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Home: Winnipeg and Poplar River First Nation
In care: At age four. Placed for six years with a loving foster mother, but then returned to her birth parents. In and out of foster care after that due to her parents’ addictions and ongoing physical abuse. Also suffered from sexual abuse.
Number of homes: Twenty, and 15 different schools.
Number of workers: Ten.
Now: Twenty-three years old; preparing to finish high school courses and attend university; part of Voices! Manitoba’s Youth in Care Network.
On coming into care:
"I was staying with my grandparents and all I know is my parents were facing their addictions and having some issues of domestic violence... There used to be five of us and I think I was the third-youngest one. There’s only four of us now... When I got into care, I guess I was traumatized, I was neglected. I was really sick at the time. I was (malnourished)... There are so many answers I want to know... The last thing I remember is I was sitting in the back of a police car and they were taking me to the CFS building and they were telling me, yeah, I wasn’t really looking too good at the time."
On her relationship with her mother:
"She got her other kids back except me. I have no idea why. I guess it’s all the abuse my mom did to me. I always want to ask her questions about it, why this happened to me. I keep trying to reach out to my community to see what I can (find) out, but no one’s stepping up... She just kept abusing me... The only reason why is maybe I was too cheeky or something. I don’t know what triggered her to come after me, but I just kept going in and out of care after that... My mom finally gave up on me, I think I was 15 at the time. I just got away from her the best I can. Nobody was taking it serious and I don’t know why they kept putting me back at that home."
On her first, and best, foster family:
"My foster mom, she kind of did everything she could to get me back on track with my life... I’ve been trying so hard to reach out to my foster family that I was with from four to 10 years old. I was always trying to request CFS to put me back with them or at least get a hold of them. But all that time I knew her number. All this time. I had a reunification with her when I was 18, when I was pregnant with my child."
On another foster family, when she was a teenager:
"There was this one Christian family, they were native, they were aboriginal, and they were always trying to show us they care about us and they love us, but we never took it that seriously. All we wanted to do was just go run home and go to our mom, but every time we’d get to our mom’s place, she either has a party or she’s finished partying. We would walk miles away from wherever we were just to get to our mom’s place, but by the time we’d get to her, things just turned out bad."
On her parents:
"My parents used to run away from CFS all the time. When we’d get into an incident, if I was at a different non-profit organization, usually they would notice me, if I was bruised up or if I’m trying to cover up for my parents. Back then, I wish they would have had a support worker who came and checked up on us and made sure we were OK, at least just pop by. But my mom always found different ways to find excuses to not have [CFS] there. ‘If you don’t listen to me, you get the beat down.’ It’s pretty much just an act with my parents. I know that. It’s the addictions they were going through."
On aging-out of care:
"When I aged-out of care, I was in an independent-living program and I guess I must have screwed up something there and I ended up living with my partner because I ended up finding out I was pregnant. My social worker just threw me my last cheques and closed the door."
On her mother:
"They shouldn’t have let me go back home. They should have kept me in a protection order as a child. They didn’t take it as serious when I kept going down to their office and crying for help. They would just take me back to my mom’s place and I would still get beat up, especially after the workers would leave... My mom always finds ways to talk her way out of it... She’d be gone for days. We would be sitting there, us siblings, watching each other and stuff while my mom would be gone bingeing for days and we don’t have any food in the fridge. Social workers never took it seriously, what was behind the scenes at home."
On the effects of being in care:
"When I was a teenager, I was trying to look for that love. I went for the gang life, and that’s when I started my addiction. It was right in front of me the whole entire time growing up. So it finally did just come to the part where I finally did pick up that bottle. That’s how I pictured my life."
On her family relationships:
"Until this day, it’s broken. We don’t stay connected to each other. We’re a broken family. I haven’t seen my dad. I’m trying to build a relationship with my mother, but it’s so hard to try and forgive her for whatever happened... If I sit there in the kitchen with her, she just starts crying sometimes. I can feel her pain because of what she put me through... I don’t know what her life experience was, but it was just brought on to me."
In care: In and out, starting at an early age. Became a permanent ward at nine and lost contact with most of her siblings, who were split up. Ultimately placed in a loving foster home.
Number of placements: Four or five homes.
Number of workers: Roughly 10.
Siblings: Nine, nearly all frequently in care or adopted-out.
Now: Thirty years old; a mother and foster mother; studying to be a teacher; an advocate for former foster children with the Youth Speak Out team.
On the legacy of care:
"When my mom was very young, she and her siblings were placed into care, so I have generations in my family that come from care. Once you’re kind of in that cycle, it’s really hard to break. You become watched by the system."
On her mom:
"She was a great mom. She had her weaknesses for sure. She wasn’t well-equipped to be a parent... She never abused us. We weren’t neglected. We were loved. There was a lot of policy, red tape, that my mom couldn’t get around and because she was poor as well."
On being in foster care:
"It was really hard to adjust to being taken from everything I knew and being placed in a new family and losing contact with most of my family members and wanting that so badly as a child. I remember praying every night for my siblings, I’d list them all. I’d list my mother and I’d ask God to send them messages. I celebrated all of their birthdays. I’d look for them. I didn’t know their last names, but I’d look for their faces. ‘Could that be you? Could that be you?...’ I’ve always had this huge hole in my heart for my family to be repaired... That was a huge difference, going from this worldly home to this super-conservative, Christian home. Still today I wrestle with both of those identities as I try to figure out my own place in the world and my own belief system."
