Anne Mahon is chancellor of the University of Manitoba and author of Overcome: Stories of Women Who Grew up in the Child Welfare System.
More Indigenous children are in Canada’s child-welfare system today than were in residential schools at their height, according to the latest data. In practical terms, the former has replaced the latter, continuing the pattern of colonial oppression they started.
In researching my book, Overcome: Stories of Women Who Grew up in the Child Welfare System, I learned a lot from Mary Burton, a foster-care survivor and co-creator of Fearless R2W, an organization in Manitoba advocating to keep families together. She knows the system intimately and said, “If you want to weaken a person, what do you do? You take their child from them.”
The separation of children from their parents serves to dismantle the family unit and even the community at large. Imagine helplessly watching as your child is taken from your home and sent to live with a complete stranger. Now, imagine you are the child – the level of trauma is almost unfathomable.
The first call of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is for all levels of government in Canada to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care. Clearly, the current system is not working. In Manitoba, almost 90 per cent of kids in care are Indigenous.
Many children are removed from their families as a result of poverty, housing issues or parents struggling with addiction. Instead of spending money on propping up a system that isn’t working, funds should be redirected toward meaningful, systemic change. Prevention must become the norm, instead of apprehension (the term used in social work to refer to the removal of a child from their parents). Wraparound supports that are matched to the needs of an individual family can help to create stability and keep children with their parents.
When Mary took responsibility for caring for her two grandsons, she received $1,300 a month in government assistance. Once she became a licensed foster parent, the support increased to $3,000 a month. But now that Mary has full custody of the children and is responsible for every aspect of their care, she receives only the child tax credit.
“If Child and Family Services gave the same amount of money to a single mom on EIA that they give the foster parents, there would be fewer apprehensions due to poverty,” she said.
Mary suggests taking a strength-based approach with parents. Figure out first what families are doing right and put resources into the family unit. Child-welfare service providers must ask parents who are struggling: What can we do to help you? Do you need budgeting courses? Short-term help with money for food? Can we help you find a job or child care? Helping the family to heal by providing the right kind of support should be our top priority.
Another positive type of systemic change, which is starting to gain some traction, is to ask for assistance in these matters from people with lived experience. Most social workers and policy-makers have never been forcibly removed from their parents. Some staff are compassionate, but most can’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be in care or have their child taken away. Governments must invite former clients of the foster-care system to share their stories, suggest solutions and give feedback.
Rachel Willan, a woman who grew up in the child-welfare system, told me that when service providers reach out to people who have lived these experiences, “survivors are teaching the social workers. We have a lot of gifts we bring to the table, and we are seeking redemption.”
The child-welfare system must also incorporate Indigenous-led solutions. Mary’s organization is a good example since they are trusted by families in their community and have extensive experience with child apprehension.
But Indigenous communities cannot do this on their own.
Last month, Canada recognized its second-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, raising awareness about residential schools. These issues are too important for action on just one day of the year, though. We must ask what non-Indigenous people can continue to do after we put our orange T-shirts into the laundry basket.
Most of us don’t have contact with the child-welfare system, but we do have possible connections with Indigenous community members. I believe reconciliation begins with such relationships. We all have a role to play in building meaningful ones with Indigenous community members. Invite someone for coffee. Be curious, listen more – talk less. These actions are rooted in love.
At a fundamental level, love is what residential schools and the child-welfare system have taken from Indigenous peoples. It’s up to each of us to bring some love back, one relationship at a time.