Solving the puzzle: Indigenous groups offer solutions to foster care crisis
On the Nisichawayasihk Cree First Nation in Northern Manitoba, the local child services organization has an innovative solution to deal with child welfare: take the parents, and not the children, out of homes where children are deemed to be at risk.
"The elders looked at me and said, 'Mr. Walker, why are you removing children from the home? The children aren't the issue, the parents are the issue'," says Felix Walker, Chief Executive Officer of the Family and Community Wellness Centre on the First Nation.
When his organization receives a referral, they do an assessment in the home and, if needed, get the help of RCMP or local band constables to remove the parents and place them with extended family in the community. A respite worker looks after the children for the first 48 hours. If more care is needed, extended family members will take over the care.
The program has been successful over the decade that it's been in place.
As Indigenous leaders, child and family services groups and politicians convene in Ottawa for an emergency meeting called by Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott to address what she has called a "humanitarian crisis" of children taken into care, many Indigenous groups are sharing the solutions they have found.
I don't think anyone should go through their life trying to put together their own puzzle.- Jay Lomax, Seventies Scoop survivor
The Métis Child and Family Services Authority in Winnipeg runs a program they call LIFE — Live-In Family Enhancement — where both children and their parents are placed in a foster home for about eight months. A mentor, called a "life mom," models parenting skills such as attachment, routines, grocery shopping and financial management.
"There's like so many things that I didn't know a mom was supposed to do," says a 20-year-old mother of a one-year-old daughter who is living with a "life mom" right now. We are not identifying her to protect the identity of her child. "I grew up without routine — it was always something different happening every day."
The woman's daughter was apprehended by family services at two-months-of-age, but is now reunited with her mother in a "life family."
"We just become a family," says the "life mom," who we are also not identifying.
"It's kind of three steps. I kind of walk in front of her first and show her what to do. And then I walk beside her and just help her when she needs help. And then when I'm walking behind is when we know it's time for her to start getting out on her own."
The Yukon government is launching its own LIFE program this month, looking at the success of the one in Winnipeg.
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Jay Lomax was adopted by a white family in the 1970s at the age of three. He had a generally positive experience with his adoptive parents, but says being flown from Manitoba to Toronto in the middle of the night to be adopted was like "a big bright flash of shock and trauma."
His adoptive parents supported him when he wanted to find out more about his reserve and his culture as a teenager.
"They always did their best to let me know about the culture in their own way, and they also let me know that I was adopted at an early age," Lomax tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "So that provided a lot of grounding, but also left me with that giant puzzle that adoptees are always trying to put together. And I don't think anyone should go through their life trying to put together their own puzzle."
Lomax moved to his reserve for a few years in his 20s. He is now an adoptions and permanency planning worker at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.
"What I wanted to do was make a difference and get into the belly of the beast," says Lomax.
He has worked on about 30 adoptions, and the focus is strictly on finding Indigenous adoptive parents. This means having to go out to communities to actively look for people able to take children in their own culture into permanent homes. But this is complicated by the fact that for some Indigenous people, even the word "adoption" can be a source of trauma.
Reuniting families is always the first goal, however, says Lomax.
"The last thing we want is to be in court," says Lomax. "The last thing we want is children in care. The first thing we want, at the family service level of child welfare, is to secure that family and bring in those services that we can."
But he says that funding for those other support services — whether for biological parents or adoptive families — is often lacking.
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Lomax has also developed an adoption ceremony for Indigenous children that brings together the adoptive family and foster family. Everyone speaks about their positive experiences with the child, and the ceremony is filmed so that children can go back to it later in life. He also organizes welcome home ceremonies for children returning to their families.
"It's so special, it's so gratifying for everybody that gets to be a part of it," says Lomax. "When they see the video they'll say, 'Oh yeah, somebody actually cared, somebody actually went the distance for me."
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This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Winnipeg Network Producer Suzanne Dufresne.