07/31/2011 01:08 EDT | Updated 09/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Kitigan Zibi First Nation: Changing The Trend Of Children In Foster Care

KITIGAN ZIBI, Que. - When Robin Decontie was growing up on her Western Quebec reserve, sharing her home with foster children was a routine matter.

Her school teacher mother and construction worker father regularly took in children at risk -- seven boys over the years, and a little girl who they adopted from another reserve.

Now, Decontie is the director of health and social services at the Kitigan Zibi First Nation, where she is carrying on the family tradition of helping troubled kids.

But she says putting children into foster homes or in the hands of child welfare agencies is no longer routine on her reserve.

In a generation, she has seen a slow but steady shift, allowing Kitigan Zibi to counter a national trend that sees more and more First Nations children in care.

Nationally, there are more aboriginal kids in care than at the height of the residential school system, various reports and calculations indicate. At Kitigan Zibi, however, there's only a handful at any one time, and some of those come from neighbouring Algonquin communities.

To be sure, the reserve has its challenges. Unemployment, drug addiction and a shortage of housing are persistent issues.

But with years of focus on education and local control over programs, the band has made steady progress. It's a recipe that the band, and a growing number of experts, say could go a long way toward addressing a national problem.

"By employing our own people, the heartache and pain we go through with families has overall improved," says Decontie. "The numbers are decreasing. That's what we're trying to work towards."

In another part of the country, experts are indeed recommending that same approach -- a culturally sensitive, prevention-oriented program for families at risk, led by First Nations members themselves.

"There is a desire to make positive change, but we need a whole new paradigm shift within the whole system of child welfare," John Beaucage, the aboriginal adviser to Ontario's minister of children and youth services, wrote in a new report.

Kitigan Zibi leaders decided in the 1970s they wanted to take control of most of their social services, says Chief Gilbert Whiteduck.

In order to have their own police and social workers, however, the band members needed to ensure they were well trained and qualified. So they focused like a laser on educating their people.

They set up their own high school, after much consultation with area school boards and regional colleges to make sure its certificates would be recognized. And they're including an immersion program to revive their Algonquin language.

Now the drop-out rate isn't stellar, but it's comparable to the rest of rural Quebec, and far better than the First Nation average of 50 per cent.

And the band has its own people leading the band's service agencies -- most of them carrying at least one, if not several, post-secondary degrees to prove their credentials.

Child welfare has also benefited from a recent infusion of government funding for preventing family breakdown, band members say.

Debbie Whiteduck, who oversees so-called enhanced preventive services for the community, spends a lot of her time gaining the community's trust. So when the time comes and a family is in trouble, she not only knows the family members and their history, but they also trust her not to be looking for the easy fix.

"The easiest thing is, you just grab the children and take them out," says Lionel Whiteduck, who just retired as director of health and social services. "But it's hard to fit them back in."

But the Kitigan Zibi leaders are quick to recognize their success can't simply be replicated in every community.

Chief Whiteduck notes that it took 30 years of focusing resources and political energy on education in order to build up enough local expertise. For him, it has been a constant battle with provincial and federal authorities for the flexibility and funding to shape the band's future.

"They're a dysfunctional family who don't understand how we work," he said.

Other communities don't have the capacity to take matters into their own hands, he says, and are understandably dependent on outsiders delivering services.

Decontie also fears that by stressing higher education so singularly, the band has had to give up some of its cultural identity.

With so many of the community's good students heading down the highway to pursue their studies in Ottawa, "that sacrifices, unfortunately, our own identity as indigenous people," she says.

"There is a heartfelt trade-off to a capacity-building approach."