North·Opinion

The N.W.T. child welfare system funds family separation

Canadian child welfare systems support foster families caring for others people’s children, but don’t go far enough to support children’s own, immediate family members. As Catherine Lafferty writes, more must be done to keep children close to home.

A new law aims to keep kids in care close to home, but families also need support, writes Catherine Lafferty

The child welfare system is funding family separation, writes Catherine Lafferty. It supports foster families caring for others’ children, but doesn’t similarly support foster children’s immediate family members. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Catherine Lafferty, a northern Indigenous author and former councillor for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

When I was a child, I was a ward of the government. 

I remember sitting in a waiting area at the end of a long hallway outside a cold, uninviting office.

"I want to go home," I said angrily to the social worker who explained, in a calculated manner, that I wasn't allowed to because I now belonged to the government. 

Back then, I understood "the government" to be that office, and I didn't understand how I could belong to a building. 

I was shuffled through different foster homes, apprehended for reasons that, in my childhood opinion, were not sufficient to be taken away from my family.

Out of every home I was placed in, it felt like not one foster parent cared about my emotional needs. Sure, I was fed, had a schedule, went to school, and had new clothes, but I didn't get the love I needed. No one asked me if there was anyone else that could take care of me, and more important, no one asked me who I wanted to live with.

The first time I was taken from my mother was in northern Ontario. When my grandmother found out I had been apprehended, she tried to bring me home to the North, but she was met with many obstacles. 

For one, she couldn't afford to travel south to bring me home. Second, she was told that because I had been apprehended in a different province, she couldn't step in as my caregiver, even though she was my family member. Lastly, she had difficulty navigating inside of the system I was trapped in. 

I could have easily become a permanent ward of Ontario because time was running out for my temporary stay in care.

Today, grandparents, as well as siblings, aunts and uncles, still face barriers to bringing their kin into their care, not least of which is the financial one.

I know the issues from both sides

As an adult, I have worked in the child welfare system as a case aid worker, and as a family home visitor with the Healthy Family Program. I know the issues from both sides. The government helps foster parents with monthly living expenses, and I have seen some foster parents fill up their homes with children. Recalling this takes me back to my own childhood. One home I was in had many children in it, a mix of fosters from different families.

Too many foster homes are primarily non-Indigenous, while the majority of foster children are Indigenous. Not only are children removed from their parents, they are removed from their culture. 

The definition of a relative cannot be found in the Northwest Territories Child and Family Service Act, but under the N.W.T. Adoption Act, it's defined as a child's grandparent, uncle, aunt, brother or sister. It does not include more distant family members, like cousins, but it's these further removed family members who may be compensated for taking in a child, which doesn't make sense at all. 

Relatives, as defined by the Adoption Act, can request a voluntary support agreement under the N.W.T. Children and Family Services Act, and while financial support is possible through this agreement, it's not guaranteed.

In short, the child welfare system is funding family separation. It supports foster families caring for other people's children, but doesn't similarly support foster children's relatives. 

In order to help our children, policies must be amended so that relatives get the support they need from federal, territorial and Indigenous governments to care for their children and keep them immersed in community and culture. 

Bill C-92: It's not all relative

Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families, which passed in 2019, is supposed to help with this. It aims to give Indigenous communities self-determination over the care of their children, in line with their own Indigenous legal orders. 

The federal government set aside $542 million over the next five years to support the act's implementation.

Julie Green, the N.W.T.'s minister of Health and Social Services, said in the legislature in March that Indigenous governments need to make the first move when it comes to the act. 

The problem is, elected band councils operate under the colonial structure of the Indian Act, with elections every four years, which leaves little time to make major changes in the system. Even so, Indigenous leaders need to put their heads together and make our children a top priority. 

The territorial government is already funding community wellness programs in Indigenous communities. Child and Family Services should be further supporting immediate family members in caring for apprehended children, to keep them in their home communities.

This can be done with financial support, and through land-based child and family services initiatives that provide addictions treatment and mental health support that align with Indigenous value systems, such as the Dene Laws, and keep children in their own communities.

It is said that when the children were taken to residential schools, a silence fell upon the land.

That silence is now filled with cries — the cries of our communities trying to heal from past wrongs. But we can't heal without our children. Their bright spirits are what guide us and keep us strong. They are at the centre of our communities. If we want to heal our families we must first bring them back into the circle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty is a northern Indigenous freelancer and author currently working on her third novel exposing the harsh realities of the northern housing system. Now in her third year of studies at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Juris Doctor program, Lafferty is focusing her work on intellectual property rights and educating on cultural appropriation of Indigenous works.

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