Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut January 05, 2016 - 10:00 am

Youth speak out about Nunavut adoption, foster care

“Relatives aren't necessarily safe to stay with. That's a big problem”

THOMAS ROHNER
Teresa Qiatsuq, right, and Rachel Michael participate in the Youth Speak Out advocacy training in Iqaluit Dec. 30. The two-day workshop helped youth who grew up in government care advocate for changes to the child welfare system. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)
Teresa Qiatsuq, right, and Rachel Michael participate in the Youth Speak Out advocacy training in Iqaluit Dec. 30. The two-day workshop helped youth who grew up in government care advocate for changes to the child welfare system. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

Teresa Qiatsuq, an 18-year-old from Cape Dorset, and Rachel Michael, a 19-year-old Iqalummiut, grew up largely in Nunavut foster homes.

And the pair are now using that experience to speak out about the need for change in the child welfare system in Nunavut and Canada.

Qiatsuq and Michael attended a two-day workshop in Iqaluit Dec. 29 and 30, put on by the non-profit Adoption Council of Canada, to help youth who grew up in government care advocate for change.

The child welfare system places kids and youth in foster homes as a temporary measure while they await a permanent home.

For Qiatsuq, the biggest problem with that system: a lack of communication between children placed in government care, social workers and the foster or adoptive family.

The system failed her by placing her with relatives assumed to be safe, and by not adequately checking up on how well that was working out, Qiatsuq told Nunatsiaq News at the workshop Dec. 30,

“Relatives aren’t necessarily safe to stay with,” Qiatsuq said. “That’s a big problem.”

Qiatsuq shared some words of wisdom which could help kids and youth who are currently unhappy in foster care.

“Don’t hold it in, just be honest. Tell someone. It’s not your fault.”

And for members of the general public, Qiatsuq offered other valuable advice.

“Be sensitive towards people in foster care, and understand that they’re fighting,” she said.

Michael also shared a message for those inside and outside the adoption system.

“I really want social workers, foster parents and community members to know they have a huge role in the life of every child they interact with,” Michael said.

Like Qiatsuq, Michael was moved in and out of foster homes and the homes of relatives, which led to repeated abuse.

“A lot of trauma and negative memories could’ve been prevented with more follow-ups by social workers,” Michael said.

For Michael, social workers and government workers need to do a better job of listening to the children and youth in their care.

“No child should be put into a home they don’t want,” she said. “If we’re not at the table making decisions, how are they really helping us?”

Laura Eggertson, the interim executive director of the Adoption Council of Canada, told Nunatsiaq News Dec. 30 that it’s true that governments are not listening to the children and youth in their care.

“Youth are the experts, they live through the experience. But it’s hard for them to get heard,” she said.

That’s why her organization has trained youth in cities across Canada to help them network and find their voice through art, public speaking and media training.

“The kids don’t count, and they need to count,” Eggertson said.

In fact the Canadian government isn’t counting the exact number of children in their care, she added, with the number nation-wide estimated around 30,000.

Half of those are indigenous children, which is a sensitive topic because of the legacy of colonial blights such as residential schools, Eggerston said.

The biggest problem with the child welfare system, says Eggertson, is a lack of funding for both initiatives preventing the need for children to be in foster care, and in finding those kids a permanent home.

“Everywhere I go, there’s talk of how important our kids are. But we don’t put our money where our mouth is.”

Many kids bounce around from home to home and then “age out” — reach the age of majority and are no longer eligible for the child welfare system.

“Many see that as a ticket to unemployment and even homelessness,” she said.

Many children and youth experience trauma in the home of their biological family before they are taken into the care of the government, where they may experience more trauma.

And that cycle increases the risk of serious consequences, such as suicide, she said.

That’s why the recent rejuvenation of Nunavut’s suicide prevention strategy is so important, Eggertson added.

“Now is a good time for Nunavut to listen to their youth.”

It’s interesting to note, however, that a recent study out of Nunavik suggests Inuit children who are custom adopted fare better than their non-Inuit adopted counterparts, who tend to suffer from more behavioural problems.

The study, done by researchers at three universities, found that the homes of Inuit adopted children in Nunavik tended to be more stable overall because the adoptive guardians were generally older and more likely to abstain from using alcohol and drugs.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed and representatives from the Government of Nunavut attended parts of the youth advocacy training workshop in Iqaluit, which Eggertson praised as a sign that Nunavut politicians are listening.

But for real change to happen, advocates like Qiatsuq and Michael are crucial, she said.

“I feel lucky with a supportive foster family that took me in as their own,” said Michael, who’s been with her permanent family for five years now.

But it shouldn’t be luck that determines if someone in government care finds a permanent home, she added.

Qiatsuq said the bonds created by the advocacy training workshop have given her a country-wide support group.

She’s currently enrolled in a college police foundation program in Ottawa, but said she hopes to come back to Nunavut as a future member of the RCMP.

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