Keeping Indigenous children out of care requires more community input, say advocates

Advocates at an Indigenous child-welfare conference called for more community input to keep children out of foster care.

'It's time that the government starts listening to the Indigenous people, start listening to the families'

Sharon Gladue-Paskimin was five when she was adopted by a non-Indigenous family near Saskatoon. (Submitted by Sharon Gladue-Paskimin)

When Sharon Gladue was apprehended, children's services wouldn't allow her to live with her oldest sister on Thunderchild First Nation, because her sister was married to a white man.

"My sisters and I could have been raised with our own family, knowing our own communities, our own family members, but it never happened," said Gladue.

Instead, the five-year-old spent the next two years shuffled among multiple foster homes with another sister until they were adopted by a non-Indigenous couple on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Gladue recalled looking out the second-storey window of the farmhouse toward their community in the west.

"And I'd say, 'One day, I'm going to go home,' " Gladue said.

Sixties Scoop survivor Sharon Gladue said government officials wouldn't allow her to live with her older sister because she was married to a white man. (CBC/Indigenous Child Welfare Conference)

Now Gladue, who is vice-president of the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta, is determined to keep other Indigenous children in their homes and communities.

On Thursday, she spoke at a conference aimed at sharing the most innovative practices to achieve that goal.​ While Indigenous children make up 10 per cent of the youth population in Alberta, they represent 70 per cent of all children in care.

Listen from the heart

Gladue, 49, said reversing that trend will require listening to families, rather than apprehension. Other families would be willing to take in the children instead, she said.

Front-line workers must also develop empathy for the families they work with, by understanding the trauma caused by residential schools, the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop and the "millennium scoop," said Gladue.

"It's time that the government starts listening to the Indigenous people," Gladue said. "They will walk away from the table with a whole new perspective because they start listening from the heart instead of the two ears."

The Alberta government is in the process of making substantial changes to tackle the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care, said Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan.

"We need to do a lot more," he said.

In June, the province unveiled a new system for child intervention, following recommendations from a year-long ministerial review.

The four-year strategy includes 39 steps the government plans to take to improve services, increase supports and address funding gaps.

Feehan said the first set of those recommendations would be completed this year.

"There's a strong emphasis on establishing the conversations and relationships with the Indigenous community that we need in order to make the other decisions move forward in a better way," said Feehan.

Improving kinship care

The government will also focus on improving kinship care over the next few years, in part by providing more support to kinship families. A checklist under development will also better evaluate potential kinship homes. 

"So we'll encourage family members or community members to come forward, get involved, but then we will stay involved with the training, the financial support, the community support, connecting with community resources," Feehan said. "But the key of it is making sure that the parents raising that child are from the community wherever possible."

Wallace Fox says the child welfare model needs to incorporate the powerful Indigenous family systems in place before colonialism.

The powerful Indigenous family systems that were in place before colonialism and the Indian Act surfaced need to be understood by decision makers and incorporated "into the journey of the intervention process," said Wallace Fox, former chief of Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

"But if they're not willing, if they're sitting in Edmonton, at the legislative building passing laws and policies ... what's the difference between that and residential school when our people were told to do as you do?

"That didn't work, obviously, for the last 150 years. So they need to take a step back and see that side of us, and learn and incorporate that teaching, that holistic model."