From Brielle's notebook

Hi, <<First Name>>. Last week, I got to interview Katrine Conroy, the woman tasked with overseeing and overhauling B.C.’s child welfare system — not single-handedly, of course, but still.

This was an important opportunity for me, as a journalist focused solely on our child welfare system. I would've liked to sit down with Conroy, B.C.’s Minister of Children and Family Development, in her office. I could've asked about the people whose faces she keeps framed, the art on her walls and where she goes when she just needs a minute. I wanted to get a sense for Conroy as a person, in context.

But there’d be no time for that this time around. Instead, I was told the minister would call me at 9 a.m., and we’d have 10 minutes for a conversation. I wanted to squeal, “10 minutes?! How are you supposed to get into anything, in a meaningful way, in just 10 minutes?”

The thing is: Self-righteous tantrums are generally not very constructive. So, I started prepping. I wrote a long list of questions, pieced together from my notes and crowdsourced from folks on Twitter and Facebook. Then I whittled down the list. 

In the end, I had almost 20 minutes with the minister. You can read the full transcript, here. Or you can read highlights from our conversation, below. Then tell me what you make of Conroy’s top priorities. I’d be especially curious to hear from social workers: Do these feel like priorities on the ground? How does Conroy’s perspective mesh with what you heard in B.C. Premier John Horgan’s recent throne speech?

Email me, or contact me via Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for reading,

Q&A with Minister Conroy
B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy (right) speaks with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde (left) and Grand Chief Ed John (centre) at the emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare, from Jan. 25-26. (Credit: Flickr, Province of B.C.)
Brielle Morgan: When families need serious support because of poverty, intergenerational trauma or some other combination of barriers, what are some alternatives to separating kids from their family and community? 

Katrine Conroy: When I first got appointed, I recognized that that was an issue. I have a new deputy, as well. We both started at the same time, and that’s our commitment — to work with the ministry staff to make sure that we are providing supports to families. 

I think the best example, like an actual example I can give you, is: There was a couple of kids who the school reported that they thought they were being neglected. And when the social worker went and did an investigation, she realized that their water system had broken down. They lived in rural B.C. They couldn’t afford a new water system. So the ministry, instead of apprehending the kids, paid for a new water system, and their kids are happy. The parents are happy, and they got to keep the family together, which is what I think needs to be the goal. 

It’s a change in how social work practice has been carried out. I mean, it’s always been the bottom line … making sure children are safe, but I think we need to look at the reasons of why there are concerns. Housing is a big issue. And I think that our government has recognized that. Housing is a priority for our government, as is poverty reduction. We have a ministry now: Social Development [and] Poverty Reduction. We’re going to be looking at things like what can we do to alleviate poverty for parents … A lot of young people I talk to, young families, housing is one of the biggest issues, as is child care. 

The tone of the relationships seems like it’s changing between the provincial government and First Nations [in B.C.].

Oh, we have to. We have to … As an MLA, I’ve never been involved with the ministry as a critic. You become immersed in your critic areas, and MCFD was never my critic area. But I worked in the sector before I became an MLA, and I was shocked to hear the numbers, to hear the stats. Sixty-two per cent of the kids in care in B.C. are Indigenous, and [they make up] only 10 per cent of kids ... in the entire province. We have to change the way we do our work, so that we can begin to change that [overrepresentation].

And you’re right. We have to look at families. We have to work at keeping families together, as opposed to automatically apprehending. 

A lot of these parents who I’ve been connecting with — they were kids in the system. And their parents were. It’s this intergenerational, cyclical removal of children from families, which is of course traumatic for these families. The RCY is a designated advocate for children, but I’m curious about whose job it is to stand with these parents who are working to try to reunite their families?

I think it’s the ministry’s job. I think it’s the delegated agency’s job. You know, I think it’s all of our job. I think it’s the First Nations leadership. I mean, we’re all working together. Children don’t stand by themselves, just like children aren’t standing by themselves in poverty. Children are in poverty in a family, and we have to ensure that we keep the families together. 

Some of the most impactful conversations that I’ve had since I’ve been appointed minister have been with former youth in care. And they’ve talked about losing their cultural identity, losing their heritage. The ones who’ve had good foster parents have talked about the amazing foster parents, how [the foster parents] loved them, but some of them said they finally found themselves when they found their cultural identity — got back to their families. We have to do more of that. We have to make sure that we can support kids in that way. The bottom line is that if kids can be with their birth families, then that is so important. 

I understand how slowly systemic change comes. What is the one thing you’d most like to achieve during your tenure as minister? 

Sign off on jurisdiction’s responsibility to First Nations communities — as many as we can. It’s not something that happens over night, but the more commitments we can make, and the more First Nations communities that are willing and want to take on that responsibility, I think that’s what we have to work for. That’s what leadership wants to do. 

It’s part of UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous [Peoples]. And it’s part of the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission’s] calls to action. The first five [calls to action] are child welfare. Every minister has that in our mandate letters, so we’re looking at legislation, the policy of what we can do to change the trajectory of how the ministry operates. The more that we can work with Indigenous communities the better — making things better for youth.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Read our full conversation, here.
Header photo: Brielle Morgan
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