Thursday January 25, 2018

The Millennium Scoop: Indigenous youth say care system repeats horrors of the past

Clockwise from main image: jaye simpson, Reina Foster and Dylan Cohen are all Indigenous youths who have spent time in Canada's care system.

Clockwise from main image: jaye simpson, Reina Foster and Dylan Cohen are all Indigenous youths who have spent time in Canada's care system. (The Current)

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Is the care system broken, or working exactly as designed — to wipe out Indigeneity?

Indigenous children accounted for more than half of foster children under 14 in Canada in 2016. That's despite the fact that First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth make up just eight per cent of that age group nationally, according to Stats Canada.

The children who go through the system are often cut off from their families and cultures. Some call it the Millennium Scoop, an epilogue to the systematic removal of children in the Sixties Scoop.

Rather than a side-effect of a broken system, one survivor believes the inherent structure is the problem.

"The foster care system is working the way it's designed: as a machine to destroy Indigeneity," said jaye simpson, a 23-year-old university student, poet and artist in Vancouver, B.C.

Only restructuring will help, simpson said, describing firsthand experience. 

"There was very little cultural support in regards to my identity," simpson said. "A lot of my experiences were quite queer-phobic and anti-Indigenous so I couldn't really explore who I was as a person. And if there was any exploration of that it was often looked down upon and shamed."

ANNA MARIA TREMONTIWere the foster homes you lived in Indigenous?

JAYE SIMPSON: No… For me my ties are Sapotaweyak Cree in Manitoba. So when I was apprehended by MCFD [Ministry of Children and Family Development] initially, there was a push in the 90s for delegated Aboriginal agencies to have the cases with Indigenous youth. And I was sent to Métis family services. Although there are family ties to Métis, that isn't the only thing in my identity and in my family.

So being on unceded Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Sto:lo land, oftentimes we were sent to those ceremonies and told that those were our cultures. When in actuality I have no claim to that, and I was hardly ever sent to those anyways because oftentimes foster parents would say: 'well that's an Indian event. We don't want you there. Not with the other Indians.'" So they use the term Indian instead of indigenous or Métis.

AMT: You're only 23, that's modern times and they're still using that language.

JAYE SIMPSON: A lot of times in my experiences they wanted to take in youth because of their Christian beliefs. Oftentimes they said God made them do it... So it was like, you know, going to churches on Sunday, going to bible study, which in my experience was very much like Residential School 3.0 — being shamed for participating in a culture that wasn't mine and also being forced to go to church.

Dylan Cohen was taken into care in his early teens, along with his twin sister. Their first foster home was 45 minutes away from their community in Winnipeg.

He said that while placement with well-meaning families is great on paper, it leaves children very far away from what they know, and what they will need to survive once they exit care.

They were eventually separated, and he moved from home to home.

"My social workers would always speak about the high caseloads and the limited number of foster homes," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Dylan Cohen submitted to The Current

Dylan Cohen was taken into care in his early teens, along with his twin sister. Now 22, he is a youth worker in Vancouver. (The Current)

"And for me that meant: 'we respect that this home isn't good for you, and that you're actually in a really bad place here, but it's probably the best' and that hurt a lot. That felt like I really just didn't matter more than the paycheque that I was to my foster parents, and the case file that I was for my agency."

Now a youth worker in Vancouver, he said that throughout his time in care he understood that it was better than being with his birth parent, but nevertheless he felt "like a cog in this giant machine."

AMT: Dylan what would have made things better for you when you were growing up?

DYLAN COHEN: Such a complicated question, but I know that a well-resourced child welfare system would have meant that I could be in a home with my sister, with my twin, for an indefinite amount of time, not just the first foster home. And that if my social workers had more time then there could have been more energy spent on the relationship, and the understanding of what my needs were, and trying to respect the things that I was going through. I know that with enough foster homes I could stayed in my own community, and stayed in the same high school, instead of moving to three different schools, during some pretty formative years. And I know that if there weren't 11,000 others of me that were going through such terrible times as well, that I would have confidence in my ability to do well.

Reina Foster was two-years-old when she and her younger brother were first placed in care. Despite spending most of her childhood in care, she said she never lost hope, determined to protect her brother and not let either of them be defined or confined by their time in the system.

Recently though, she was forced to make a difficult decision.

REINA FOSTER: About a year and a half ago, we had decided amongst ourselves that it was the right thing to put ourselves back into childcare, because we saw that our mother could not care for us again.

AMT: How difficult was it for you to make that call to say we can't be here right now?

REINA FOSTER: I was really hesitant. I remember shaking. I remember having a huge lump in my throat and all the memories from my childhood had rushed up, and I wasn't too sure what was going to happen to my brother and I. I wasn't too sure how we will be... processed I guess. I didn't know what was going to happen. But I knew that our safety and our protection mattered most. So I went through with the call.

Reina Foster submitted to the Current

Reina Foster made the difficult decision to place herself back into care. (The Current)

Foster has just turned 19 and is a youth leader and former youth chief in Lac Seul First Nation in Northern Ontario. She is learning how to heal.

"Me and my mother are very close," she told Tremonti. "She is my best friend, but I can speak in the most honest terms that I grew up way too quickly, than what I should have."

"But I am recovering, healing. And I think the way that I heal is through my culture. I depend on my culture," she said.

"When I was forced to go to church," she added. "I always knew that was wrong for me. I knew that I was meant to be with my culture and not any religion."

Cohen, simpson and Foster all have strong views on how the system fails and even outright harms the Indigenous youth it is supposed to protect.

JAYE SIMPSON: "It's my firm belief that the foster care system is working the way it's designed: as a machine to destroy Indigeneity. And we need to look at restructuring it. And we need to look at how the system is removing Indigenous children from Indigenous mothers… An Indigenous mother may receive $600 on welfare to feed her children. The foster care system can say that's not good enough, take the child and put it in a home, and give that home $1800 to feed those children. So they're giving more money to non-Indigenous parents to feed Indigenous children, and they're not supplying Indigenous parents with any support.

REINA FOSTER: The child welfare system today is a form of cultural genocide for Indigenous children. Just like the residential school system, as well as the Sixties Scoop, today's child welfare system is known as the Millennial Scoop. And it's the same legacy as to what the goals of residential schools were.

DYLAN COHEN: Indigenous kids that are being apprehended and taken into the child welfare system — and have this legacy of intergenerational trauma and all the experiences that they'll have in care — are having their own children and having challenges while they try to parent. And those kids end up getting taken into care too. So we need to make sure that there's really adequate supports provided for parents before their kids come into care, and then also when children are in care that they're given every opportunity they... need to succeed, and really just the same opportunities that kids not in care get.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.