New Parents Legal Centre aims to keep Indigenous families together

B.C's provider of legal aid has opened a special office in Prince George to lower the prevalence of Indigenous children going into government care.

Called the Parents Legal Centre, it's located at 302-1488 4th Ave., (the Scotiabank building) and is operated by the Legal Services Society.

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It is designed to increase the chances of families staying together, whenever appropriate, by providing services early on, preferably when a government social worker first contacts a parent about concerns for a child's safety.

LSS lawyer Katrina Harry, who is Indigenous and opened the first PLC in Vancouver in 2015, said a team made up of a legal assistant, advocate, and a lawyer works with the family.

"They will not only support people with their legal matters, but help them tackle some of the issues that often result in the child safety concerns in the first place," she said.

Services include a lawyer's advice and representation at court, and at mediations and other collaborative meetings, and an advocate's support throughout the process, including information, connecting parents to other services such as counselling, addictions treatment or housing, and advocating on their behalf.

"The root of many such cases is poverty - not neglect," Harry said. "For example, sometimes a family just needs a decent roof over their head, but because good low-cost housing is hard to find, parents may lose their children. If we can solve the housing issue for a client, then children can be at home."

In addition to Prince George, LSS has opened PLCs in Smithers, Campbell River and Duncan. PLCs will also be opened in Kamloops, Williams Lake and Victoria in 2019 and the LSS regional office in Terrace will also offer PLC services.

The PLC model was first tested in Vancouver, and was followed by a location in Surrey.

"Evaluations of the PLC in Vancouver showed a much more positive experience for clients going through this difficult and highly stressful legal situation," said Harry. "As a result, we got funding from the Ministry of Attorney General to expand across the province."

While the PLCs will focus on Indigenous families, the services are available to anyone who qualifies for legal aid.

"By focussing on the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system, LSS is taking a step towards reconciliation," Harry said.

Indigenous people represent only six per cent of B.C.'s population, but of the children in care in the province, 60 per cent are Indigenous. Of LSS's legal aid clients whose children have been removed or are at risk of being removed, 40 per cent of them self-identify as Indigenous.

In Prince George, 103 of the 126 children in care, or 82 per cent, were Indigenous, according to Ministry of Children and Family Development data for 2016/17.

The PLC in Prince George can be reached by calling 250-277-0100 or 1-866-577-2525 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.

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