Uprooted

Why so many of Labrador’s children are in foster care so far away from home

A new day is beginning in Roddickton, a picturesque town on the eastern side of Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, and Jane Smith's home is slowly coming to life.

Two brothers, both preschoolers, are seated at a counter in the kitchen, quietly munching on syrup-soaked pancakes and drinking milk. Meanwhile, Smith — not her real name — stands patiently to one side, tightly embracing a sleepy little girl in her arms.

“Wakey, wakey,” Smith says in a soothing tone.

It’s a heartwarming family scene.

But there’s a catch.

These are not Smith’s children.

They are foster children from Aboriginal communities in Labrador, taken from a situation deemed unfit by social workers, and they depend on Smith for everything.

A foster mother we are calling Jane Smith holds a teddy bear while children have breakfast. (Terry Roberts\/CBC)

A foster mother we are calling Jane Smith holds a teddy bear while children have breakfast. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Shelter. Safety. Food. Love.

“It’s our way of pouring a little love into something that we can do,” Smith says.

Meanwhile, in Nain, an Inuit community more than 1,600 kilometres to the north, an Inuit father is feeling the absence of his children.

"I'm just waiting for my children to come back and for a court to agree," one Nain father told me.

His drinking led to losing custody of his children. He has quit and says he is following the steps to responsibility, but he is not there yet. However, he feels empty while his family is not whole.

"I want them to come back home,” he tells me.

“The family is destroyed."

This is the story of two places, home to different people with different lives, different emotions and different perspectives, but deeply connected by the children born in one place, but being raised in another.

In Nain — and in other Inuit communities along Labrador’s remote coast, as well as in Labrador’s Innu communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish — there is tension, pain and anxiety. Occasionally, there is the joy of reunion, of families brought together under a single roof. But there are other feelings, too, including a sense that Indigenous communities must do more themselves to provide safer homes for their most vulnerable citizens.

In Roddickton, and the small community of Englee around the corner, there is another side of the same story. Residents have opened their homes and their hearts to these uprooted and innocent youngsters. At the same time, it’s clear to see that foster care has emerged as an unlikely economic lifeline that is helping to keep this economically distressed corner of Newfoundland afloat.

We cannot show you these children. We can’t introduce you fully to the parents, nor the foster parents. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Children and Youth Care and Protection Act prevents us from doing so.

But the emotions in both places are real, powerful and sometimes raw.

In Labrador, people struggle to make sense of the removal of so many children.

“I wish I was there to help all the other families get their children back,” says one Nain mother, who fought — and won — to bring her children home, “because it’s hard.”

Foster parent Jane Smith: "They’re loved. They’re adored. They’re involved.” (Terry Roberts\/CBC)

Foster parent Jane Smith: "They’re loved. They’re adored. They’re involved.” (Terry Roberts/CBC)

There are different perspectives on a painful, delicate and complex problem: Aboriginal children ripped from their parents, shipped off to white families in remote, aging and economically depressed communities, and immersed in a white culture.

But in Roddickton, Jane Smith feels she has an important role to play.

When asked how the children are being received in their new surroundings, she says, “They’re loved. They’re adored. They’re involved.”

A Canada-wide problem

The Newfoundland and Labrador government says that more than 30 per cent of the children in foster care in the province — that’s 310 as of late 2016 — are from Labrador, even though the region has only six per cent of the population.

Sherri Gambin-Walsh: "We’re having really good outcomes there." (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Sherri Gambin-Walsh: "We’re having really good outcomes there." (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Those numbers are sobering, but are symbolic of a Canada-wide problem: Aboriginal children are vastly over-represented in the child welfare system.

Also notable is the fact that about one third of the children removed from their parents wind up in foster care outside of Labrador, many hundreds of kilometres away, in non-Indigenous communities.

In many cases, the Labrador children are being concentrated in the neighbouring communities of Roddickton and Englee, home to roughly 2,000 people.

As of December, according to the provincial government, there were 45 foster homes in the area, caring for 55 children.

Average age? Eight.

