British Columbia·UNBROKEN

'Judged and ashamed': Indigenous parents describe scrutiny, mistrust of social workers

Young mother says hospital staff approached her after giving birth to ask whether she drank, did drugs or had a job.

Minister says she hopes new legislation will address outstanding issues

Rabecca Lariviere with four of her five children. She says she was asked "invasive" questions right after she gave birth to her youngest child, seven months ago. She feels she got extra scrutiny because she is Indigenous. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Sun flooded the hospital room where Rabecca Lariviere had spent the previous 12 hours giving birth at Surrey Memorial Hospital last September.

Wrapping her arms around her nine-pound baby boy and flanked by her husband and mother, relaxation and recovery were on her mind.

Then, to her dismay, a hospital social worker came into the room with questions.

Lariviere, 29, who is from the Mamalilikulla First Nation near Campbell River, said she was asked if she drank, did drugs, had a job or had other children — and where they were.

"The questions were very invasive, but I felt like if I didn't answer, I would be in trouble," Lariviere said.

Less than an hour later, that worker called the Ministry of Child and Family Development. Social workers didn't apprehend her baby, but Lariviere was told she couldn't be discharged without a social worker signing her out.

Lariviere is still puzzled by what triggered the call.

"It made me feel judged and ashamed," said Lariviere, a  carpenter who lives with her four other children and partner in Surrey. She says she has never had a problem with drugs or alcohol and didn't have an open ministry file.

In fact, Lariviere had worked as a foster parent over the years — approved to foster a teenage relative and her baby.

Rabecca Lariviere had just given birth when she was approached by a social worker with the Surrey Memorial Hospital who asked her questions about her drug and alcohol use, her other children and her employment status. (Courtesy Rabecca Lariviere)

Lariviere participates in programs for Indigenous parents at the Fraser Regional Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Surrey, B.C., which provides services to Indigenous families living off reserve.

Parents there told CBC about their mistrust of hospitals and child welfare agencies, based on what they believe were unjust or culturally insensitive actions. Many parents grew up in foster care and fear losing their own children to the system. 

'It's always a worry they would come'

Samantha Maracle and Hank Bee are parents of four children, aged nine weeks to six years. Both parents spent time in foster care as kids.

None of their children has ever been taken into care, but they said each time Maracle gave birth a cloud of fear hung over them. 

Both are wary of hospitals and social workers.

"It was always a worry that they would come and check up on me and find some excuse to take my kids away,"  said Maracle, who is Cowichan. 

Maracle, age 28,  said she had addiction problems before she was pregnant with her first child, but not since. She strengthened her circle of support and turned her life around, she told CBC.

Hank Bee and his partner Samantha Maracle with their children. Both parents were in foster care as children. As parents they have fears about losing their own children to the system. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Bee, age 32, and of the Mamalilikulla First Nation, says being around social workers can put the family on edge. 

"I feel like they are always on our case for every little thing," he said.

'It makes me enraged'

Corina Bye who works with parents at the Friendship Centre, said she often gets calls from new Indigenous parents, distressed about social workers questioning them just after giving birth.

"Every time it makes me enraged," Bye said.

Bye recognizes the complex issues some Indigenous parents face including intergenerational trauma from residential school and the Sixties Scoop. The "scoop" refers to the period between 1959 and 1991 when many Indigenous children were adopted out of their communities and placed in non-Indigenous homes.

As a result of the trauma of these events, some Indigenous people are at risk for mental health concerns, addiction or poverty.

Just the same, Bye believes social workers and hospital staff often stereotype Indigenous people, right away pegging them to be at-risk parents.

Corina Bye runs a prenatal group for Indigenous moms and dads at the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association. The birth coach says she often gets calls from Indigenous parents in distress, worried their children will be apprehended. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

'We didn't know any better'

Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia's Representative for Children and Youth, was a social worker in the 1970's and '80's. Back then, she said,  many social workers did jump to conclusions regarding Indigenous families. Wrong judgements were made.

"It was frankly we didn't know any better," Charlesworth said. "So do I think that I personally caused harm? I can tell you I know I did. "

Today, she says, with a recognition of the damage inflicted on Indigenous people by residential schools, there's been a significant shift in attitude.  However, she says unconscious bias can still occur.

Change coming

The province recently updated child-welfare legislation, giving Indigenous communities more of a say in how to protect children and families in need, with an eye to keeping families together.

CBC sought comment about Lariviere's experience at Surrey Memorial Hospital. Ultimately questions were referred to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Minister Katrine Conroy told CBC she wants Indigenous families to trust social workers — not fear them. She says the new legislation will make a difference.

"It's my goal as a minister to have families think that when the social worker is coming ... they are coming to help them keep their families together and not be afraid," said Conroy. 

As for Rabecca Lariviere, she says the upcoming generation of Indigenous people is healing. 

"Our generation now — we're different.  We don't belive in drinking, we don't do drugs, we don't beat our children. The stereotypes of what maybe at one time we were, because we did have so much healing to do and work on — we're different [now].  We're all very successful people."

To hear more about this story, click on the audio below:

This story is part of a CBC Vancouver series examining the over-representation of Indigenous children in government care in British Columbia. 


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?