Fighting foster care
The stunning number of First Nations kids in care is a new touchstone for activists—and for rebel parents
The baggy sweater from the University of Manitoba makes Jen’s baby bump unnoticeable at first glance—and that might be the point. She’s eight months pregnant and weeks from now, in the comfort of her home in Winnipeg’s North End, she plans to give birth in secret. Doing so will avoid the sort of alert her last birth triggered, she hopes, and help ensure that her next baby is one Indigenous child who doesn’t disappear into foster care.
Two years ago, Jen was several hours into labour at Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg when she was gripped by the fear that her newborn would be apprehended. Someone had handed her a form demanding answers to a raft of personal questions: where she lived, how much money she made, the state of her mental health and her history of contact with Child and Family Services (CFS). By then the contractions were almost unbearable and Jen, who asked that her full name not be used, no longer felt in control of her own body. The whole scene felt intrusive and wrong—not how this moment was supposed to happen.
A few hours later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. But before she was discharged, the nurse, acting under provisions in Manitoba law, called a social worker to ask if Jen should be allowed to leave. In Winnipeg, it’s not uncommon for child apprehensions to take place immediately after hospital births. And Jen had an open file with CFS, which was grounds in itself for the call. In 2013, amid a violent relationship, she’d wound up in a women’s shelter, a stint of homelessness that resulted in her getting a “high-risk parent” designation. One of her seven children had begun harming herself and was placed in care.
Now, more than four years on, Jen says much in her world has changed. Seated near the Indigenous Resources Collection inside Winnipeg’s Millennium Library, where a laminated medicine wheel adorns the floor, she talks about how her life has stabilized thanks to her husband, the father of her two-year-old girl. She’s taken social-work courses at university—hence the sweatshirt—and though she ran out of money for tuition, hopes to one day earn her degree. “No matter what any of these systems throw at me,” says Jen, now in her early 40s, “I’m perfectly capable, and I’ll show how good I am at not failing.”
What impact her life changes might have on skeptical child-welfare officials, she doesn’t know. But this time, she’s not taking chances. When she gives birth shortly, she will have the help of a midwife, who will eventually register the birth of the baby. But by that point, she believes, it’s unlikely child-welfare authorities would find out about it—unless someone blows the whistle on her. And if she does receive a knock on the door, she figures she won’t be as vulnerable. She’ll have witnesses. More importantly, she says, she’ll be able to show she’s a capable mother.
In late January, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott will hold an emergency meeting of First Nations leaders, child-welfare agencies and advocacy groups to confront what she has called a “humanitarian crisis.” Indigenous children are, to put it mildly, overrepresented in Canada’s child-welfare system. In 2016, First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth made up 52 per cent of foster children younger than 14 in Canada, despite representing just eight per cent of that age group, according to Statistics Canada. That’s four points higher than in 2011, reflecting the fact that more Indigenous children have been entering foster care than leaving it. Between 1989 and 2012, Indigenous children have spent more than 66 million nights in foster care—the equivalent of 180,000 years. These national statistics, however, only account for children living in private households. If they included those who live in group homes, shelters or mental health facilities, say advocates, the total would be far higher.
The numbers vary between provinces and territories, but the imbalance applies across the country, and has reached crisis proportions in the West. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, nearly 90 per cent of children in care are Indigenous. Of the roughly 11,000 in care in Manitoba, according to a 2016-17 provincial government report, nearly 10,000 are Indigenous and nearly 6,000 of those are permanent wards. (Manitoba’s total includes children in foster homes, places of safety, group facilities, independent living and other types of care.)
The shocking numbers, and the failure to address them, has pushed this issue to the top of the agenda of Indigenous leaders and activists, who regard it as a vestige of Canada’s discredited strategy of assimilating First Nations children by removing them from their parents’ influence. While most acknowledge that Indigenous kids in many households are at risk, they’re frustrated that the default solution is still to funnel those kids into care rather than confronting the social and economic problems that devastate families.
