the number of cases that proceed to trial.
- To improve health, social and justice outcomes for Aboriginal children and families who come into contact with the child protection system.
The project offers families support, flexibility, choice, and cultural connection. Key elements of the AFHCC include:
- Parents and families work closely with Elders to better understand their strengths, challenges and how they can heal from the impacts of colonization and systemic racism.
- Judges, lawyers, and social workers are educated about the impact that past government policies had and continue to have on Aboriginal peoples in Canada and their culture. Cultural competency training is provided to this group of professionals.
- Parents and families work with Elders, the program coordinator and any chosen personal or professional supports, to develop a Cultural Safety Agreement in order to provide a culturally safe environment for the family. This agreement will highlight how a family and/or children would like to ensure their cultural practices are respected and followed in all meetings related to the project, particularly in the case conference.
- The Program Coordinator will utilize tools available in BC’s CFCS Act to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children by actively involving Aboriginal communities in child welfare matters. Involvement of Aboriginal communities can diminish the isolation parents and children experience within the child welfare process and prevent the loss of identity and disconnection experienced by past generations of Aboriginal children.
- Families work with Elders and the Program Coordinator to develop a Cultural Family History Healing and Wellness Plan. Other support people identified by the family may also participate in developing the Healing and Wellness Plan. Where appropriate, aspects of the Healing and Wellness Plan may be included in any consent order that a judge makes at the case conference.
A cultural ceremony is held for families when they achieve the goals set out in their Healing and Wellness Plan to honour their hard work and success.
Judge Rosemary Gallagher, who has conducted these conferences for the past year, said:
“The AFHCC is an expansion of the Family Case Conference into a healing circle, to allow for more culturally appropriate processes. An aboriginal family can tell their stories in an environment that is attentive to both their cultural practices and their unique personal situation. All involved in the pilot project believe that what we are doing allows the court process to touch the lives of Aboriginal families in way that makes a difference.”
Participation in the project was initially limited to families serviced by the Burnaby/New Westminster MCFD office with court files in New Westminster. However, Aboriginal Family Healing Court conferences can now be arranged for families with court files at Robson Square and Port Coquitlam courthouses, who are connected to the MCFD Aboriginal teams in Burnaby, New Westminster or Tri-Cities. Their file will be transferred to New Westminster for the case conference only. After the conference, their file returns to their original court.
Watch for a more comprehensive article on Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conferences in the March 2018 issue of the Vancouver Bar Association’s Advocate magazine and on this website.