Jennifer Charlesworth is B.C.’s third Representative for Children and Youth. (InWithForward)

Jennifer Charlesworth is B.C.’s third Representative for Children and Youth. (InWithForward)

Child welfare system must focus on sense of belonging for Indigenous Peoples: report

Watchdog’s report focuses on Skye, a teen who fatally overdosed after years in care

Editor’s note: The following story may describe scenarios that are disturbing. For support, consider:

The BC Crisis Centre: phone 1-800-784-2433 or online chat: www.crisislines.bc.ca

The First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line and On-line Counselling Service: toll-free at 1-855-242-3310 or through hopeforwellness.ca

The KUU-US Crisis line: 24/7 toll-free at 1-800-588-8717 to provide support to Indigenous people in B.C. For more information, visit: kuu-uscrisisline.com

The Métis Crisis Line: available 24 hours a day toll-free at 1-833-MétisBC (1-833-638-4722).


A watchdog for the care of children and youth in B.C. is calling on the provincial and federal governments to do more to make sure that Indigenous children remain involved in their culture even when they are taken into foster care.

In a report released Thursday (June 10) by the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, representative Jennifer Charlesworth described how failing to do so led to the death of a 17-year-old First Nation girl.

Skye, as she is called in the report, belonged to the Teetlit Gwich’in Band, whose traditional lands are in the present-day Northwest Territories.

In her report, Charlesworth notes out that the discovery of the remains of 215 on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops by the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, while shocking to non-Indigenous Canadians, is a weight and legacy First Nations, Inuit and Metis have had to live with for many generations.

Charlesworth said that the story of Skye, who was born in 2000, illustrates that although the last residential school closed in 1996, for many Indigenous Peoples it has been replaced by a child welfare system that separates children from their families and cultures.

“They are different chapters of the same continuing saga – the story of colonialism and the devastating damage it has done, and continues to do, to First Nations, Métis, Inuit and Urban Indigenous children, families and communities across Canada,” Charlesworth said.

Skye was removed from her mother’s care when she was five years old. According to the report, once Skye was removed, the Ministry of Children, Family and Development (MCFD) focused on finding her an adoptive home instead of trying to get Skye back to her mother’s care or at least maintain a connection.

“That focus resulted in three failed adoption plans for Skye before she was 12,” the report stated. “These took a heavy emotional toll and resulted in the severing of any continuing relationship between Skye and her sister.”

The report notes that a potential placement with an Indigenous foster family and a connection with a counsellor were “inexplicably severed.”

Skye moved 15 times during her 12 years in case, lived in eight homes, attended eight schools and have 18 different social workers.

“She wasn’t provided with opportunities to connect with her Dene culture in any meaningful way and she never got the chance to visit her home territory of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., despite clearly expressing her desire to do both,” the reported stated.

According to Charlesworth, this lead to a search for identity stemming from a lack of belonging. Skye fatally overdosed on her 17th birthday in August 2017.

But the report does not only focus on the tragedy that took Skye’s life. She’s described as a “cheeky and mischievous child with a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh. She was spunky, outgoing and vivacious, with a zest for life – a child who bubbled with energy.”

But at times Skye could also be “emotionally reactive and intense,” a child who needed to stay busy and loved rock climbing, swimming and horseback riding.

Charlesworth said that her office chose to investigate Skye’s story because it reveals the experiences of many Indigenous youth in B.C.

While Indigenous Peoples make up just 10 per cent of the population, 67 per cent of the children in government care in the province are Indigenous and MCFD statistics show that an Indigenous child is 18 times more likely to be removed from their parents.

Charlesworth said that Skye’s story also shows the harms of intergenerational trauma; her mother was taken from her family during the Sixties Scoop, a period of systemic removal of Indigenous children from their homes.

“As a child, Skye’s mother experienced extreme abuse at the hands of people known to her and as a result suffered severe and life-long mental health and substance use challenges,” the report noted.

Charlesworth said there is no one solution to the intergenerational trauma that residential schools, the Sixties scoop and ongoing colonial systems cause to Indigenous Peoples.

“The representative strongly supports the resumption of jurisdiction by Nations and Métis and Inuit communities over their own child welfare services that has been enabled by the passage of the federal Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and families,” the reports stated. “However, the transition process from legislation to actual realization will not be a quick or easy one.”

The recommendations include:

MCFD to conduct a systemic needs analysis of cultural and family support resources required to ensure that social workers are better supported to promote a sense of belonging and identity for Indigenous children and youth in care in relation to their families and culture. However, because the need is urgent, the report said a substantive investment of new resources should be made immediately that can be considered a down payment on the resources identified for the longer- term plan.

  • That MCFD conduct a comprehensive review and revision of all relevant care-planning and case management standards, policies, practice guidelines and training materials with the goal of aligning those materials with the dimensions of belonging, as described in this report.
  • That MCFD distribute Skye’s Legacy: A Focus on Belonging to all staff who work with and plan for children and youth who are in care or who may come into care.

B.C.’s response

Mitzi Dean, Minister of Children and Family Development, released a statement following the release of the report.

“I agree with the representative that, beyond what we’re already doing to improve the child-protection system in B.C., we can and must do more to ensure children and youth who come into care stay connected to their families and their culture, and feel a strong sense of belonging in all aspects of their lives. This is especially important for Indigenous children and youth,” Dean said.

Charlesworth, in a press conference after the report’s release, noted that while Dean did not explicitly, formally accept the recommendations, she did accept “the spirit” of the report.


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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