Indigenous Child Care Under Customary Care Program

The 60’s Scoop, the residential schools tragedy that separated Indigenous children from their clans, families and homes, has left a traumatic legacy in Ontario. First Nations families are reclaiming their culture and healing historical wounds by providing safe care for children whose biological parents are deceased, have abandoned them or need time apart.

Purpose, Pride and Identity

Customary care is based on the belief that belonging to family, culture, land and language makes Indigenous children more resilient. Being separated from clan and family affects children’s sense of purpose, pride and identity. Advocates say customary care is more culturally supportive.

Why Customary Care, Not Foster Care? 

Customary care goes way beyond foster or kinship care. It can be anything from caring for orphaned children to gifting a child to a family unable to have their own or living with elders to help them manage from day to day. First Nation, Métis and Inuit children or youth who enter formal customary care arrangements are usually placed with extended family, members of their Indigenous clan or trusted non-Indigenous caregivers. Their biological parents agree to the care arrangement and stay in their lives. Just as in foster care, caregivers may be paid a monthly subsidy to help with living expenses if a child needs protection. Unlike foster care, the clan, not the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), has legal responsibility for their care and safety.

Signing a Formal Care Agreement

Children who live with paid caregivers are subject to a First Nation Band Council Resolution (BCR) and formal customary care agreement with CAS. CAS and a First Nations family services supervise the care arrangements and the caregiver’s home is licensed and monitored like a foster home.

Getting Approved for Customary Care

Getting approved is based on a home study by a CAS or government-appointed social worker. The SAFE (Structured Analysis, Family Evaluation) study includes medical reports, police and child welfare clearances and references. It takes four to six months and is good for up to two years. 

Taking PRIDE

That’s just the start. SAFE-approved families participate in the 27-session PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education) program. PRIDE is free and teaches substitute parents about:

  • adoption and child welfare law and procedures
  • dealing with attachment and loss
  • child development and identity
  • adoption issues
  • neglect and abuse
  • institutionalization, cultural and racial issues
  • and helping children create connections and continuity.

Private sessions can be arranged for a fee.

Agreeing to Parent a Child

Parenting a family member’s or anyone’s child is challenging at the best of times. Emotions about losing a child to foster or kinship care in past can interfere with best efforts to give children a stable home. Customary care is meant to be short term, until children can be safely returned to their biological parents. As Kawatha/Haliburton CAS explains: “Children are viewed as sacred gifts from the creator, and it is the First Nations responsibility to ensure that the child/youth well-being is fulfilled physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.” 

How Poverty Affects Care

We’ve all heard media reports of negative experiences by children raised in non-Indigenous homes who were moved to “kith and kin” foster arrangements. Just how bad is it? A 2016 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study found almost 48% of Indigenous children on Ontario reserves and 38% off reserve are poor. On reserve children are more likely to have unclean drinking water and live in overcrowded housing. They may also have less access to education and jobs as young adults. 

Investing in Indigenous Child and Youth Care

Children and youth in non-Indigenous foster care arrangements can also have traumatizing experiences and suffer from poverty. No system is perfect, but the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has criticized underfunding of on-reserve child welfare. A 2019 APTN investigation found 102 deaths of Indigenous children in care between 2013 and 2017. Ontario’s recent $5 million investment for prevention, early intervention and family-based supports for Indigneous children and youth couldn’t come at a better time. 

Customary Care for Healthier Kids

Keeping families together, reducing Indigenous children in foster care (30% of all foster kids are Indigenous) and improving on-reserve services all have their part in helping kids be healthier and happier. Weechi-it-te-win Family Services calls customary care a way of thinking and living: “Respect is the key word in the relationship between Anishinaabe children and their parents and caregivers. It lies at the center of a person’s relationship with the Creator and with nature – respect for the child, respect for the Elders, and respect for all living creatures.” 

Legal Advice on Customary Care Agreements

Axess Law Ontario family lawyers can advise you on legal obligations under a customary care agreement. Day or evening appointments are available by online video conference 7 days a week. Call toll-free to 1-877-522-9377 or in Greater Toronto at 647-479-0118 or use our online booking form to make an appointment. Meet in person meetings with a licensed Ontario lawyer at our Ottawa, Toronto, Scarborough, Vaughan, Etobicoke, Mississauga Winston Churchill or Mississauga Heartland law offices.

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