‘Indigenous practice is prevention’ when caring for youth in foster care

It was scary for Victoria Oscar and her brother to leave their family home in Kyuquot Sound and enter the foster care system.

From age two to 16 Oscar and her brother were in and out of foster care, living in Campbell River, Zeballos, Alert Bay and Kyuquot, among other places. When they entered the foster care system, they arrived with only what they could carry, said Oscar.

Over the course of a year when Oscar was a teenager, they were waiting for “approval” to live with her grandfather, though soon after they were in his care, he passed away.

“We always got to stay with family. That's why they moved us so much,” said Oscar. “We just wanted to be home, close to our mom and our stepdad.”

Oscar and her brother were able to stay together throughout the years, in and out of foster care.

“When you're trying to keep your siblings together, it's a matter of space,” said Oscar when sharing some of the challenges of being in foster care. “A lot of places we were stuck in the same room.”

Reflecting on the social workers she interacted with, Oscar remembers one in particular who treated her well, understanding the importance of keeping the girl close to her culture, community, and family. Oscar said this social worker was the reason her and her brother were able to stay together.

“We're okay living out of bags. We're okay sleeping in a tent. We're not scared of anything. We're not afraid to sleep on the floor or the cement,” reflected Oscar.

In 2021, she began school at the Native Education College in Vancouver. This was the same time that Oscar overcame addictions she had struggled with since age 15.

“When I started school, I hit the ground running and I just couldn't stop,” said Oscar. “They help you grow… They give you the tools to build your own foundation, and it's a really beautiful place.”

Oscar has two more math classes before she receives her GED, and plans to walk across the stage next year.

Disruption to the family dynamic

Geena Haiyupus of Hesquiaht is a youth navigator for Usma Nuu-chah-nulth Family and Child Services. Haiyupus helps youth as they age out of care by assisting them with life skills required when they leave Usma.

Haiyupus explains that Canada’s colonial history directly impacts the youth in Usma services.

“They tore us apart from [our culture], and then they separated us from our language and our traditional roles that we would have taken very seriously had we still been living in community,” said Haiyupus.

She explains that residential schools and the foster care system cause disruptions in the traditional family dynamic, and has done so through generations.

The biggest challenge that the youth face is finding a sense of belonging, whether it be with their parents, relatives, or community, said Haiyupus.

“That disruption of connection and sense of belonging really impacts them,” she said. “They go and look for outside resources [to have] a sense of belonging, and that often comes with the streets.”

One method that Usma employs to support young people is to keep them busy, away from the streets and other outside influences by following protocols that build connection with their families and communities, explains Haiyupus.

Charlene Thompson-Reid (Wiick-saa-wilth) of Tseshaht has been working with Usma since 2009. 

“Culture to us, here at Usma, is mandatory,” said Thompson-Reid. “They deserve to be invited, to be included to be part of that culture.”

Though many youth in care with Usma are with extended family and community members, with non-native homes, Usma brings culture to them, explained Thompson-Reid.

This ranges from activities such as making traditional headbands, drums, and shawls, having an elder teaching roles and values, or learning about hunting and fishing.

Staff will also bring youth to Hesquiaht, Tseshaht, Ahousaht, and Huu-ay-aht dance classes, said Thompson-Reid.

If the child isn’t connected to family, they will make sure Usma organizes a naming ceremony and celebration, she added.

When Haiyupus is with the youth she will point out who their relatives are, so they can build connections and deepen their sense of belonging.

“It's slowly changing, less kids are getting removed as much as they were even 14 years ago, when I first started here,” said Thompson-Reid.

‘Indigenous practice is prevention’

According to statistics from the Ministry of Child and Family Development, from 2001 to 2021 the number of Aboriginal youth in foster care decreased from 4,273 to 3,548, though 67 per cent of children in foster care are currently Indigenous.

“Indigenous practice is prevention,” said Haiyupus. “The more we practice our Indigenous worldview, the more that we bring sacred practices back to what we're doing, the more healing we have.”

When asked where foster care can improve, Oscar said they need to “Indigenize” the system, using things like the “healing wheel”. 

“The only way that we're going to find prevention is by seeking that healing,” said Haiyupus.

In December of 2022 Murphy Battista LLP filed a class action lawsuit against the Ministry of Child and Family Development for failing to provide the proper care for children in the foster system, alleging that the MCFD didn’t supply basic rights like being fed, clothed, and nurtured.

“As a result of this alleged failure, children in care were exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to drug use, exposure to criminal activity, given inadequate food/nourishment, given inadequate medical and other treatments and given inadequate support…to complete a Grade 12 education,” reads the class action.

In an email to Ha-Shilth-Sa, the Ministry of Children and Family Development writes that it is their “first priority to keep children and youth close to families, communities and cultures. More children than ever before are staying connected to their families, communities, and cultures in out-of-care arrangements with extended family or friends.”

“As of January 31, 2023, we currently have the lowest number of Indigenous children and youth in foster care in 20 years - 2,281,” continued the ministry. “Last year over 93 per cent of Indigenous children who needed protection were able to return to living safely with their families after receiving supports.”

“With the 2023 budget investing $85 million to support caregivers, kinship, and out-of-care providers with costs of food, clothing, and transportation, this investment will increase maintenance rates by 47 per cent and reach more than 5,000 caregivers,” wrote the ministry. “Increased funding for kinship and out-of-care caregivers increases the likelihood that a child or youth can be well supported without having to come into care, while maintaining connections with their family, community, and culture.”

The monthly maintenance rate for a child, ranging from an infant to age eleven, is $1,024.64, and as of April 1 this will increase to $1,465.86. For youth aged 12-19, the maintenance rate is $1,124.19 and will increase to $1,655.91, wrote the ministry.

British Columbia is the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass legislation, in late 2022, that recognizes the right for Indigenous communities to provide their own child and family services, enabling them to keep their youth safe and connected to families, culture, and communities, according to MCFD.

“The ministry, I feel like they’re miles behind us,” said Thompson-Reid. “I feel like [Usma] has been supporting our caregivers culturally, way longer than it was even implemented that we were made to do it.”

‘The only light that shines over you’

One of the challenges that Usma is presently facing is the lack of foster homes for youth, explains Thompson-Reid. Some homes have up to eight children.

Due to the nature of the work Usma does, there is often a fear and lack of trust in communities, she said.

With the goal to keep teenagers out of group homes, keep siblings together, and keep Nuu-chah-nulth youth connected to their communities, Thompson-Reid explains that the communities are partner groups, and that there is a need to work together, build trust and provide homes for the youth in care.

“We need a lot of healing so that we can trust again,” she said.

“That cultural component with every single child in care will get them through those times in care,” continued Thompson-Reid. “It's almost like the only light that shines over you in those moments.”

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