“We’re having really good outcomes there,” says Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh, adding there are some obvious benefits to grouping the children in one area, where they can grow up together.

“I’m really happy with the foster families in Roddickton.”

A question of housing

But why are so many children being placed into care, and why are many of them being sent so far from home?

The answer to the first question is a complex one, but here’s how Gambin-Walsh explains it: "Labrador faces a number of challenges. Social challenges and demographic challenges. We do have a significant number of Aboriginal children in care, just like the rest of Canada."

An unemployment rate pegged by some community leaders at 30 per cent is also compounding a cycle of poverty and social crises, including alcohol abuse, child neglect and violence.

Some blame the high rates of child protection cases on the legacy of residential schools and the historic pattern of removing Indigenous children from their homes.

As for the second question, it’s no secret that there is a housing crisis in many Aboriginal communities, and few suitable options for foster homes.

Richard Pamak wants Nunatsiavut to have more control over child protection. (Bruce Tilley\/CBC)

Richard Pamak wants Nunatsiavut to have more control over child protection. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Nain resident Richard Pamak, a member of the Nunatsiavut Government, has been outspoken on the foster children issue. He says about 40 per cent of homes in Nain are occupied by multiple families.

Many homes are in need of major repairs, and there’s a widespread problem with mould.

Housing conditions in Nain are often substandard. (Bruce Tilley\/CBC)

Housing conditions in Nain are often substandard. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

“Housing is like the hub of many of the social problems we have in the community,” Pamak says.

‘They’re treated as their own’

It has all culminated in a unique situation in Roddickton and surrounding area, which shares many similarities with northern Labrador, including remoteness and a long tradition of hunting and dependence on the land.

And with so many empty-nesters in the region like Jane Smith — who has grown children, empty bedrooms and plenty of parenting experience — there’s an abundance of opportunities to place children in need of safe and positive surroundings.

“Sometimes you feel it is unfortunate,” says Smith, “but you also think it's quite a nice thing.

“[The] families here are loving and opening their homes. We often rely on each other to support each other.”

Saving a school

The children began arriving about a decade ago, and the numbers have since swelled.

The influx of Aboriginal children to these predominantly white communities has had an effect on many aspects of life in the area, most notably the education system.

Enrolment has stabilized at the all-grade school in Roddickton, and Englee Mayor Rudy Porter says the foster children have likely saved the school in his town.

"We were actually expecting the population would dwindle down and eventually the students [in Englee] would end up being bused to Roddickton, but that hasn't happened, because of the fact of the influx of the Labrador children," says Porter.

A new office building for the increased number of social workers and other support staff has been constructed in Roddickton. Some say it's the only government service in the region that is growing.

Businesses are also experiencing an injection of activity.

There's a steady flow of people from communities such as Nain and Hopedale coming in — at government expense — for supervised visits with their children.

That means spending on things such as airfare, hotel accommodations and meals.

There's also a growing number of jobs in child care.

Jobs in the forest and fishing sectors have all but dried up, and young people typically leave and plant roots elsewhere.

"It certainly helps the economy and certainly helps people that some income comes from this to help them survive and live in difficult times," says Porter.

The Labrador Inuit community of Nain has about 1,400 residents. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Given all this, is it a good strategy to relocate the children to Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula?

Opinions are mixed.

Kristie Holwell: "It's tearing families apart."

Kristie Holwell: "It's tearing families apart."

"A lot of people [say] it's like residential schools all over again but in a different form,” says Nain town councillor Kristie Holwell.

“It might be helping the children, I don't know, but it doesn't help the families back here. It's tearing families apart."

‘I just started drinking out of nowhere’

On any given day at the Mayflower Motel in Roddickton, you’re likely to encounter parents from Labrador who are in the community for visits with their children.

It’s usually an emotional time — parents are nervous, children are confused and foster parents try to be supportive.

One mother from Nain tells CBC News she is visiting her daughter for the first time in three years.

A mother from Nain waits with her son to see her daughter, whom she has not seen in three years. (Terry Roberts\/CBC)

A mother from Nain waits with her son to see her daughter, whom she has not seen in three years. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Her eyes fill with tears as she describes how she’s coping.