On social workers:
"There were some that were warm, and that was nice, but none who really made a difference. There were some who were bad, who made false promises. I remember being told I was going to be placed with my little brother and I banked on that for so long, and I ended up losing contact with him. There was a lot of false promises, band-aid solutions. Nobody would really give me an answer about why I was in care, where my mom was, where my siblings were."
On her siblings:
"My brothers ended up in various foster homes and group homes and never were able to get a footing in society or to be stable. My one brother, unfortunately, as young adult, when he aged-out — which is a huge issue — he wasn’t able to stay in one place, so he was always back and forth between my house and our birth mother’s house. He developed some mental-health issues and committed suicide at the age of 26. So, for me, it’s really big to talk about my brother’s experience because I really feel like a lot of what he went through in the system led to his death."
On getting back in touch with her siblings:
"The big reunion that we all had together — that I’d been, that my mother had been dreaming about — was at my mother’s funeral this past spring."
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"Definitely, the system has really separated a lot of us... There are siblings I have very, extremely irregular contact with and some I don’t talk to anymore because the brokenness that is created when you go through the system. As an adult, it’s really hard to know how to overcome those relationships and overcome that pain that you experienced together... We’re all broken to some degree."
On ways to fix the system:
"I always used to wonder why didn’t we have a worker who lived in the home and helped my mom and taught her how to do certain things and made sure that we were always taken care of? Or if she wanted to go out and drink, somebody would be there. I look back and I think my mom wanted to be a good mom. Why couldn’t somebody have helped her do that? I also look at how much money was spent placing us all in different homes, the investment that went into us by the province, the foster homes, respite, all sorts of different things, when really you could have just paid workers to be in our home for 24 hours. I just don’t understand why we’re not putting more effort into family supports, why we apprehend first, as soon as a call is made, without knowing the facts, and investigate later when you may have already ruined a child’s life..."
On permanency planning for kids in care:
"One thing that really does need to absolutely start changing is that when social workers get new children on their desk or new families, it’s just crisis-management mode. We’re just trying to figure out what do we do now, where do we place them now. We can’t put them in a hotel, so do we put them in a 24-hour safe space then? An emergency placement? With this foster home or that one? And I really feel like what we need to do is start thinking long-term about kids’ lives, what’s best for them, how can we start permanency planning for them the moment they come into care... The instability you get from moving kids around and shuffling families is that you get a society of broken kids who don’t have anywhere they belong because they’ve never been anywhere long enough to belong."
The Child and Family Services Information System, the case-management database that tracks children in care and families getting services in Manitoba. It’s widely seen as cumbersome and old-fashioned. Some agency staff on reserve have had trouble using it because Internet connections are unreliable. More than that, many First Nations, especially in the north, see CFSIS as a surveillance system: a way to monitor every case and every standard, even for children on reserve that should be federal, not provincial, jurisdiction. There’s a sense the information is being used and tracked by the province to impose control. But proponents of CFSIS — or the $50-million, next-generation system the province is considering — say there needs to be some central way to track children as they move on and off reserve and to pull case information quickly if something is amiss.
The child-welfare standards manual has been described as impenetrable, overly prescriptive, unrealistic and terribly outdated, made worse by new rules imposed after the 2012-13 inquiry into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair. It’s got four volumes — kind of. Two are still being written. But the one for front-line workers (governing foster homes, abuse investigations, hotel use and paperwork rules) runs to hundreds of sections. “On any given file, you’re not meeting (a requirment),” said one senior social worker. Nearly everyone agrees the manual needs a complete overhaul, in part to make it more reflective of indigenous culture and on-reserve reality. Many standards — such as one that says a foster home can’t allow children of the opposite sex older than five to share a room — work in Tuxedo but not in Shamattawa, where housing is at a premium. Some experts within the system have suggested creating 10 to 15 core standards (especially around basic safety and risk assessments, common to all agencies) that must be met. But the herculean task of reviewing, updating and clarifying the standards has traditionally been on the back burner.
Political interference and governance
This is possibly the most nuanced and intractable problem facing the aboriginal child-welfare system in Manitoba. On one hand, democratically elected chiefs and councillors hear an avalanche of complaints from parents and ought to have, in some way, responsibility and accountability for a truly indigenous-controlled system. On the other hand, front-line workers, and even many families, fear political interference in basic child-protection cases — that the protocols and rules meant to protect children will be undermined by often-messy band politics. Meanwhile, the boards of many agencies are nearly invisible, and it’s the family services minister who takes all the flak when things go wrong, even when First Nations had nominal control of boards.
Indigenous staff and services
This is the one area where there’s been marked progress. Among the 10 agencies in the south, 80 per cent of the workforce identifies as aboriginal. Among the northern agencies, that number is similarly high. But some argue the push to hire indigenous front-line staff has taken priority over education and training — that culture has trumped competence. In the southern authority, for example, about 72 per cent of new agency hires have social work degrees, much lower than in the non-indigenous system. Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak notes the number of “brown faces” on the front lines doesn’t change a fundamentally white system that’s still controlled from the top. There has been some progress in creating culturally appropriate services — the West Region agency is among the leaders in this. But chiefs, including Nepinak, argue far too many children are being placed in non-aboriginal foster homes where they lose all links to their culture, language and spiritual practices.