Our kids die in the child welfare system.’ The Métis Nation warns it’s losing kids at an alarming rate
Part I of series | March 2018 | Star Vancouver
VANCOUVER — Growing up, Shae-Lynn Noskye didn’t know much about her Métis family’s history. She knew that her mother had moved to Vancouver from Alberta while pregnant with her, leaving behind their extended family in the Prairies, known as the Métis Homeland.
Even now, the only other thing she really knows about them is that many, many were taken into government custody as children. That pattern, she said, goes way back.
“My great-grandfather was in residential school, where they took away his name,” the 22-year-old Métis and Cree woman told StarMetro. “I think all of my four aunties went into care. Some of my cousins have been in foster care as well, and when my mom was 16, she ran away from her own foster placement.
“So I’d have to say, there’s a lot of intergenerational trauma. And growing up … I was really used to just packing my bags, picking up and leaving.”
When Noskye was 14, she said, her mother’s addiction problems and mental illness meant she couldn’t take care of her properly. So one day, Noskye collected her belongings and asked a school counsellor to find her another home.
Though she voluntarily entered care — unlike the 91 per cent of removed Indigenous children who are taken against their parents’ will — she was repeatedly bumped from home to home. From 14 until she aged out of the system at 19, Noskye moved through half a dozen homes.
“For the most part, I felt really displaced,” she said. “You definitely lose your voice in the care system.”
In one home, the fridge and cupboards were kept under lock and key; an alarm would sound when she opened the door or the window to her unit. Once, she discovered a foster parent had been eavesdropping outside the door during a private, emotional conversation with her social worker.
Only near the end did she get housed with Indigenous caregivers. Never was her Métis culture encouraged.
Who are the Métis?
Métis are the descendants of mixed Cree-French ancestry from the historic Métis Homeland in Manitoba and the Prairies. The 2016 Census found 89,405 in B.C. call themselves Métis, one-third of all Indigenous people. At least 16,000 of them are registered as citizens of the Métis Nation of B.C. The Métis language is Michif.
‘Left culturally disconnected’
Of the 89,405 Métis in the province, at least 600 are in foster care. And Métis leaders and agencies are warning that if urgent reforms don’t happen, another generation of the Métis Nation could be lost.
Yet advocates say government and media attention paid to a string of Métis deaths in foster care, including numerous provincial reviews, often glossed over the Métis identity of the victims.
In 2015, 18-year-old Alex Gervais jumped to his death from the fourth floor of the Abbotsford motel, where the province had placed him. His parents wrote then-premier Christy Clark an open letter saying Gervais “essentially became a lamb to slaughter” under B.C. care.
After conducting an exhaustive investigation, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth Bernard Richard concluded Gervais’ social workers and guardians “were insensitive” and “largely ignored” his cultural identity and Métis heritage.
“He was left culturally disconnected, which the Representative can only conclude left him struggling with his identity,” Richard wrote.
Public anger at Gervais’ suicide — and just months earlier, that of Métis 15-year-old Nick Lang in care — sparked a 2016 review by First Nations Summit Grand Chief Ed John.
But according to Jason Simmonds, director of the Métis Nation British Columbia’s child welfare ministry, Métis had to beg B.C. to have their input included in the report. The John report called on policy-makers and social workers “to understand and implement knowledge of Métis culture” in their child protection work.
“We’re sometimes known as ‘the invisible people,’ ” Simmonds told StarMetro at the nation’s government meetings in Richmond on March 23. “Our kids die in the child welfare system.
“For years, we’d tell the ministry, ‘We have an alarming number of kids in care; our kids are getting taken’…. Their response was, ‘Prove it.’ ”
Until recently, he said, the ministry didn’t divulge how many Métis children it had, often didn’t verify if a child was Métis and in some cases even mislabeled them as non-Métis.
“It was up to the social worker to decide who belongs and who does not belong to our people,” Simmonds said. “They could tick a box and de-people our nation.”