“It hurts,” says the mother.

When asked why her daughter was taken from her care, the mother blames her dependency on alcohol.

“I just started drinking out of nowhere and I lost my children,” she admits.

The mother says she is now sober, and has regained custody of her other children, but is not hopeful she’ll get her daughter back.

“I think it’s going to be hard for me to fight for her,” she says.

The mother believes the only answer is to ban alcohol in Nain, provide better supports to parents, and improve the housing situation.

“As soon as the beer gets down to Nain, that’s when everybody just changes and goes to drinking,” she says.

For foster parents, these supervised reunions are also important. Jane Smith tells me they validate what she has taken on.

“We just have some of the parents tell us, you know, just thank you, thank you for taking care of the children,” says Jane Smith.

In good hands

Despite missing her daughter intensely, the Nain mother is confident her daughter is in good hands in Roddickton.

“It would be good for parents to see how they’re being taken care of and for them to realize they need to take care of their children like that, too,” she says.

Another parent from Nain, standing not far away, agrees.

“They are in very good care with the family they are [with],” says the father, who is visiting his sons for the first time in five months.

“Of course they miss me. They miss their father,” he says. “And the house in Nain.”

He says child protection workers “came to my house and removed my children because I was passed out, sleeping, intoxicated.”

Describing his circumstances, he seems pensive, almost resigned to a struggle that still lies ahead.

"They hugged me hard, and [were] jumping on me all over the place," he says. "It's heartbreaking."

'Children are being apprehended'

While the burgeoning population of children may be a boost for Roddickton, the opposite is true for Labrador.

Richard Pamak says roughly 30 children from Nain are in foster care outside of Labrador, nearly enough to fill two classrooms at Jens Haven Memorial School.

In a community of just 1,400 people, that represents a lot of families whose lives have been disrupted.

“You see it on a regular basis, that children are being apprehended,” Pamak tells me.

He says every effort is made to keep the foster children in their home community, but it’s a big challenge.

There is a jurisdictional issue at play, too, as child protection is the responsibility of the Newfoundland and Labrador government. Pamak places some of the blame on the province for not providing more help to families at risk.

“They have to... do more preventive work with families before it comes to the point where the children have to be taken into care,” he says.

Pamak envisions a day when the Inuit government of Nunatsiavut will take over control of children protection services from the provincial government.

He says Nunatsiavut is already offering support services in hopes of keeping more families united.

“It’s one of the biggest issues that comes across my desk,” he says.

In St. John’s, Sherry Gambin-Walsh says removing children from their home community is not the preferred option. Sometimes, though, there is no alternative.

“That’s our objective and goal, and I would love to be able to do that, but right now we have to remove children when we don’t have the capacity to keep them in the community,” she says.

“It makes me as a minister want to do more,” Gambin-Walsh says, “to find solutions and to be able to work to keep the children in the communities with their families.”

A unique situation

There are other worries, particularly the fact that Inuit and Innu children may be at risk of losing their Aboriginal culture, including their language.

But even in Nain, there are multiple points of view. A leader in the Inuit community with knowledge of the situation believes the foster children in Roddickton are generally well-adjusted and happy.

The leader, who asked not to be named, said preserving a culture should not be a priority if it involves drunkenness, drug abuse and violence.

This leader has heard about some foster children becoming extremely stressed about the prospect of being returned to their families, and to their community.

As well, a frontline worker in child protection on the Northern Peninsula, who did not have permission to talk to the media, told me there has been a “great success rate” for the foster children.

In addition to positive home environments, they also have good access to quality education and health services, the worker said.

When asked if the children are unhappy, the worker said “that’s not our sense.”

But the situation appears to be putting some strain on the education system, according to Mary Foley, a retired teacher who substitutes in Roddickton.

Mary Foley took part in a CBC forum on education this winter. (CBC)

Mary Foley took part in a CBC forum on education this winter. (CBC)

She tells CBC News that the foster children have a “multitude of concerns and issues,” and there are not enough supports in the system.

