Last week, we released Pathways in a Forest: Indigenous guidance on prevention-based child welfare. Part of a year-long project, this report is a collaboration between West Coast LEAF and the families, Elders, and staff at Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship CentreLii Michif Otipemisiwak, and the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association.

The report highlights efforts by Indigenous families, communities, and Nations to revitalize Indigenous approaches to child welfare, develop comprehensive community-based supports, and fight for self-determination. It centres the voices of 64 caregivers who share their stories of fighting to keep their children out of government care.

Photo of a welcome pole in front of Tillicum Lelum Friendship Centre. Behind is an office building.
The beautiful welcome pole at Tillicum Lelum Friendship Centre Photo Credit: Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson
Below is an excerpt from the report, in which we describe the principles and value that undergird Indigenous approaches to child welfare that we identified based on conversations with project participants, research by Indigenous experts, and guidance from our advisory committee. We rely on these eight principles to guide our understanding of the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care and the types of reforms needed to change the course of the child welfare system for Indigenous families. We encourage you to read the full report and share it widely.

The report cover. Photo Credit: Catherine Hart
Eight principles and practices of Indigenous child welfare

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Nations of Turtle Island (North America) have had unique practices, values, approaches, and knowledge around raising healthy and thriving children and youth. In coming to this project, we acknowledge these practices and the strength and resilience of Indigenous families, communities, and Nations who are practicing and revitalizing this knowledge.

The efforts to practice and revitalize Indigenous approaches to child welfare are an essential part of the child welfare story and framework in BC. They act as a reminder that there is no pan-Indigenous approach to child welfare and that each Nation and community needs to be able to forge their own path. The participants in our project shared with us that the practicing and revitalization of these approaches gave them hope for the future. One participant shared words of courage with the storytelling circle:


There is hope because there are changes happening. The changes are not happening fast enough, I will agree with that. They are happening. Don’t not believe it. Don’t let your heart get hardened so bad that you don’t feel or see the hope or the light anymore. Because it is really, truly there. […] We are changing things. Storytelling circle participant


While these approaches differ, there are some shared principles and practices that are at the core of how Indigenous communities understand child welfare. Based on conversations with project participants, research by Indigenous experts, and guidance from our advisory committee, we identified the following eight values as being central to Indigenous views around child welfare: decolonization, wholism, trauma-informed approaches, family-centred approaches, relationship- centred approaches, cultural safety, harm reduction, and self-determination.

Bringing tradition home and protocols of the sacred circle that empowers families to make decisions for their children have been a good foundation for our work. — Service provider


Decolonizing approaches for working with Indigenous families and communities are grounded in historical understandings of ongoing colonial and structural violence. These approaches seek to recognize how historical harm continues to impact Indigenous people and how relationships between Indigenous people and the land continue to be disrupted. This approach carries an explicit mandate to work towards dismantling colonial structures and achieving justice, self-determination, and sovereignty for Indigenous people.

Through the work of Indigenous leaders, Elders, and activists, an important movement of revitalizing and restoring traditional knowledge for child-raising by Nations and communities has developed. This involves culturally specific interventions, programs, services, and approaches to supporting Indigenous families.

Photo of a tree trunk cut open to reveal the inner tree rings
Photo Credit: Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

For our family, the [dancing] troupe has been quite healing for intergenerational trauma, to get back to our roots and anything associated with culture. […] Sports or arts or culture can be really healing for families[.] Storytelling circle participant


Wholism is a concept that can be described as a process of engaging and acknowledging all aspects and dimensions of a person and family. In some Indigenous Nations and communities this is described through the teachings of the Medicine Wheel, which has four parts: mental, physical, spiritual, and psychological. All four parts must be in balance with one another to achieve wellness. Through a wholistic lens, health is a state of well-being, not simply the absence of illness or poor social outcomes.

In a child welfare context, a wholistic approach to supporting families and children can provide an important shift from helping children survive to helping families thrive. It can also expand what constitutes prevention for Indigenous Nations and communities.
Trauma-informed practices

You need to go to the root of it. Why do people use? They use because something bad happened. Something bad happened to their Mum, to their Mum’s Mum and down the line. And that is what I think is most important. People are just dancing around that in a big way. Storytelling circle participant


Trauma-Informed Practice (TIP) has been gaining traction in child welfare. A TIP approach is described as being “more about the overall essence of the approach, or way of being in the relationship, than a specific treatment strategy or method.” Four key principles guide TIP: trauma awareness; an emphasis on safety and trustworthiness; opportunities for choice, collaboration and connection; skill building and being strength-based.