“It’s truly looking more and more like a second generation of residential school,” Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs told APTN in November, articulating a view widely held among First Nations leaders and activists. To debate the present crisis while overlooking the past, these critics say, would be to ignore Canada’s history of abusing and literally prying Indigenous children from their parents’ arms: every federal government since 1867, they note, has carried out policies separating Indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures.
Their demands, and the sheer weight of the statistics, have thrust government into arguably its greatest challenge since it came to grips with the residential school disaster. How do authorities change the appalling numbers while addressing immediate risks—from neglect to malnutrition to abuse—to Indigenous children? How do they protect youngsters while ending a practice redolent of the devastating policies that many believe led to the conditions they were born into in the first place?
Nearly a decade ago, with flowers in hand, Cindy Blackstock paid her respects at the grave of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, who now stands as a key witness of the atrocities that occurred in residential schools. For Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society and the country’s leading champion of Indigenous children’s rights, the man is an inspiration.
But to the Canadian government in the early 1900s, Bryce was less a hero than a bearer of inconvenient truths. In the eyes of Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time, he was an outright villain. As a medical inspector for the Department of Indian and Interior Affairs, Bryce had documented the poor health conditions in residential schools—attributing the ailments to federal underfunding. In his 1907 Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Bryce voiced shock at “a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse.”
So many children died in residential schools that by the 1920s the Canadian government stopped recording the deaths and began using unmarked graves. “It suffices for us to know, however, that of a total 1,537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis,” Bryce found. The federal government viewed Bryce as a threat to its assimilationist agenda; it stopped funding his research and limited his access to academic circles. In 1921, the government forced him into early retirement, but a year later he released his book The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada. In it he observed that a “trail of disease and death has gone almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs.”
The last residential school closed in 1996. As early as the 1940s, as the schools became more expensive to operate, the federal government started using them as child-welfare facilities and Indian agents as social workers. By 1960, the government estimated that 50 per cent of the children in the schools were effectively there for foster care. Around that time, a new policy was authorized, in this case involving private homes. More than 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their homes and placed with non-Indigenous families—a wave of displacement that became known as the Sixties Scoop. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a historical inquiry into the impact of residential schools, describes the scoop as “simply a transferring of children from one form of institutional care, the residential school, to another, the child-welfare agency.”
That understanding of history wasn’t far from Jen’s mind two years ago, when she asked a relative to seek guardianship of her daughter should the child be apprehended. She was aware that she’s had an open CFS file since 2006 and wanted no surprises. Jen says there have been times when she thought her file was closed, only to discover the opposite; she’d get phone calls from the agency telling her it would remain open a little longer. Maybe, she thought, the system would respect her wishes. “To my knowledge,” she now adds, “my file is closed.”
Her troubles started with a relationship plagued by domestic violence that forced her into the women’s shelter. After 2013, when she was assessed to be a high-risk parent, Jen was required to disclose her latest pregnancy to a social worker—a move she won’t be repeating.
Jen is Anishinaabe from the Ebb and Flow First Nation, a community about 240 km northwest of Winnipeg, but has spent most of her life in the province’s largest city. She has seven children, but lost custody of four to her former partner. The daughter she lost to foster care, now 17, struggles with drug addiction; Jen’s oldest daughter, 22, has her own family. Yet people who meet Jen are struck by how articulate she is. She was reading at an adult level at age 10, and loved the routine of her two years of university, which she’s determined to resume.
Her grandparents met in residential school, and similar horrors of abuse and neglect found a way to her childhood home. By 4 a.m. every weekend day, she remembers, violence would erupt in her house. As a child, she spent summers without shoes because it was less humiliating than wearing the tattered ones that drew bullying and ridicule. She still can’t stand the smell of tomato soup mixed with macaroni and chopped wieners—a mainstay concoction in First Nation communities she got more than her share of.
