B.C. minister defies calls to resign after horrific First Nations foster child abuse

Click to play video: 'Children and families minister defends herself and ministry over abuse case'
Children and families minister defends herself and ministry over abuse case
WATCH: Minister Mitzi Dean is defending herself, and her ministry staff, in the wake of calls for her resignation over the case of horrendous abuse of two foster children, one of whom died. Kristen Robinson reports – Jul 11, 2023

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

Amid multiple calls for her resignation, British Columbia’s minister responsible for child welfare says she’s “absolutely committed to continuing the work” to improve safety and quality of life for all kids in foster care.

In an interview, however, Mitzi Dean would not answer with a “yes” or “no” when asked if she could guarantee that Indigenous children taken from their families are safer in government hands than with their birth parents, stating instead that “we put the safety of children and youth first.”

“That’s our absolute duty. That’s the priority of what we’re doing,” Dean told Global News. “What we do is we make sure that children and youth are in a safe place, that they are loved, that they’re nurtured, that their health and wellbeing is being taken care of.”

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Her comments come after multiple First Nations and political opposition leaders called for Dean to step down or be fired in the wake of a horrific abuse case involving two First Nations foster children who were tortured and starved in the Fraser Valley between 2020 and 2021.

One of the siblings, an 11-year-old boy, died after a beating in February 2021, weighing less than 65 pounds.

The foster parents — both Indigenous — were sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter and six for aggravated assault in June. Evidence presented in court showed that staff at the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) hadn’t checked on the children for seven months.

Click to play video: 'Former RCMP officer criticizes Ministry of Children and Families over foster child abuse'
Former RCMP officer criticizes Ministry of Children and Families over foster child abuse

Asked how she could continue as minister knowing that such a tragedy occurred on her watch, Dean said she understands and deeply shares the “pain and the anger and the outrage that everybody has.”

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“It’s not about me,” Dean said in the 20-minute, sit-down in Victoria.

“What is most important is to get to the bottom of this and to be able to say with confidence that all of the children and youth that we’re responsible for are safe, and they’re loved and that a tragedy — a horrific tragedy like this will not happen again.”

The MCFD has said staff who failed to check in on the children from the ministry’s office in Hope are “no longer employed” with it. For privacy reasons, it could not clarify whether they were fired or left of their own volition. It has also not revealed how many staff are gone.

Dean said information was revealed in the sentencing hearing that “none of us” at MCFD previously knew about. The ministry had to conduct its own inquiry into the case, she added, unable to interview the implicated staffers because of the criminal investigation.

“Immediately, when we found out there was a concern about this home, we took action. We immediately made sure that we were assessing the safety of all the children, all the youth that whole team was responsible for,” she said.

The information later made public in court was “shocking and distressing for all of us across the province, including myself and my staff,” Dead added.

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As a social worker who has previously worked on the “front lines,” Dean said she knows the importance of checking on children.

“These are basic foundational skills that all frontline workers should have and actions that they should be taking. We’ve put extra oversight in to make sure that all children and youth are being seen according to policies and procedures.”

Click to play video: 'First Nations Leadership Council calls for resignation of B.C. minister Mitzi Dean'
First Nations Leadership Council calls for resignation of B.C. minister Mitzi Dean

Last fall, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to formally recognize the inherent right of Indigenous communities to self-govern when it comes to child welfare with legislation called the Indigenous Self-Government in Child and Family Services Amendment Act.

The ministry is currently working with multiple First Nations and the federal government to return jurisdiction on the matter to communities, and has already reached one co-ordination agreement.

“Because we know about the harm, the colonial history of the child welfare system, we’ve been making changes in order to support Indigenous children and youth staying connected to their family, their community and to their culture,” Dean said.

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In B.C., the law states that social workers must identify whether a child is Indigenous, reach out to the community the child identifies with, warn them of concerns and try to take the protection measures together, with priority given to placing them with a relative.

“Our vision is to be supporting nations in exercising jurisdiction. They’ve been telling us for decades, that’s the way to fix the problem with the child welfare system for Indigenous children, youth and families,” Dean said.

Click to play video: '‘Our government is committed to reconciliation’: Minister Mitzi Dean on MCFD changes'
‘Our government is committed to reconciliation’: Minister Mitzi Dean on MCFD changes

As of last June, more than 5,000 children were in government care in B.C., 68 per cent of whom were Indigenous.

The province provides child and family services to most residents, while more than 100 First Nations, urban Indigenous and Métis communities have access to a delegated Indigenous child and family services agency instead.

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There are 24 such agencies in B.C., three of which provide voluntary services and approve foster homes, and seven of which also provide guardianship services. Two have adoption authority and 14 deliver full child protection, investigate reports and, if necessary, remove children.

Last year, B.C.’s representative for children and youth released a damning report calling on MCFD to end “discriminatory funding practices” in Indigenous child welfare. The level of service received by a child or family “depends on where they live,” Jennifer Charlesworth said at the time, leading to “gaps and inequities that have no place in a province committed to reconciliation.”

On reserves, Indigenous child welfare – including prevention – is funded at “actual cost” by the federal government, which reimburses the delegated Indigenous agency that provides it. If no such agency exists, Ottawa reimburses the province for service delivery instead.

Indigenous children off-reserve, however, receive “much less” funding through the B.C. government, Charlesworth found. Under colonial law, they fall under provincial jurisdiction.

The MCFD has previously told Global News it is reviewing its fiscal framework with an eye for improved funding arrangements.

Click to play video: 'Minister Mitzi Dean talks about Indigenous child welfare reform in B.C.'
Minister Mitzi Dean talks about Indigenous child welfare reform in B.C.

Meanwhile, Charlesworth has launched an investigation into the Fraser Valley child abuse case that spawned calls for Dean’s resignation. The MCFD has said the watchdog will have its full cooperation.

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Dean came under fire from the First Nations Leadership Council two weeks ago for what was described as an “inadequate response” to the horrific case, which was described in court as both “evil and inhumane.”

Cheryl Casimir, a political executive of the First Nations Summit who has worked in Indigenous child welfare for decades, particularly criticized Dean’s repeated statement that the incident was a “real tragedy” and that she extended her “deepest sympathies.”

Dean made similar comments in Tuesday’s interview, calling it a “terribly tragedy,” and “really horrific.”

“I can assure people across British Columbia that if anything like this were to ever happen again, immediate action would be taken,” she added.

Click to play video: 'Appeal could have wide-ranging impacts on B.C. Indigenous child protection system'
Appeal could have wide-ranging impacts on B.C. Indigenous child protection system

Both Dean and Premier David Eby have been in touch with the First Nations Leadership Council in the past two weeks.

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Eby has not indicated any plans to fire Dean, despite public pressure. He further said that the First Nation particularly affected by the Fraser Valley abuse case has asked the government to refrain from making further media statements about it.

“Broadly, though, I can say that the solution to this and the answer to challenges like this, is to ensure that First Nations have jurisdiction over their own kids, that they are able to, that they’re supported — by the province, by the federal government — to be able to do that work for their own children,” he said.

“That’s the work that Minister Dean and her team have been focused on from the beginning.”

Both Dean and Eby acknowledged, there’s more work to do.

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