Richard has heard such criticism from numerous Métis organizations and said they’ve too long been left out of the child-welfare conversation.
“We don’t tend to talk as much about the Métis issues,” he said in a phone interview. “But they are very similar to what we hear from First Nations leadership.”
‘We have to do things differently’
Only three per cent of British Columbians under the age of 14 are Métis, according to the 2016 census. Yet they make up seven per cent of youth in the province’s care.
In an interview, children and families minister Katrine Conroy called the overrepresentation of Métis in her ministry’s care “just unacceptable.”
Her staff is negotiating a deal with Métis organizations, she said, hoping to implement John’s recommendations to keep Indigenous and Métis children at home or in their communities wherever possible.
“We have to do things differently,” Conroy said.
Until recently, there was only one Métis agency contracted by the province to oversee child welfare, located in Surrey. A second “Delegated Aboriginal Agency” for Métis was assigned in Kamloops in November.
There have been recent improvements, Simmonds said, starting with B.C. talking to Métis leaders.
“I really feel the province is finally hearing our concerns,” he said. “I’m confident these seemingly intractable problems we face in child welfare can start being resolved.”
Simmonds said B.C. must give Métis Nation British Columbia full authority over kids, including the decision of whether to seize children or keep them with their families. It shouldn’t simply get Métis agencies to enforce provincial child-welfare laws, which he said were “designed to separate our children from our families.”
‘No one ever wants to be not wanted’
One such child was Merope Chappell — though her older sister entered foster care first. It wasn’t until years later that she fully understood what had happened.
“I was pretty young but I remember one day she just stopped coming home,” said Chappell, now 24. “My mom told me she’d been taken away; I’d never see her again.
“My mom cried a lot, pretty severely. She threw a lot of things. Now, as an adult, I can look back and think she felt guilty about the bad things that happened to my sister that she couldn’t stop.”
Then, when Chappell turned 13 or 14, she ended up in care, too, deciding to leave home as her mother’s mental health deteriorated. Chappell’s mother had also fled home at 14, after the death of her grandmother.
“There’s a whole number of factors all connected to poverty, mental illness, substance use and childhood trauma,” Chappell said. “My mother never got treatment partly because she never had the money.”
After leaving her mom, Chappell moved around from foster home to foster home at least four or five times. None of them were Indigenous, let alone Métis. Hers was the only Métis family in town she knew.
“I went to some homes that at some point just couldn’t provide support both to me and their actual children,” she said. “It felt bad; no one ever wants to be not wanted.”
What got her through was the Métis identity her mother has nurtured in her. She got her Métis citizenship card when she was seven; prior to foster care she was “heavily surrounded” by her culture.
“My mom always told me about our culture, being Métis,” she said. “My culture teaches me to learn what the world can offer, good and bad — not just, ‘Woe is me, my life sucks.’
“That makes it easier to get up in the morning and keep pushing through.”
- In part two of B.C.’s Invisible Families, StarMetro looks at why so many of the province’s Métis parents lose custody of their kids and how the loss impacts them and their community for generations.
PART II: ‘Lifelong trauma on families’: Métis parents reel from losing their kids
- Part II in exclusive ‘B.C.’s Invisible Families’ series by David P. Ball | Star Vancouver | April 18, 2018
CHILLIWACK, B.C.— Last month, Peter Lang stood beside the grave of Métis leader Louis Riel. It was at this very spot, just a stone’s throw from Manitoba’s Red River, that he’d scattered the ashes of his 15-year-old son two years earlier.
Lang recalled that summer day — a year after Nick’s death — under the care of B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD).
Lang is just one of hundreds of B.C. parents whose Métis heritage makes them significantly more likely to lose their kids to the child welfare system than other residents. And he’s not the only parent to liken today’s situation to Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop seizures of Indigenous children.
Nick would have turned 18 last month. Lang continues to regret he’d never had the chance to bring his son alive to the Métis Homeland.
