Indigenous·Finding Cleo

'Naive but a good intention' — adoptive parents grapple with fallout of Sixties Scoop

Five siblings separated in the Sixties Scoop have reconnected as adults and are determined to find out what happened to the sister they lost track of. In the latest episodes of Finding Cleo, CBC News reporter Connie Walker follows a lead that takes her to a cemetery in New Jersey.

Parents who adopted Indigenous children said they were not given key details about culture, family history

Kay and her husband, Jeff, adopted two sisters from the Semaganis family in Saskatchewan in 1974. She said the adoption process was fast and provided little information about the girls' family history, culture or experiences: 'It moved without any support or idea about what that would really mean to those little girls.' (Connie Walker/CBC)

The CBC podcast Finding Cleo follows a family's search for Cleo Semaganis Nicotine, who was adopted out of her Saskatchewan First Nations community and sent to live in the U.S. 44 years ago during what became known as the Sixties Scoop.​ In this week's episodes, host Connie Walker pursues a lead that takes her to a cemetery in New Jersey and shares the shocking news of what she finds there with Cleo's siblings, who were all separated and scattered across the U.S and Canada in the Sixties Scoop. Read more about the Semaganis siblings and the families who adopted them in the story below. ​

  • Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or listen here
  • Look for new episodes every Wednesday

Over the course of a few months in 1974, Jeff and Kay and their three young sons grew from a family of five to a family of seven.

Not long before, they had contacted a Children's Aid Society in Ontario to inquire about adopting a little girl.

"I think it was just perhaps naive but a good intention to do something positive," Kay said.

Soon they were on a plane from Toronto to North Battleford, Sask., to meet two sisters who were staying with a foster family there. The older girl was seven; the younger girl was six.

April and Annette, two of the Semaganis siblings searching for their sister Cleo, are shown in their adoption photo in 1974. Jeff and Kay adopted them not long after it was taken. (Marnie Luke/CBC)

They arrived to find two little girls sitting on the couch with their hair permed into little curls. They were wearing matching dresses, Jeff recalled. 

"They had already been prompted to call us Mom and Dad. Mommy and Daddy," Kay said.

The girls were allowed to spend the night at a hotel with Jeff and Kay the first weekend they met.

CBC has agreed not to use the family's last names to protect the sisters' identity.

They are known as April and Annette, two of six Semaganis siblings from Little Pine First Nation, about 200 km northwest of Saskatoon, who were apprehended by child welfare authorities in the early 1970s, made wards of the province, and adopted into non-Indigenous families in Canada and the U.S. during what is now known as the Sixties Scoop.

The siblings have been searching for their sister Cleo for decades, and last year, CBC News joined the search, and made their quest the focus of a CBC News investigation and podcast.

LISTEN to Episode 4: The search for Cleo leads to a cemetery in New Jersey:

The search for Cleo leads Connie to investigate a headstone belonging to a 13-year-old girl who died in 1978. The cemetery is more than 20 hours away from Arkansas, where Cleo's family has long believed she was killed.

What they knew

There is limited research on the families who adopted or who were long-term foster parents to Indigenous children in government care during the Sixties Scoop period — including what their motivations were, any training they were given and what they might have known about Indigenous culture and traditions.

Season 2 of the CBC podcast Missing & Murdered follows the search for Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, known as Cleo, shown in an undated photo. Cleo was adopted out of Saskatchewan in the 1970s in what became known as the Sixties Scoop, and her five siblings have spent decades trying to find out what happened to her after that. (Provided by the Semaganis family)

Jeff and Kay said they were eager to welcome Annette and April into their new family, but social workers did not reveal much information about them. The adoptive parents knew virtually nothing about their new daughters' culture, family history or experiences.

In retrospect, the entire process moved too fast, Kay said.

"It moved without any support or idea about what that would really mean to those little girls," she said. 

Kay said they were provided with a background page on each child.

"And as I recall, the paragraphs were similar. Little history of the siblings, little history of their mom ... 'Happy child, doing well in school' ... but no detail."

It was only after both girls ran away from home around the time they each turned 13 that Kay and Jeff realized how disturbed and turbulent their early years had been.

Read the other features in the Finding Cleo series:

"Thinking back, I don't know how the kids were in as good a shape as they were given what they'd been through," Jeff said. "But it all just kind of was held back, I guess, and finally didn't come out until they were in their teens."

As the sisters grew older, they began sharing stories with Kay about their time in foster care in Saskatchewan.

"The stories that I heard were that they were both sexually and physically abused in their foster homes," she said.

After running away, Annette and April spent time living on the streets of Toronto. April suffered psychological problems. Both girls struggled with substance abuse and spent time in youth correctional facilities.