Jen met her current husband in 2014—“He swept me off my feet,” she recalls—and soon they’ll give their two-year-old a baby brother. Her husband, who features in his nation’s sun dances marking summer solstice, has given her a spiritual and cultural connection, an aspect of her life she’s only now discovering.
Jen will avoid the hospital barring any medical emergencies—going to one, she says, would terrify her. She’s done home births before, and reached her decision after reading on social media about recent apprehensions of babies: mothers mourning the loss of their children and pleading for the help of others. Many such cases begin with a “birth alert,” when a CFS agency informs a hospital of an expecting mother in its system (underage mothers automatically trigger alerts). In Winnipeg, when that baby arrives, an agency called the Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network (ANCR) is called to assess the new mother. ANCR, an independent non-profit that provides intake services to the province’s four child-welfare authorities, may not always apprehend the child at the hospital. Executive director Sandie Stoker says she hears the concerns from the Indigenous community, but, she stresses, “there are a lot of safety concerns that we can’t not recognize.”
A spokesperson for CFS cited a range of concerns within a family that might result in infant apprehensions, including addiction, homelessness, a history of neglect, abuse and “inability to parent.” Immediate or extended family are given priority as caregivers, the official said, but the statistical picture is nevertheless harrowing. Provincewide in 2017, 354 newborns were taken into care before they were 31 days old, and 86 per cent were Indigenous. At the end of year, 259 of those infants remained in care.
In October, the provincial government announced long-awaited plans to reform its child-welfare system in 2018, including the creation of a legislative review committee. The province is also promising subsidies to encourage foster parents to become legal guardians—something Philpott and others oppose. The effect, says Cora Morgan, Manitoba’s First Nations family advocate, would be to “make it look like there are fewer kids in care” while the problems in fact persist.
In 2007, the Assembly of First Nations and Blackstock’s organization filed a human rights complaint against the federal government for underfunding child-welfare services for Indigenous children. In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa was racially discriminating with its funding approach, and its failure to implement what’s become known as Jordan’s Principle, a policy ensuring jurisdictional disputes don’t block First Nations children from getting medical services. (Jordan River Anderson died in hospital at the age of five after the Manitoba and federal governments battled in court over who should pay his medical costs.) The tribunal ordered the government to fix the crisis immediately, and has since issued three orders of non-compliance. In nine years, Ottawa spent nearly $10 million in legal fees fighting the decision (Philpott insists that the government is now living up to its obligations).
The tribunal’s findings were profound, pointing to a host of social factors that play a role in Indigenous children being placed in foster care, from poor housing to a lack of clean drinking water in First Nations communities. Ottawa chronically underfunds the agencies it charges with providing child-welfare services to First Nations children, the tribunal found, creating “incentive to bring children into care.” These agencies struggle with high turnover rates and an inability to emphasize prevention measures, the tribunal determined. That incentive is all the stronger given that if children are placed in care, costs to keep them there are reimbursed by Ottawa.
Moreover, the federal auditor general and tribunal have both found that Ottawa frequently addressed child-welfare and education deficiencies by reallocating money from crucial programs like housing and infrastructure—creating a toxic cycle where poverty and poor housing became key drivers for children placed in care. Says Blackstock: “Our behaviour today is in some ways more egregious. There’s simply no credible defence to suggest that we, the people of this period, don’t know any better.”
Nowhere are these policies more keenly felt than in Manitoba. On a cool evening in November, eight members of the newly formed activist group Fearless R2W sit around a table splashed with dried, colourful paint at the Turtle Island Community Centre in Winnipeg’s North End. The sound of children playing echoes through the halls from a nearby gymnasium. Inside the meeting room, the walls are covered with bookshelves and caged windows; toddlers, some of whom have been in foster care, play freely as the grassroots group plots its next move.