“He’d always wanted to go there,” Lang told StarMetro in an interview near his Chilliwack townhouse. “Nick once said, ‘Dad, where’s my rez?’”
He’d replied that the Métis don’t really have a reservation. But they do have a traditional homeland, which is in Winnipeg.
“In the end, I kept my promise,” Lang said. “I feel he’s there now.”
Nick killed himself in June 2015 in Campbell River while in foster care and attending an addictions program.
He’d been placed in a foster home after pleading guilty to threatening his mother with a knife when she’d tried to confiscate his cellphone, concerned about his worsening methamphetamine addiction. The addictions program was a condition of those charges.
But the ministry — which oversees young offenders — never informed program staff or his guardians of Nick’s suicidal comments on Facebook, nor of the other warning signs, such as cutting his arms.
Only six days into the program, he was found dead in a closet.
When Lang spoke out about his son’s death, government lawyers sent him a letter warning he may have broken youth privacy laws (at the time, the province said in a statement the letter was simply “a courtesy in the event they were unaware of the law in this area,” prompting an apology from Clark).
He’d hoped the public outcry over his son’s death might at least spark some urgent changes. It also bothered him that his son’s Métis heritage seemed “neglected,” leaving out the key role his Métis culture could have played in helping Nick.
“They’ve neglected the Métis side of the story,” Lang said. “They look at Nick and see a blond- haired, blue-eyed teenager and say he’s not Indigenous.
To this day, Lang believes telling Nick’s school in grade four that he was Métis may have contributed to him getting into trouble in the first place.
“I think it was the way they viewed him. It was judged that his culture wasn’t important right from the get-go,” he said. “One day he went from being the energetic kid in class —the teacher loved him —to being ‘disruptive.’
“It’s almost like he started playing the part.”
‘They can’t get their child back’
At least 610 Métis youth are in foster care in B.C., according to the most recent census. Only three per cent of British Columbians under the age of 14 are Métis. Yet they make up seven per cent of youth in the province’s care.
Indigenous kids, including Métis, are nearly 10 per cent more likely than the rest of the population to be seized from their families because of “neglect,” — not because of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, according to a 2016 MCFD performance report.
B.C. Métis are 50 per cent more likely to be unemployed as non-Indigenous people, according to the 2016 census. They have an eight per cent greater high school dropout rate, earn 13 per cent less.
And they are nearly twice as likely to live in homes needing major repairs, the census found.
Kelly L’Hirondelle, executive director of Kelowna’s Métis Community Services Society of B.C., said in a phone interview that in many cases where “neglect” is given as the reason why Métis children are taken from their parents, the real issue is poverty.
“In some situations obviously there’s severe abuse,” he said, “but … we’ve worked with families who’ve done everything to work through the concerns of the ministry. They’re a capable parent but they can’t get their child back because they can’t find better housing.”
Losing a child into the system is devastating for a parent, he said, and often worsens whatever issue sparked ministry involvement in the first place.
He said focusing on immediate child protection alone can be harmful to the child’s long-term well-being. There needs to be a lot of preventive work up front with the whole family.
“If your child is removed and you have no way of getting your family back intact, it can have lifelong trauma on families,” he said.
‘We still love her’
While child welfare is complex, it’s made even more so when the Métis community is divided on an MCFD decision.
Perhaps no B.C. example illustrates such complexities as one now before the courts. In this case, one Métis family is fighting to reunite with the two-year-old girl they adopted at birth from her Métis parents.
“They asked us if we could adopt their daughter,” said L.M., who cannot be named under a court-ordered publication ban. “They said, ‘We understand we cannot raise our daughter, but we want to know her and be part of her life — we still love her.’”
But in 2016 the ministry removed the toddler and sent her to Ontario to live with a non-Métis family that had adopted her siblings. The ministry argued the child should live with actual family members.
“She was thriving and happy,” L.M. told the Star. “There was no reason to break those bonds and create trauma for this child.”
The Representative for Children and Youth urged the province to halt the transfer.