As adults, they were close to their adoptive parents, and April remains so. Annette died at age 40 of cirrhosis of the liver. 

The wall of April's current apartment is filled with dream catchers. She was part of the Sixties Scoop, when Indigenous children were adopted into non-Indigenous families who were given little background on their new family members. (Marnie Luke/CBC)

After Annette died, Jeff tracked down the girls' biological mother, Lillian. He noticed that she shared April's gentle nature.

And despite his love for his adoptive daughters, he came to a startling conclusion.

"I'm sure those kids would have been much better off with Lillian in spite of all the problems she had if there had been a way for that to continue," he said.

'If it wasn't for her ... I'd be dead or in jail'

The sisters' older brother, Johnny Semaganis, was adopted by an American family in Pennsylvania in 1975. He said he was expected to work as a farmhand, lived in a tent on the property in the summer and later in a building that was separate from the family's house, as well as two Native American boys.

Johnny ran away and ended up with Bill and Kay Henry, foster parents he credits with saving his life.

"Kay … she knew I didn't have anybody down here, and she kept me," he said. "I guess if it wasn't for her ... I'd be dead or in jail."

Kay Henry said she was given little information about Johnny before he came to live with them.

"I just remember them telling me that they had had a child that had put himself on the streets because he was in a bad situation and so he was coming to our house." she said. "There he came. And he's been one of the best. Believe me I wouldn't trade him for the world."

Billy and Kay Henry, shown with their adopted son, Johnny Semaganis. Unlike some of his siblings, he had a positive adoption experience and remains close to his adoptive parents. (Connie Walker/CBC)

The Henrys had a lot of experience as parents. They have three biological sons, adopted nine children and fostered more than 130 over 30 years — children of different races and cultural backgrounds. Johnny is their only Indigenous child.

"I do love him 100 per cent. He's my son," Kay Henry said. "I've done it both ways. I've had homemade ones, and I had adopted ones. And if you love them, there is no difference."

Johnny remains close to the Henrys. He lives nearby and sees them frequently. He said he has no interest in returning home to Little Pine — perhaps not even to visit. He said the policies of the 60s and 70s worked.

"I have been assimilated," Johnny said in a wry tone.

LISTEN to Episode 5: Cleo's siblings learn where but not how she died:

As Connie shares some shocking news with Cleo's siblings, the truth about what happened to her remains just out of reach. Police may have answers but can’t share them yet. It's time to visit the one person who's bound to know more.

Broken adoptions, runaways

Academics and advocates for Sixties Scoop adoptees have varying estimates of the number of adoptions that broke down, in which the adoptees and adoptive families are now estranged. But there is consensus that the proportion is at least 50 per cent, which is greater than in the cases of other cross-racial adoptions. 

Researchers have attributed the higher failure rate to the unique experience Indigenous children have in Canada encountering racist stereotypes and what they call the lack of support for white parents to be able to act as a buffer for their children.

Christine Cameron, another of the Semaganis siblings who spent decades searching for Cleo, puts her own experience into the category of unsuccessful adoptions. She doesn't talk to her adoptive family anymore.

"I'm not saying they're horrible," she said. "I'm just saying that some of their attitudes and world views about native people didn't really jibe with who was living in their house."

Cameron's adoptive father is Scottish. She grew up in a community in Saskatchewan of people of Icelandic and Ukrainian backgrounds. Just like many Sixties Scoop survivors, she said she felt isolated and different from those around her.

"Growing up, my grandmother used to say, 'When we adopted you, you became a white person,'" she said. "That might have been how my family perceived me, but that's not how society saw me."

Cameron recalled her adoptive mother being blunt about why they brought her home.

"She said if they waited for a little white girl, they [would] be waiting for five or six years, but they could have me right away," she said. "They told me that they would never have to pay for my education, and that's why they adopted me."

Christine Cameron, shown with a portrait of how she imagines Cleo would look today, was told by her adoptive parents that she 'became a white person' when she was adopted. 'That might have been how my family perceived me, but that's not how society saw me,' said Cameron, who is estranged from her adoptive family. (Jennifer Fowler/CBC)

Her sister Cleo, who was eventually adopted by an American family in New Jersey, longed to go back home to Saskatchewan and tried to run away from her adoptive family. 

Prior to their adoptions in the mid-1970s, Cleo and Johnny were placed together with the same foster family in the village of Medstead, Sask. — the Miszaniecs, who say they fostered 25 to 30 Indigenous children over the years.

The Miszaniecs say they received no training to be foster parents at the time and had little to no notice when foster children would be arriving or leaving.

And only when contacted by CBC News about Cleo and Johnny did they begin learning about the Sixties Scoop.