“The regular classroom teacher cannot provide what they need,” she says. “We are not social workers. We are teachers. But we can’t be [just] teachers.”

She adds, “There’s nothing worse than to sit in a classroom and be a teacher to children who are hurting, who miss their home, who miss their mother and every other need along with it. But you know something, you have nowhere to turn. And that’s not right.”

‘I don’t even think of the money’

There are some who quietly say that fostering has become something of an industry in Roddickton.

Foster parents are not getting rich, but it’s clear the remuneration has helped stabilize the area’s economy, and in some cases stemmed the flow of people who may have otherwise had to leave for jobs elsewhere.

Foster parent Jane Smith has heard the whispers — that people are in it for the money. She bristles at the suggestion.

"I don't like that because if someone is doing it for the money… you can't… for me, it's pouring your heart and soul into it," she says.

"I don't even think of the money aspect. My husband works. He provides for us. And this is something that we do for the children."

According to the province’s auditor general, nearly half of the children in care last year were placed in what’s known as a regular foster home, with an average cost to the government of $33,000 per child.

Not all of that goes to the foster parent, however.

Foster homes receive monthly rates of remuneration, including a basic care rate that ranges anywhere from just over $700 to under $1,200 per child, depending on factors such as location and the child’s age.

For example, the province pays more to a foster home caring for a baby than it would for a child between the ages of two and four. And the rates for care in Labrador are higher than they are in Newfoundland.

Foster homes receive hundreds more dollars for things like recreation and transportation, clothing and placement allowances, and a so-called “level fee” that recognizes a foster parent’s training and the level of care they are approved to provide.

Gambin-Walsh says she’s “really happy” with the level of care being provided to children in the Roddickton area, and says it’s not uncommon to have a large number of foster homes concentrated in one area.

“What really happens is there is a positive experience in fostering, other families want to get engaged and involved in it [and] that forms a great support group,” says Gambin-Walsh, adding “at this point in time, Roddickton does have a significant number of foster children.”

But what about the financial incentives of being a foster parent — has it become an industry, as some would suggest?

Absolutely not, says Gambin-Walsh.

“I would say it just so happens that at this point in time, in Roddickton, being a foster parent is successful. People have seen each other, they mentor each other, they support each other, and it’s good.”

The chance to be a parent again

In Englee, Mayor Rudy Porter has sympathy for the "difficult circumstances" that brought the children to his community, but is confident they are receiving the best of care.

In many cases, he says, the foster parents have raised their own children, have more time on their hands and welcome the chance to be parents again.

"I've noticed these parents spend more time with these foster children than I actually ever could remember seeing them [do] with their own children," says Porter, a retired teacher.

"I've seen some of them out hunting, which I mean relates to their own Labrador culture and environment."

Back at Jane Smith’s house in Roddickton, breakfast is finished and the children are dressed in warm clothing.

A paid driver arrives to pick up one of the boys and bring him to preschool, while Smith walks the other two foster children to school.

She lovingly guides them by the hand along the street, their footsteps matched by the sounds of chatter and laughter.

Smith says Roddickton is a much better option than shipping the children off to an urban setting such as St. John's, and she hopes the little girl in her care will become a permanent part of her life — she actually plans to adopt her.

"We've had her since birth. She is a part of our family. I can't imagine life without her," she says.

Happy again, together again

One evening in Nain, there is another happy scene. A family of six ends the day by gathering in their living room, watching television, eating candy and playing games together.

The mom and dad are enjoying every minute, happy to be a family unit once again.

Their home fell silent for months last year after child protection workers apprehended the children and placed them in a group home.

The parents fought — successfully — to get them back. In a system where children can be in foster care for years, their experience is different from other families in their own community.

"When they went in care, I was so lost,” the mother says. “Now we have them back and everything's going good.”

Later, there is a commotion, as the children don their winter clothing and head out the door, making their way to the community centre.

Some table tennis and socializing are on the agenda.

The mother takes it all in, a smile on her face.

“I love my children,” she says. “They’re my world.”

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