Opinion

Foster care system one of the paths to murdered and missing Indigenous women

It is not good enough to apologize for residential schools and the Sixties Scoop and then keep taking our children, says Pamela Palmater.

Indigenous children in foster care vulnerable to sexual abuse, fall prey to opportunistic predators

Tina Fontaine's body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on Aug. 17, 2014. It was wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks. (Tina Fontaine/Facebook)

Tina Fontaine was 15 when she was killed and her body thrown in the Red River. Phoenix Sinclair was five when she was beaten to death and her body hidden away in a landfill. Her death went undetected for nine months. Cameron Ouskan, who was regularly bruised and had head injuries, was only 13 months old when he died.

What these children all have in common is that they were Indigenous and they were all in foster care in the province of Manitoba.

They are just a handful of the hundreds that have died in foster care in the last decade. For the more than 10,000 Indigenous children in Manitoba, foster care has become the new residential school with all its attending abuses.

In residential schools, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and placed into boarding schools where many were starved, neglected, tortured, medically experimented on, and physically and sexually abused. More than 6,000 of those children never made it out of those "schools" alive. Of those that did survive, they and their families and communities have suffered inter-generational trauma.

However, the abuse did not end with the closing of the last residential school in 1996. Today, there are more Indigenous children forcibly removed from their parents and placed into foster care than at the height of the residential school era. Despite being less than seven per cent of the population, in 2011, Indigenous children represented more than 48 per cent of all children in care in Canada. In Manitoba, that number was a staggering 85 per cent.

Jane Philpott, minister of Indigenous Services, has described the situation as a "humanitarian crisis," yet despite strenuous advocacy from First Nation leaders, child welfare experts and regular citizens, the federal and provincial governments have not made any substantive improvements.

People hold up signs in Montreal on Saturday during one of many rallies across the country in memory of Tina Fontaine. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In fact, in the last decade, the number of Indigenous children in care is increasing – not decreasing. Dr. Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, filed a successful discrimination complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act against the federal government for purposely and chronically underfunding child and family services for First Nations.

Despite her legal victory, Canada has refused to stop discriminating against First Nations kids in care. This is despite the fact that the government's own records showed that underfunding First Nation child and family services is a major contributor to the over-representation of First Nation kids in care.

Life risks

This situation should be considered a national crisis. Not only do Indigenous children die in foster care, those that survive face incredible life risks not of their own making. British Columbia found that less than half of foster children graduate from high school. Indigenous youth make up 35 per cent of all youth in criminal corrections. A 2001 study found that two-thirds of all Indigenous people in prison had been involved in the child welfare system. That is a pretty startling statistic.

However, their risks don't end with lower educational outcomes and prison rates. Half the victims of sex trafficking in Canada are Indigenous. A 2016 Globe and Mail report found that in Toronto despite being less than one per cent of the population, they represent 20 per cent of the trafficking victims. In Edmonton, 40 per cent of victims of trafficking are Indigenous.

While there is no central database, the RCMP have noted that Indigenous girls under 18 are most at risk.

Of the information that has been reported, the majority of victims came from foster care.

Therein lies the tie between foster care and the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Indigenous children in care are the most vulnerable to abusive foster parents, sexual predators, manipulative traffickers and a society that has long ignored the sexualized violence committed against Indigenous women and girls.

Vulnerable targets

What remains is the uncomfortable part of this crisis – where doctors, lawyers, police officers, judges, and some foster parents see Indigenous children in foster care as vulnerable targets for sexualized violence.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented numerous reports of sexualized violence and assaults committed by RCMP officers in B.C. against Indigenous women and girls. More than eight officers were put on leave after many reports of sexualized violence committed against Indigenous women and girls in Val d'Or, Que. Judge David Ramsay died in jail after pleading guilty to targeting Indigenous girls for sexualized violence.

The qulliq, a traditional Inuit oil lamp, burning at the MMIWG inquiry hearings in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, last week. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Those whose job it is to protect Indigenous children in foster care have, in some cases, become the opportunistic predators.

This should come as no surprise after the Sixties Scoop – the massive adoption of Indigenous children into non-Indigenous homes – became a buy-sell-trade industry of Indigenous children.

A report from B.C. found that Indigenous children are four times more likely to be sexually abused in foster care than non-Indigenous children. Of those who were abused in foster care, two-thirds of those were Indigenous girls. There are more than 4,000 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

MMIWG inquiry

While the struggling national inquiry hasn't even begun to look at the systemic issues yet, we can predict based on testimonies from the families and reports from those agencies who work with victims, that close to half of the murdered and missing were connected with the foster care system.

We don't need to wait for the report of the national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls to link over-representation in foster care to murdered and missing. With all that we already know about the crisis of Indigenous children in foster care, the most important step toward real change would be to stop apprehending Indigenous children.

This would indeed create a crisis within the current child welfare system but what Canada needs is a crisis of change. Only a crisis of change will force federal and provincial governments to find other alternatives, to re-allocate their budgets and find a myriad of ways to keep Indigenous children with their parents, extended families or communities.

It is not good enough to apologize for residential schools and the Sixties Scoop and then keep taking our children. Foster care is literally killing our children. It is time for it to stop.