R2W, it turns out, derives from a postal code in a neighbourhood where one in six children are in the care of CFS, according to government statistics from 2015. “Fearless,” meanwhile, speaks to a disturbing reality in the heavily Indigenous North End that the group hopes to change: residents here fear CFS. Mary Burton and Michael Champagne founded the group in 2014 after several local “super grannies” brought the issue to another gathering of North End activists. Fearless R2W’s goal is to help parents navigate Manitoba’s convoluted care system and provincial legislation they say gives disproportionate rights to social workers and CFS agencies. “You can’t find a section anywhere in the legislation that says, ‘parents’ rights,’ ” Champagne says.
One of those grannies was Candy, who has spent seven years fighting to get four of her grandsons back (she asked to use a pseudonym because she fears her comments could affect the boys’ cases). As a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, Candy shares her grandsons’ scars from foster care, noting the boys were all five or younger when apprehended.
During a visit with her, Candy’s youngest grandson asked for his long, dark braid to be cut off—his non-Indigenous foster parents would mock him by tying it in pigtails. She says they were abused with sticks and not allowed to enter the living room because they were “dirty Indians.” Her grandsons would tell her how they want to go in sweat lodges and grow out their hair; how they yearn to drum, powwow dance and speak their Dakota language. They were removed from the abusive foster household after she told the agency what was happening, she says; she’s going to court in a few months and hopes the boys will be coming home with her. “I want them to know that they’re Dakota, that they’re Sioux, and that they come from a long line of warriors,” Candy says.
Burton and Champagne can often be found at the house or hospital room before a potential apprehension, providing support and ensuring officials observe the rights of parents. So far, they say, they’ve prevented at least two apprehensions. “We’ll go and advocate for the people in our community,” Burton explains. Having been a child in care, she knows the system first-hand and has been the guardian of her two grandsons since 2013. Having an open CFS file in Manitoba can arise from something as simple as having the police show up at your front door or living in visible poverty. Nurses and other health care professionals can call ANCR based on suspicion alone.
Fearless R2W stresses that it is not anti-CFS; members say they understand the need for child protection and believe their community, like the ministry and agencies, has a responsibility. Champagne himself found stability in care, unlike children who bounce between group homes, foster families and even social workers and agencies. He was apprehended at birth and placed with parents who ultimately adopted him. His biological mother and father, he says, were not able to care for him. He still visits his adopted family for Sunday dinner even though he’s over 18—the year children in Manitoba age out of the system. “I’m super lucky,” he says. “I feel like I won the lottery.”
Still, Burton and Champagne say the fear in their neighbourhood can be paralyzing. And anyone who has dealt with or worked for CFS in Manitoba, has, at some point, uttered the phrase, “There’s no system in Canada like Manitoba’s.” Its CFS division oversees a byzantine web of agencies under the auspices of four authorities guided by provincial legislation. The province and Ottawa share funding responsibility for Indigenous foster care. But a severe shortage of Indigenous foster homes can be explained in part by a strict set of provincial rules around housing—like living conditions and bedroom dimensions—that most reserves with poor infrastructure are unable to adhere to. Says Morgan: “Our children are being commodified, and they’re paying non-Indigenous people to house them.”
But this is a crisis with many systemic factors. “The funding for Child and Family Services doesn’t directly address the drivers for overrepresentation, and nor should it,” says Tara Petti, the CEO of the Southern Authority, one of the four umbrella networks that oversees front-line CFS agencies working in Indigenous communities. The disproportionate numbers, Petti says, has “a lot to do with the socioeconomic conditions created through poverty and through our history. CFS is responding to that, and it is becoming harder and harder.”
And Manitoba, though an epicentre of the fostering crisis, is by no means the only province grappling with it. In Alberta, for example, Indigenous children account for more than 70 per cent of all kids under 14 in care, despite making up just 10 per cent of Albertan children under 14 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. An investigation by the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald in 2014 found that 78 per cent of children who died in Alberta’s foster care system since 1999 were Indigenous. Warnings of crisis in the system, the newspapers reported, dated back three decades to a fatality inquiry report following the high-profile death of Richard Stanley Cardinal, a Metis teenager who committed suicide at 17 after going through 28 homes in 14 years. Little, it seemed, had been done to change things.
