Forging a new path for Inuit kids in care: Part II in a series
“To admit or to acknowledge that you have prejudices is really hard”
OTTAWA — As Ottawa’s Inuit community continues to grow, so too grows the number of children being apprehended and placed in government care in Canada’s capital.
And that means agencies who care for those children are trying to find better ways to meet the needs of those Inuit families.
That’s a welcome change.
The relationship between child welfare workers and Aboriginal families in Canada has been fraught for years, mainly due to a long and painful history of white people taking Aboriginal kids away from their families — for school, for assimilation, for “their own good.”
Statistics show Aboriginal children are still over-represented in the child welfare system for a host of socio-economic and post-colonial reasons.
And the patchwork of care across the country doesn’t help: There are more than 300 individual welfare agencies in Canada that have legal authority over child welfare.
It’s with that context in mind that the Ottawa Children’s Aid Society has tried to inform itself and to make changes, both in front line practice and in the philosophies guiding its management policies.
Kelly Raymond, the Ottawa CAS service director who, over 26 years, has worked her way up from front line worker to manager, acknowledges that the child welfare system has, in the past, failed its Aboriginal clients. But staff in Ottawa say they are trying to change that.
In the past few years, her agency has worked more closely with urban Inuit groups to incorporate culture, history and kinship into their relationships with local Inuit families and children in need.
That’s been a tremendous help for CAS, Raymond said, and staff at those Inuit organizations have confirmed that the relationship is indeed improving.
Case managers meet regularly with Tungasuvvingat Inuit, the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre and others to examine case files, discuss challenges and try to solve problems together.
“Trauma goes so far back — through generations — so we use the culture-as-treatment perspective,” said Raymond, in an interview at her CAS Ottawa office.
“As a southern system, how can we change the way we’ve done business and what does that mean?
“Child welfare, we’re not popular people. Most families want us out. I accept that,” Raymond said. “So how is it I can bridge this person to a community support person they feel comfortable with and Tungasuvvingat Inuit and the OICC [Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre] typically help to create that continuum of care.”
According to recent figures from the Nunavut and Ontario governments, there are roughly 75 Inuit children in care in the Ottawa area, 40 wards of Nunavut and 35 wards of Ontario.
That’s a point in time snapshot from April and May; numbers fluctuate month to month.
Those children range in age and are in care for many different reasons. With overlapping government jurisdictions and various levels of care and custody, it’s a complicated labyrinth — for families, for children and for those professionals whose job it is to look out for them.
Some of those Inuit children in Ottawa have special medical and behavioural needs and can’t be cared for at home in Nunavut. Some are child welfare clients in need of protection.
Some are “society wards” which means government care is considered temporary and birth families can still regain custody. Some are “Crown wards,” in permanent state care. Some live in group homes and others in foster homes. Some get adopted or adoptions break down.
Workers with the Ottawa CAS have to keep track of children in their care and sometimes serve a supervisory role for Nunavut wards as well.
It’s easy to see why sometimes, those kids fall through the cracks.
On Friday, we told you about a couple of Inuit youth who were raised by foster and adoptive families in Ottawa. Their stories shine a bleak light on what can happen to kids when they enter the child welfare system. They can get lost.
Raymond said the goal for CAS case managers is to provide stability and permanence to children in care but sometimes that doesn’t happen, for a variety of reasons.
But they are trying to improve the system, Raymond said. When Ottawa CAS workers apprehend an Inuk child with ties to Nunavut, they contact the Nunavut government first to try to locate family or friends in Nunavut who might be able to take that child.
If that doesn’t work, they try to find an Inuk foster family in the Ottawa area. Good luck with that; right now, there is only one registered Inuit foster family in Ottawa.
That’s probably Heidi Langille, an Inuk woman here who has been fostering kids, many of them Inuit, since 2008.
Langille currently has three biological sons and two foster children living at her house. She has two adopted children as well, but they grew up and moved out.
Although she was worried at first that fostering might negatively impact her own children, she was mistaken.
“The end result is absolutely [that] it has not. It has enriched their lives,” said Langille, who recently took a job as executive assistant to Senator Charlie Watt.
“I think they are very empathetic toward other children who are experiencing stuff because they see it first hand,” she added.
“They have a broader definition of family, which is great. And they’ve never once complained.”
Langille has a unique perspective.
A founding board member of the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre, its first president, and later a staff member there, Langille recently finished a two-year secondment to the Ottawa CAS as their Inuit liaison worker.
She was the first person to take that job, created with prompting from the OICC.
As the Inuit liaison, Langille helped to support and educate Inuit families who were involved with children’s aid and also to educate CAS staff about Inuit culture, history and family dynamics.
Child welfare workers aren’t usually welcome in Inuit homes. That’s from years of ill-informed practice on behalf of CAS workers and a legacy of colonial superiority that led to suspicion and mistrust on behalf of Inuit, and other Aboriginal families.
“Front line workers are getting it. It’s not perfect. To admit or to acknowledge that you have prejudices is really hard,” Raymond said.
“It takes a lot of maturity and introspection and self acknowledgement… It’s humbling to sit and listen to community consultations, people who have been victimized and traumatized by us.
“We are perpetuating removing children from their families and placing them in non-Aboriginal and/or Inuit homes. We’re doing the same thing but we’re calling it something else. So when you frame it that way, it’s easier to understand.”
Now when Ottawa CAS workers make contact with an Inuit family, maybe to apprehend a child, they tell the family that Langille can be present to support and advocate for them.
Then they set up a meeting in a neutral location and try to better inform families of what’s happening, why, and of the options going forward.
Langille said she spent most of her time explaining to families how the child welfare system works because of the complicated legal process that kicks in for child custody cases.
The hardest part, she said, was that many Inuit families assumed that because she was an Inuk, and part of the community, she would make sure they got their kids back.
“But I can’t stop a court process, right? What’s in front of the judge is in front of the judge. I can help a parent through it. I can help them find a lawyer. I can help them navigate and advocate. But I can’t return their kids,” she said. “That was the toughest.”
But despite the challenges, she supports the CAS for creating the position, and for reaching out to the Inuit community. And she hopes they fill her job soon.
Come back to Nunatsiaq News tomorrow for the final installment in our series on Inuit children in care: the Nunavut perspective.