Sarah and Ellery Cootes in their downtown-Nanaimo home.
Having to fight the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) for the past 25 years has taken its toll on Ellery Cootes Sr. and his wife Sarah.
Cootes has been fighting for two generations of his family he says were abused by foster-care parents and the child-protection bureaucracy.
“The MCFD destroyed our family,” said the 63-year old Ellery Cootes. “They’ve put us through hell for 25 years and they’re still doing it to us. It’s got to stop,” he said.
Sitting in a corner of their downtown Nanaimo basement suite, Ellery recounts struggle after struggle with the provincial ministry. Surrounded by carving tools and recently completed plaques and small poles, Ellery can clearly see the MCFD offices across Selby Street from his carving corner. “What gives those people the right to be judge and jury and destroy our family the way the have,” he said as he looks across the street at the beige stucco MCFD building.
In 1980, Ellery and Sarah Cootes’ four children were apprehended and sent to foster homes. The parents were told that if they sought treatment for their alcoholism, their children would be returned to them. But when they came back from the Round Lake Treatment Centre, they allege MCFD reneged on the agreement, keeping their two sons and two daughters in foster care.
“From 1985 through 1989 we fought like hell to get our kids back. We were clean and sober, but we were treated like convicted felons because of our past alcoholism,” said Ellery. “We had no help. It seemed like we were abandoned by everyone,” he said.
Afforded some visitation rights, Ellery and Sarah visited their children as often as MCFD would allow. During these visits, their children told them they were being abused and neglected, but when Ellery took their stories to MCFD Social Workers his concerns fell upon deaf ears.
“MCFD wouldn’t believe us that our children were being physically, sexually, and mentally abused and neglected,” said Ellery. “They treat foster children like slaves when they’re in foster care, I’ve seen it,” he alleges, comparing MCFD’s use of foster care homes to the church-run Residential Schools. “They’re using Aboriginal children as hostages, denying the children their rights, while they’re be abused in foster care.”
Together for the past 32 years, and married for the past 18 years, Ellery and Sarah admit they battled alcohol, and while Sarah has been sober since returning from treatment in 1980, Ellery has occasionally fallen off the wagon, but has been sober for over a year now.
After their children reached the age of majority and were released from foster care, Ellery and Sarah tried to repair the rift that had grown between them. “It took years for our children to trust us again because social workers were telling them we didn’t love them and we didn’t want them, even though we were fighting hard to get them back,” Ellery claimed.
When their eldest son Ellery Cootes Jr. came of age and was released from foster care four years ago, he took his story of abuse to the Nanaimo RCMP, but according to his father, nothing was ever done.
“There were no services or programs where he could get help or treatment after he came of age,” said Ellery. “Then all of a sudden he just seemed to lose it, and he turned to drugs,” he alleged. In the meantime, Ellery Jr. had three children of his own.
“The MCFD destroyed our family,” said the 63-year old Cootes. “They’ve put us through hell for 25 years and they’re still doing it to us. It’s got to stop.”
Sarah and Ellery Sr. quickly gained custody of their grandchildren, and took them into their care. “We had them since they were babies, and we had to struggle to make ends meet because they had special needs, but we were doing it despite all the social assistance cutbacks,” said Ellery.
Ellery Cootes III had platelet problems and required specialized monthly medical attention in Vancouver. Madelina Rose Cootes suffered from asthma and requires a ventilator twice daily, and the youngest, Wayne George has asthma and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Two years ago, social workers apprehended the grandchildren, and according to Cootes, placed them in the same foster home where his son had been abused.
According to Cootes, the reason his grandchildren were apprehended was because he had started drinking again, and his meager social assistance cheque left the family with little money.
“The government said they were going to make changes, and they did. They cut our social assistance down to almost nothing, making it almost impossible to live,” he said.
Still battling alcoholism, Ellery admits he often stops drinking for a year or two, only to begin drinking for a few months again before stopping for another year or two.
“When MCFD investigates people, they only look for the bad things. They refuse to see the good things people are trying to do with the few resources they have,” said Ellery. “When a foster parent does something wrong, nobody does anything about it,” he said, adding he believes many people become foster parents simply for the money.
“My grandchildren are on time limits to do their chores, they have to ask permission to go outside and ride their bikes, they have no freedom anymore to be children. They aren’t allowed to go to the bathroom after bed time, so they end up wetting the bed and being scolded for things that aren’t their fault,” said Ellery, who hasn’t been allowed to visit his grandchildren since April. “My visitation rights were taken away for no reason. My 96-year old mother (Rose Cootes) would come up once a month to visit her grandchildren, but hasn’t been able to see them for 2 years now,” he said.
According to Ellery, last Christmas, MCFD promised him and Sarah they would be able to have their grandchildren for Christmas Day. When the social worker didn’t bring the children over, Ellery said he and Sarah and their grandchildren were emotionally crushed. “We sat here all day staring at a pile of presents we had got for the children. When they didn’t come, it was the saddest Christmas ever,” he said. “MCFD broke our hearts.”
Sarah is able to visit their grandchildren once a week in a supervised setting at the Tillicum Haus Native Friendship Center. Although she is prevented from giving her grandchildren any gifts, they often bring her pictures they’ve drawn of the house where they all used to live, and tell her they want things to return as they once were; where the Cootes’ are together again as a family.
“As off-reserve people we have no resources when our children are apprehended,” said Ellery. “Off-reserve people have no rights or no one to turn to. We’re treated like second-class citizens. They don’t even treat off-reserve people the same as on-reserve First Nations people,” he said. “Non-Native parents wouldn’t stand for this. Why do we have to?”
“If MCFD doesn’t get their way, they use their power and authority to threaten families; both the parents and the children,” alleges Ellery. “We don’t have a fighting chance against them. It’s their way or no way at all,” he said. “We’re not criminals, we just want to be together as a family.”
Recently, Ellery Jr. fathered two more children, who were put up for adoption at birth.
“He’s given up fighting because it kills him that his children are now going through what he went through as a child,” said Ellery Sr. “MCFD asked us if we wanted to take the two babies, and we said ‘yes’. Then they turned around and adopted them out to non-Natives without telling us or the children’s’ father,” he said. “No one in our family knew anything about the adoption until months after it had happened.”
“As off-reserve people we have no resources when our children are apprehended,” said Ellery. “Off-reserve people have no rights or no one to turn to.”
“Aboriginal political leaders need to get more involved,” said Ellery. “Somebody has to put a stop to Aboriginal children being abused in foster homes and abused by the MCFD system. This has gone on for far too long. I don’t think anyone has put up with this for as long as we have.”
Throughout the interview, Sarah would occasionally sit on one of the living room couches to listen, but would leave into the kitchen, emotionally unable to talk about her feelings on their struggles. As the interview ended, Sarah came into the living room again, and steadied herself to say a few words.
“A lot of other families get a second chance. Why don’t we?” she asked, her slender hands trembling slightly. “We did everything they asked us to do. They told me to go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings even though I haven’t had a drink in over 20 years,” said Sarah. “Why don’t they keep their promises and let us have our life back. All we want is our grandchildren back and things to be the way they were before.”
MCFD Child Protection Worker Linda Pudwell said she could not comment on the case at it violates government confidentiality directives, but said she has tried to meet with Ellery and is waiting to hear back from him. MCFD officials in Victoria also refused to comment on the case.
By David Wiwchar