British Columbia

Indigenous youth who died in government care failed by the system, says new report

The life story of Skye, who died on her 17th birthday on Vancouver Island, is an example of why Indigenous youth in care need more support to develop a sense of belonging and positive sense of self, says a new report by B.C.'s Children and Youth Representative.

Reports finds Indigenous children and youth in care need better support maintaining ties to family and culture

Skye (no last name provided) died of an overdose on her 17th birthday in August 2017 in Nanaimo. She is the focal point of a new report that says the child welfare system is failing Indigenous children and youth. (Office of B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth)

The life story of an Indigenous teen who died while in government care on Vancouver Island is an example of how the child welfare system is failing Indigenous children and youth by not providing culturally relevant support, according to a new report from British Columbia's Children and Youth Representative.

Skye (no last name provided) died of an overdose on her 17th birthday in August 2017 in Nanaimo. 

At the time of her death, the Dene teen had been in care in B.C. for 12 years, had been moved 15 times, lived in eight different foster homes, attended eight different schools, had 18 different social workers and was the subject of three failed adoptions.

Her mother, who had been taken from her family during the Sixties Scoop before she turned one, died a year earlier of a suspected overdose.

Skye's legacy

Entitled Skye's Legacy: A Focus on Belonging, the report paints a picture of a loving and happy child whose mother was dealing with trauma and addiction rooted in oppressive colonial practices.

It says when Skye came under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), there was an over- emphasis on finding her an adoptive home instead of supporting a potential return to her mother, or finding ways the parent and child could maintain a relationship.

" Skye's case, the strong push for adoption that characterized B.C.'s child-serving system at the time resulted in three failed attempts to place her with a permanent 'forever family' and left her disconnected from her birth family, community and culture," reads the report. 

"Rather than facilitate belonging for her, this process played a role in preventing it."

Colonialism and intergenerational damage

Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, said intergenerational damage caused by the historic and ongoing role of colonialism looms large, not only in Skye's case but in the story of so many Indigenous children and youth in care. 

"Skye and her mother deserved much, much better," said Charlesworth. "It's heartbreaking that neither of them received the kind of foundational supports that might have enabled them to deal with the trauma they had experienced and, at the very least, to have a relationship with each other."

Charlesworth says B.C.'s child welfare system needs to do a better job helping First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous children connect to family and culture, develop a sense of belonging and a positive sense of self.

In Skye's case, she was never given the opportunity to connect to her Dene culture or to visit her home Teetlit Gwich'in Band in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., even though she asked for both.

3 recommendations

The report makes three recommendations: 

  • MCFD conduct a systemic needs analysis of cultural and family support resources required to ensure social workers are supported in promoting a sense of belonging and identity for First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous children and youth in care.
  • MCFD review and revise all relevant care-planning and case management standards and practices to align with the goals of the report. 
  • MCFD distribute the report to all staff who work with children and youth in care or who may come into care, and then meaningfully engage in bringing change. 

In response, the minister of Children and Family Development said more needs to be done to support the goals outlined in the report.

"The child welfare system is overly involved in the lives of Indigenous children and families," said Mitzi Dean. "This dates back to residential schools, is part of the damaging colonial legacy that continues to this day — and it needs to stop."

Charlesworth said the report should be especially relevant given the preliminary findings that suggest 215 children are buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian residential school.

"Skye's story lifts up and reinforces all that has been coming to light in the past two weeks and all that the elders, matriarchs, leaders, survivors and family members have been saying: that the impact of settler colonialism and assimilation and elimination practices ... continues to affect the well-being of Indigenous children, youth and families," she said. 

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said she's disappointed in the recommendations.

She said the report states that the representative strongly supports First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities resuming jurisdiction over their child welfare, but all the recommendations are focused on the MCFD. 

"I think the recommendation really should have been to move with urgency on restoring jurisdiction to First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities over their children," Furstenau said, adding that this was called for in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls' final report.

"Instead of putting more funds and more finances into MCFD, overseeing itself and reviewing itself ... let's instead say in this moment where we are today in Canada, we have to stop this practice of removing Indigenous children from their families, from their communities."

With files from On the Coast