The battle also divided Métis in the province. The B.C. Métis Federation sued to have the child returned. The Métis Commission for Children and Families of B.C. and the Métis Nation of B.C. supported the girl remaining with her siblings because “family is the first option for placement.”
L.M. admitted the case is “extremely complex,” but said the divisions among Métis leadership “felt like betrayal.”
Meanwhile, B.C. lawyers continue their efforts to have a judge review in the hopes of having the original adoption annulled, so she can stay in Ontario for good. The province argues it’s still the child’s legal guardian.
“The fact we’re still trying to defend these attacks by the government is really unfathomable when they have so many children to place,” L.M. said. “Every day we are concerned for her, like any parent would. That doesn’t go away; it only grows stronger.”
She remembers the last time she was permitted to visit the girl. She travelled to Ontario in February 2017 to visit her in an indoor playground. The four-year-old, accompanied by her new foster parents and a therapist, watched L.M. walk in.
“She ran over to us,” L.M. said, “and I had the longest hug ever. I was just really fighting back the tears.
“She was supposed to call us by our first names. But as we were playing, she looked up, and called us mommy and daddy.”
- In part three of our series B.C.’s Invisible Children, StarMetro asks how to reduce the number of Métis in foster care, and discovers how one family fought to get their kids back.
PART III: For B.C.’s ‘invisible people,’ kinship is key to ending child welfare crisis
KAMLOOPS — When the Ministry of Children and Families came for Ken Boyko’s three children last January, he and his wife felt utterly powerless.
The couple had their kids taken away after the 36-year-old ex-oil worker’s wife, who struggled with depression and substance abuse, disappeared for three days with their one-year-old daughter after relapsing.
“They were reported missing,” he told StarMetro. “The day after they found my wife and daughter, a social worker came into our home and said she was removing the children with no explanation.
“RCMP got involved as the social workers walked my two oldest babies to a vehicle but they lost my son; he ran off into the mountains … The RCMP had to track my son down by dog.”
Much like the foster children and grieving parents introduced in parts 1 and 2 of StarMetro’s Invisible Families series, the Boykos’ lives were upended by involvement with the child protection system.
There are 89,405 Métis in B.C., according to the most recent census. At least 610 are in foster care.
“That’s the largest single Indigenous population in care in the province, of any nation,” said Jason Simmonds, director of children and families for Métis nation B.C., arguing the province’s slowness to work with the Métis until very recently is an example of how his people are called “the invisible people.”
(StarMetro could not independently verify which First Nation has the most children in care; the census only records “Aboriginal” identity, which includes First Nations, Métis, Inuit or multiple. In an email, a Ministry of Children and Family Development spokesperson said she could not break down the number/percentage of kids in care by individual First Nation. Children are only tracked as Indigenous or not).
Only three percent of British Columbians under the age of 14 are Métis. Yet they make up seven per cent of youth in the province’s care.
There are two officially delegated Métis child welfare agencies: Métis Family Services, and Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services, in Surrey and Kamloops, B.C. respectively. The latter was only recognized last October; each serves only their own municipal areas.
“We’re actually creating more harm for children when we bring them into care,” said Colleen Lucier, Lii Michif Otipemisiwak’s executive director.
“Look at the outcomes for children who age out of the foster care system: we have not kept them safe — they’re aging out with no sense of belonging, or homeless, or with chronic addictions.”
‘We’re working hard … but it won’t happen overnight’
For Lucier, a social worker with decades of front-line child welfare experience, things began shifting when B.C. granted her “delegated” status. Before that, she said, her organization could “influence” ministry decisions, but wasn’t making them. Now the agency controls how it works with families.
If the ministry opens a child protection file on a Kamloops Métis family, her agency takes over. The first step, Lucier explained, is to meet with the family in a place of its choosing. But they must bring three or four people they consider supportive.
“Who are you going to call at 3 a.m. when you’re going through a hard time?” Lucier said. “Together, we identify what the concern is, what we’re worried about, and what we really need to see from them.”
