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Disability Rates Worry First Nation Groups

The number of aboriginal children born with disabilities has reached crisis levels largely because the province and the federal government won't fund long-term substance abuse programs or provide proper maternal care on-reserve, First Nation groups said.

In the last two months, more than 600 Manitoba children have been taken into foster care--most of them from aboriginal communities and many of whom (have) medical disabilities that can't be treated on-reserve. There are about 7,200 children in foster care in Manitoba--85 percent are aboriginal and more than a third of children are living with a medical disability.

Trudy Lavallee, Policy Analyst for Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said a growing number of aboriginal children are born with severe disabilities like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Down syndrome, or develop complications from diabetes, like blindness. She said an increasing number of First Nations communities are struggling with substance abuse, but neither the federal government nor the province will pay for rehabilitation programs on-reserve. Lavallee said there are only two pilot rehabilitation programs on-reserve across the province, and most people wait up to a year to access addiction treatment in cities like Winnipeg.

At the same time, she said women on-reserve have no access to prenatal health care to encourage them to eat properly, exercise and stop smoking and drinking--something that can prevent many birth defects.

Lavallee said the federal government typically pulls the plug on pilot health-care projects on reserves that have been successful, and residents are told they can get medical treatment off-reserve instead. The province won't step in to pay for health-care services on-reserve since First Nations are a federal jurisdiction. Lavallee said ongoing bureaucratic disputes have resulted in more children being born with birth defects, and more parents turning over their children to foster care.

Parents with a disabled child have little choice but to forego care or send their child into foster care in cities in order to get the help they need. "Kids with special needs, these numbers are growing and we see that by the number of kids coming into care," Lavallee said. "There's a large increase in children with complex medical needs or special needs, and kids in trouble with the law."

Don Fuchs, a social work researcher at the University of Manitoba, said close to 20 percent of disabled children in foster care have FASD--a preventable disorder that causes anything from severe brain damage to behavioural problems like attention deficit disorder.

Reprinted from the Winnipeg Free Press, August 20, 2007.