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Child welfare needs new approach, not more tinkering

Dear Editor It was nearing the end of a midwinter day in the 1980s and we had just finished a workshop hosted by Saskatchewan’s foster care program.
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Dear Editor

It was nearing the end of a midwinter day in the 1980s and we had just finished a workshop hosted by Saskatchewan’s foster care program. Earlier, in order to avoid unnecessary travel costs for our neighbours, also foster parents, we had agreed to pick up two children for them after the workshop, but there was no sign of them yet. As we were leaving the building, however, in the dark and amidst a light snowfall we saw a young social worker approaching with a three-year-old Aboriginal boy in her arms. She explained that he and his younger brother had been apprehended three days earlier, but because there wasn’t room at the emergency shelter, they had been separated, and we would have to drive across town to pick up the younger boy.

After collecting his few belongings we tried to reassure him while buckling him into the car seat then left for the other address. All this while he made not a sound, only stared at us in wide-eyed fright. At our destination the emergency shelter woman explained the little brother had just fallen asleep but she would get him dressed and bring him to the car. When she did so about 10 minutes later, and the youngster realized he was being handed over to yet another stranger, he started screaming. That finally was too much for our three-year-old. He started screaming in terror as well.

My wife is a compassionate and effective child care person and by the time we had driven a half hour she had reassured both of the little boys and the older one was asking and answering a few questions. Unfortunately, ours was a misplaced kindness, as we realized a half hour farther on when we drove onto our neighbour’s yard. These little boys who had just experienced a major trauma, then were reassured and had developed some trust in us, and suddenly understood they were again being abandoned and given over to new strangers. Both screamed in terror and the older boy cried repeatedly, “Don’t leave us here, don’t leave us here!”

This unfortunately was not untypical of Saskatchewan’s foster care system in the 1980s, and I suspect it was similar throughout Canada. One social worker at the time told me that Aboriginal children are typically apprehended for reasons of “neglect,” not abuse. In it’s wisdom and for the “good of the child” the state would remove children from parents who loved them but often due to their own trauma in Residential Schools, did not themselves know how to parent. (Never mind that today’s helicopter parenting norms are completely alien to many Aboriginal parents).

There were, and I’m sure there are now, many selfless, loving foster parents. I like to think we were among them, and yet I am ashamed now, these many years later, of my involvement in this inhumane and dysfunctional system. I expressed my conviction once at a workshop that in 50 years our foster care system would come to be viewed in the same negative light as the Residential School program was being recognized even then.

Through the long period of the Residential School System children not much older than ours that winter day were forcibly apprehended, sometimes in a far more brutal manner, and transported to a far more alien environment for “the good of the children” to “educate” the “savagery” and the “heathenism” out of them. The current revelations of unmarked graves at these schools now force us as a nation to confront the true horror and brutality of a system, largely operated by the churches, yes, but installed and funded and administered by our federal government under the guise of paternalism and benevolence. Let us not forget that in the current blame game.

It is small wonder that in the process many of these innocent children grew up to be emotionally damaged adults.

Today that paternalistic philosophy is being perpetuated to a great degree in our foster care system where the state “assumes” responsibility for apprehended children (here in Saskatchewan 85 per cent of them are Aboriginal despite representing only 25 per cent of the child population) and then when they turn 18 they are essentially abandoned. Oh, I know my critics will say there are a whole range of support programs available now after they leave the system, but I, as an educated adult, often have difficulty accessing government programs, and we are talking here about what are really still children, many of whom have been shuttled from foster family to foster family since infancy. When we were in the system we knew families whose children went back and forth every few months, and changed schools three times in one year.

These programs haven’t prevented 90 per cent of those foster children, who have suffered five or more placements, from ending up in the justice system. They haven’t stopped 40 to 50 per cent from becoming homeless a year and a half after they turn 18 years of age. They haven’t kept 25 per cent of them out of prison within two years of leaving the system. I’ve read that the overwhelming emotion many face is loneliness. Don’t talk to me about support programs.

As important as it is to address the wrongs uncovered with the revelations of mass burials on former Residential School grounds, we cannot afford to be distracted now from the far more important task of dealing with a dysfunctional and inhumane child welfare program. Tinkering with it as has been going on for 40 years won’t cut it. There must be a completely new approach.

In the first place, most of those children apprehended for “neglect” should probably be left right where they are. They wouldn’t come to any more harm, and likely far less, than what the paternalism of the state causes. Secondly, those children who need to be removed from truly abusive situations must be placed in a setting where they experience stability in their life. Perhaps this could be in a local, communal housing situation where family and friends can visit at will. Certainly not in a modern version Residential School.

James Wiebe