Days after International Missing Children’s Day, I revisited a recent report issued by the province’s Representative for Children and Youth (RCY) about missing children in government “care.”
Alarmingly, Jennifer Charlesworth’s research suggests that nearly 470 children in care are reported missing to B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) one or more times each month.
“[RCY’s] office regularly reviews stories of children who are missing, and engages with young people before and after they are found,” reads her report, in part.
“What we have learned is that many are fleeing systems that don’t provide adequate care, protect their rights and identity, and listen and respond to their need for belonging.”
Charlesworth goes on to detail how this disproportionately affects Indigenous girls in particular, who account for 40 per cent of children and Youth who go missing while in provincial custody.
They are also at the greatest risk for sexual exploitation, amongst a myriad of other devastating outcomes.
There is clearly a correlation between Indigenous girls going missing, and the child welfare system itself. I think it is fair to say that the province is failing to protect Indigenous girls in its care.
Overrepresented and underprotected
According to the report, between April and Dec. of 2022, the RCY’s office received more than 500 reports of children and Youth in care whose whereabouts were unknown and whose safety was at risk.
“Those reports … represented 198 distinct children, four of whom died,” Charlesworth writes.
“During this same time period, [MCFD] received more than 12,000 calls about other children and youth who were also missing or absent from their placements but for whom there were no identified safety concerns.”
According to the RCY report, up to 65 per cent of the children and Youth who go missing from care are Indigenous. It is well-known that Indigenous children and Youth are overrepresented in the so-called child “welfare” system in B.C., and across “Canada.”
Overlapping with this crisis is the ongoing genocide of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and gender-diverse kin (MMIWG2S+).
The National Inquiry into MMIWG, which issued its final report in 2019, is full of recollections of abuses in foster homes and contracted residential facilities, naming physical and sexual abuses as some of the experiences of Indigenous girls in care.
“There is absolutely an overrepresentation of Indigenous girls going missing in the system,” says Jennifer Dreyer, the executive director of systemic advocacy, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit research with the RCY.
“You don’t see culturally-attuned responses to our girls that are missing in care. We didn’t see any collaboration with nations for a cultural response.”
Dreyer, who is Cree and Métis, says that she is troubled that MCFD does not see Indigeneity as a risk factor when a child goes missing. According to Dreyer, for the police to look for a missing child, there needs to be a pre-existing safety concern.
“For the ministry to see the child as missing, there needs to be some risk to their safety that is determined by the foster parent(s) or social workers, who may not have seen the child for months,” says Dreyer.
Another major concern revealed by the report is that MCFD doesn’t actually know how many children in their care are missing.
“There needs to be an adequate monitoring system. B.C doesn’t actually know how many children are missing in care,” says Dreyer.
According to the report, the number of missing children in care may actually be higher, as current reporting mechanisms used by the ministry are unreliable.
The report defines a spectrum of “missingness” as children who go missing for a short time, to those who disappear and never return. This includes both children who have fled from care and those whose circumstances are unknown.
Through research and engagement, RCY found that “many are fleeing systems that don’t provide adequate care, protect their rights and identity, and listen and respond to their need for belonging,” the report states.
“As representative, I am extremely concerned at the numbers of young people who are missing from a system that is supposed to protect and nurture them,” Charlesworth writes in her report. “It should be an issue that troubles all British Columbians.”
The RCY report found that conditions of “unbelonging” are connected to historical and ongoing systematic inequalities that have contributed to high rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQIA+ people.
The report connects the inequities experienced by Indigenous children and Youth in care with colonial violence, displacement from traditional homelands, and disconnection from language and culture.
“When a child or youth in care is missing, we want them to receive the same response that a caring parent would give,” says a spokesperson from MCFD.
“While there are policies and procedures that are acted on when a Youth in care is missing, the RCY has identified some important opportunities to strengthen them further, and we are grateful to the representative for her report.”
‘We cannot wait’
Established in 2007, the RCY is mandated by legislation to monitor and review child welfare practices in B.C.
The current representative Charlesworth has made it clear that there’s no more time to lose. Her report was tabled in the B.C. legislature on April 27.
“When a report is tabled, the ministry has within six months to present an action plan. This is the first time that Jennifer has said, ‘We can’t wait six months for an action plan,’” says Dreyer.
While the report was being written, 198 children went missing in B.C’s child welfare system and four children were reported deceased.
Charlesworth has included a series of recommendations for specific actions to be taken by MCFD around its policies, monitoring and how it collects data, as well as calling for “a special convening of the child-serving systems and the children, youth and their families and communities they serve.”
The gathering would be held “to respond to the cracks in our care system that are contributing to children going missing and being subjected to increased risks of serious incident, critical injury and death,” Charlesworth writes.
Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, witnessed the tabling of the report.
“The goal of the child welfare system is to remove children from unsafe situations, as determined by the ministry, and to put them in safe situations, however, the report from the RCY says otherwise,” says Olsen, who is a member of the Tsartlip First Nation.
“It doesn’t appear that the situations [the ministry] is putting them in are safe.”
MCFD Minister Mitzi Dean says in an email response she recognizes that for too long, the child welfare system has failed Indigenous children and families.
“That needs to change, and we are making changes to make sure it does,” says Dean.
According to the National Inquiry’s report, there have been multiple public reports that have expressed concern on the disappearance of young people in the child “welfare” system.
“The child welfare system and that the system of care is struggling to provide safe, nurturing and timely care for them,” says the report.
For Olsen, he is tired of the same tired responses when it comes to the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in care.
“At some point, they are going to have to take responsibility.”