Indigenous scholars, such as Natalie Clark and Sandrina de Finney, have raised caution about the Western conception of trauma as an individual health problem. They argue that this conceptualization of trauma can mistakenly justify separating Indigenous children from their communities. Their analysis demonstrates the importance of these principles and practices being developed by and for Indigenous families, communities, and Nations for their unique knowledge, needs and strengths.
Family-centred practices

Can you not rally the family together? […] The family are the expert on their family, can they not have the opportunity to come up with a plan if you are concerned, to have supported visits so this infant and mom can bond? Storytelling circle participant


Family-centred practices recognize the importance of working collaboratively with parents and other caregivers (such as grandparents, aunties, older siblings, cousins, and so on). These practices identify the family as the expert in anything that impacts them. Family-centered practices place value on supporting families to maintain a sense of dignity and hope and working with each family’s unique circumstances regardless of their complexity including substance use, poverty, and family violence.

It is important to note that these practices must be rooted in Indigenous conceptions of family and kinship, which differ from Western conceptions. For Indigenous people:

Extended family lineages form the core of Indigenous peoples’ identities and are expressed across the generations in diverse, culturally specific ways. Family relationships are understood within networks of reciprocal responsibilities formed between Indigenous peoples and their non-human/animal kin, the land and waters that comprise their territories and the spirit world which forms their cosmology.

Photo of a pod of orcas, you can see water coming from their blowholes.
Photo Credit: Frank Busch on Unsplash
Relationship-centred approaches

One social worker came into my life and she was amazing hands down. […] She wanted to understand where everything was all coming from. She was the first person that finally sat me down and said, “Hey, I’m not here to put so many thoughts in your mind or make you feel a certain way. I’m here to ask you, ‘How are you and what do you need?’” And that to me, I don’t know where I would be to this day, without someone sincerely asking those questions. — Storytelling circle participant


A relationship-centred approach between parents, caregivers, and workers, including social workers, is essential in improving outcomes of engagement with the child welfare system for Indigenous families. It focuses on building genuine, transparent, and approachable collaborative relationships to support families.

Cultural safety

For social workers to be in a community they need to understand what a community has gone through. I feel like that’s number one for figuring out steps toward healing. — Storytelling circle participant


Cultural safety is an approach that was introduced by Irihapeti Ramsden, a Maori nurse in Aotearoa, New Zealand, for use in the healthcare system. Over time, this approach has been embraced by other sectors, including child welfare.

Putting cultural safety into practice means recognizing that historical, economic, and social contexts, coupled with structural and interpersonal power imbalances, shape people’s outcomes and experiences with systems like the child welfare system. For Indigenous peoples, this means naming and recognizing the past and present role of colonialism.

Cultural safety also requires the people who hold positions of power in these systems to actively reflect and challenge the “largely unconscious and unspoken, assumptions of power held” in their roles, including the policies and culture of their institutions and systems. The outcome of safety is not determined or defined by those inside the institutions but by those accessing the services or supports.

Photo of an abalone smudge bowl burning sage and lavender on a wood floor
Photo Credit: Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson
Harm reduction

Programs need to be based on a harm reduction model of care, and support women who relapse on substances to remain with their children while they work on stabilizing in their recovery. These programs need to be less punitive, i.e., not discharge a client when a relapse happens. — Service provider


Harm reduction is an approach shaped by Indigenous wisdom and knowledge. Harm reduction has been largely connected to substance use and sexual health and the role of safe injection sites, condom distribution, and needle exchange programs. The principles of harm reduction seek to recognize the harms people are experiencing, facilitate opportunities to meet people where they are, and work within a context of dignity and compassion for all people.

There is a growing conversation around how an Indigenous harm reduction approach can reduce the harms of colonialism. The aim of this approach is to weave together Indigenous models of policy-making, programming, and practices that are wholistic, inclusive, innovative, and evidence based.

Harm reduction in child welfare may require social workers to consider a range of options that could diminish instead of increase harm for families. This would include potential harms caused by the proposed intervention itself, such as removing a child from their parents and community.

Services to Indigenous communities need to be delivered by the community in their own way, jurisdiction over child safety and well-being must be in the hands of the community itself. Service provider


Self-determination in the context of Indigenous child welfare can be understood as efforts and approaches aimed at realizing the full return of authority over child welfare to Indigenous communities and Nations. This is rooted in the understanding that Indigenous peoples are in the best position to make decisions that impact Indigenous children, youth, families, and communities. Self-determination means Indigenous Nations and communities are at the forefront of the development of child welfare laws, policies, research, and practice for their communities. It also means that Indigenous peoples have the final decision-making authority over all decisions impacting their children. We expand on self-determination and the child welfare system in Part 10 of the report.

These approaches provide a basis for some of the work that Indigenous organizations are doing to change the child welfare system and some guidance on how Indigenous approaches to child welfare depart from the colonial child welfare model. In this report we rely on these eight principles to guide our understanding of the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care and the types of reforms needed to change the course of the child welfare system for Indigenous families.

We also pulled out examples of programs and services that apply these approaches throughout the report as a way to draw attention to the types of supports that are working for Indigenous peoples. The need to share these efforts was emphasized during the community-engagement process. Participants explained that community-led solutions and programs gave them hope for the future.

*We are spelling wholism, with a ‘w’ acknowledging the assertions of Indigenous scholars about the importance of incorporating ‘whole,’ into the concept to signify completeness, circularity, and balance

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