It was a clear day in July 2015 when Lee, Tamara Malcolm’s oldest son, walked up to her home on the Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario. Pulsing with joy and relief, he said: “Mom, I made it home.” He hugged her and wouldn’t let go. They walked along the shores of Lake Huron, taking pictures to savour the moment. Tamara had dreamed of this day: “Something that I created came back to me,” she says. But she was afraid that at any moment he would be taken again.
Lee was two years shy of 18 and had run away from foster care in Winnipeg. He and his two younger brothers, who are still in care, were taken from their mother 10 years ago. West Region Child and Family Services supported Lee in Serpent River, Tamara says, and last September he finally aged out of the system.
Tamara knows what it’s like to be apprehended. She remembers being pulled from her mother’s arms by social workers on her fifth birthday. Her three sons were taken from her, she says, over concerns they could face violence at the hands of a family member. But over the years, the Anishinaabe mother has tried to prove herself to the CFS agency in Winnipeg, where she was born and raised. She started a traditional beading business out of an extension on her house in Serpent River, harnessing a craft she originally used to cope with the loss of her sons.
When that wasn’t enough, Tamara, who, like Jen, is from the Ebb and Flow First Nation, started sharing her struggle on Twitter. In September, she posted video of her home to prove how clean, big and safe it is. In response, the agency threatened legal action for publicly sharing the names of her children and, she says, tried to deny her visits. “I won’t be silenced,” she wrote on Twitter. The agency, Tamara believes, is stalling—waiting for her legal fees to become unaffordable.
Tamara’s campaign brought national attention to the crisis and the challenges many families face. Candy also says she was warned not to publicly share her dealings with CFS. Defiantly, Tamara fought back—sharing emails, letters from her lawyer and threats made against her on social media, while advocating for others like her. “I’m not the only one out there feeling this way,” she says. “I feel like I’m a voice for the ones that can’t speak.”
Lee lived in eight foster homes in 10 years. Each time he’d speak with his social worker, he asked: “When can I go home to my mom?” Immediately after he was apprehended, the answer was “no more than two weeks.” But the answer changed over time—three weeks, a month and a half—and eventually two months became customary. “They’d always say paperwork needs to be filed,” Lee recalls.
Between 2008 and 2010, Lee lived with an elder, a medicine man who called him a “medicine child” and took him to sweat lodge and sun dance ceremonies. But he was moved on to homes where practices like smudging were not allowed, and where he was repeatedly threatened with being taken to a youth shelter. At 15, feeling more curious than scared or depressed, he opened a medicine cabinet in his foster home on the Ebb and Flow First Nation, and counted 86 pills from various bottles. He swallowed them and fell asleep, believing it would be the last time he closed his eyes. When he woke up, he started vomiting blood. He was rushed to a nearby hospital then flown to one in Dauphin, Man.
Lee recovered and decided not long after to leave for Serpent River. He saved $300 and used the health card of his aunt’s boyfriend as a piece of ID, fearing that he’d be stopped in Winnipeg when he tried to buy a bus ticket. Lee had never been to Serpent River but had spent countless hours looking at his mom’s house on Google Earth, so two days later, as he rode through the community, Lee knew exactly where she lived. The weight of the moment hadn’t yet sunk in as he approached Tamara’s beading store. But then he walked in. “I was so happy to be home—this is my real home,” Lee says. In Tamara’s arms, he didn’t say much, surrendering instead to a feeling that had somehow survived years of loneliness, disappointment and frustration: “I just wanted to be held by my mom.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the federal government spent $707,000 over nine years fighting a human rights case over its funding of child-welfare services for Indigenous children. In fact, that was the sum spent since Jan. 25, 2016; the amount Ottawa spent over nine years in legal fees and associated costs was close to $10 million.