British Columbia·Reconcile This

'I felt like I was betraying my own': Indigenous social workers open up about challenges

Indigenous social workers speak out about the challenges of working in a small community where everyone knows every one.

More Indigenous staff needed, but the work may be more difficult

Indigenous people employed in the child welfare system say working within a small community can be tough when it comes to making difficult decisions, like removing a child. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

The CBC series Unbroken, which aired on CBC Radio One and CBC News Vancouver April 8-11, shed light on the high rates of Indigenous infants apprehended by child welfare authorities in B.C.

It also looked at the cultural bias that some parents accused social workers of holding.

Since then, a number of current and former Indigenous social workers have told CBC News more Indigenous people are needed in child welfare to help facilitate an understanding of residential-school-induced trauma that some parents may have. 

But some say there are additional challenges to being an Indigenous social worker.

"A lot of clients didn't understand that this is a job I had to do, and I'm bound by an act and by legislation — there are times where I absolutely did not agree," said one Indigenous social worker the CBC is not naming, as she fears for her safety.

"I felt like I was betraying my own," she added. 

The social worker, who currently works for the Vancouver Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, said she was targeted by parents whose children she had to remove and put into foster care.

Because the Indigenous community in East Vancouver is so small, she would often see the parents at First Nations events and meetings within the area.

After a while she stopped going to give them space.

But then she started to see her picture and address posted on social media, along with insults related to the children she removed. 

"If I were in that place, I would probably be that angry as well, but it was just so difficult when I saw my pictures being shared on Facebook and the words that were being tied to me," she said.

She was called a "colonial oppressor" and her pictures, as well as her address, were posted online. She had to move her family to a new home and told her children not to tell anyone who their mother was.

"It's really disheartening, because I went into this wanting to help families and wanting to help families heal," she said.

Indigenous social workers needed

Terena Hunt is a Kwakwaka'wakw woman who worked with the Vancouver Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society for three years and Ayas Men Men Child and Family Services for the Squamish Nation for two years.

She thinks more Indigenous social workers are needed in the child welfare system in B.C.

"They are necessary, as living knowledge of the Indigenous journey, to assisting families with their own journeys," Hunt said, pointing out that Indigenous social workers can often relate or understand the trauma that some Indigenous parents have been through. 

Terena Hunt is Kwakwaka'wakw and worked for Indigenous child welfare services: the Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society and Ayas Men Men Child and Family Services for five years before she decided to move on. (Terena Hunt)

According to a 2018 work environment survey from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, 6.2 per cent of employees (which included delegated Aboriginal agencies) identified as Indigenous. A representative at the ministry said the statistics may not give an accurate picture since employees must self-declare and not everyone may want to disclose.

The ministry also has an Indigenous recruitment and retention plan and recently added a manager of Indigenous culture and reconciliation position to the human resources team to support it.

'Red Washing'

But Hunt says Indigenous social workers, especially those that are traditional or cultural, face an added pressure of working within a system that was created with what she calls "colonialist views and practices."

She says Aboriginal child welfare agencies are often run the same way as non-Indigenous organizations but with the window dressing of Indigenous culture.

"A red-washing of such a harmful system is in direct opposition to the cultural values and practices of Indigenous people," Hunt said.

She believes that there are still remnants today of the child welfare policies such as those that led to the Sixties Scoop.

As for the social worker who was targeted by parents, she often questions her career choice but says remembering the families that she has helped keep together is what keeps her going.

 "I am meant to be here. I get it, but there's still that really hard emotional piece to it," she said, adding that new child welfare legislation in B.C., aimed at giving Indigenous communities more of a say in apprehensions, will help keep more Indigenous families together.