For other providers, however, operating like a non-profit organization instead of a government-recognized service agency offers independence, but comes at a cost.
Some struggle to even keep their over-stretched staff from burning out, the agencies not really falling under the purview of provincial child welfare funding or federal responsibility for First Nations peoples – not including Métis, despite a landmark 2016 Supreme Court ruling that found they have the same constitutional rights as First Nations.
“Quite often it’s a struggle just to keep our doors open and pay our staff,” said Kelly L’Hirondelle, executive director of Kelowna’s Métis Community Services Society, which is not a delegated agency. “We’re without a reception or administrative assistant. I’m literally taking out the garbage as I’m doing high-level ministry work and reports.”
But remarkable changes are afoot. Not only is the Métis Nation B.C. now provided data for the first time on how many self-identified Métis children are in ministry custody.
StarMetro obtained draft amendments to B.C.’s child protection law, on which agencies and Indigenous governments were consulted. That legislation was tabled Tuesday.
“These amendments are not related to jurisdiction,” a summary of the bill said. It includes new steps to “keep children at home or in their community,” and “the routine involvement of Indigenous communities in child welfare matters” before their children are removed by MCFD.
“We have to recognize Métis people are best positioned to address the needs of their children, youth and families,” minister Katrine Conroy told StarMetro in a phone interview. “We’re working hard to ensure we can put the processes in place for that to happen … but it won’t happen overnight.”
She said the amendment will be introduced in the Legislature within a month, when she also hopes to hammer out an initial child welfare “joint commitment” with the Métis Nation B.C. “to work collaboratively towards Métis authority over child welfare.”
The province set aside $2.7 million for staffing and operations costs of Delegated Aboriginal Agencies, as well as training to assess and increase “cultural awareness” among her ministry’s staff.
‘Who’s going to be liable if there’s children who die?’
But not all within the Indigenous child welfare sector are pleased with the move. Some expressed concern that the laws themselves haven’t been overhauled to give full control for First Nations and Métis organizations over their own members, but instead simply assign them to enforce the Act.
Others expressed deep concerns with how the draft legislation has been shopped around last minute to front-line organizations and Indigenous governments.
“I just got the proposed amendment about a week ago,” said Mary Teegee, chair of the Delegated Aboriginal Agencies Provincial Forum and president of the B.C. Aboriginal Childcare Society, in an April 18 interview. “Delegated agencies are going to be impacted by the changes on the ground, but there wasn’t enough consultation … They’re negating the need for thoughtful, thorough consideration of the impacts on these changes to children.
“Are we putting them at risk? Who’s going to be liable if there’s children who die? Is it MCFD or our communities? This piecemeal approach is just not the way to do business.”
Likewise, the B.C. Métis Federation — which has a long-standing dispute with Métis Nation B.C.’s leadership and has feuded publicly with its child protection stances — felt shut out of the reforms’ consultations and demanded to be at the same table, according to its president Keith Henry in a phone interview.
Dozens of players in child-welfare told StarMetro the system is in “crisis.” Ultimately, they all said, the key is giving independence and decision-making control over children and families to Métis organizations, Métis government and Métis service agencies when someone self-identifies as Métis.
Even one lawyer who represents MCFD — but who spoke to StarMetro on condition of anonymity — said Indigenous communities need “to start to take de facto jurisdiction of their children, even without legislative changes, when their kids come into care … That would really get things moving.”
For Simmonds the lynchpin is kinship, the fabric of Métis community and culture.
“Kinship is a huge part of who we are,” he said. “Leveraging our kinship networks will find alternatives to adoption and foster care.”
‘We were facing adoption, they told us’
For the Boykos, the Kamloops family whose children were seized by MCFD staff, it took a year to get their kids back.
“It was a year of literal hell. A nightmare. We were facing adoption, they told us.”
After weeks of no answers from the ministry and facing the prospect they’d lost their kids forever to either foster care or adoption, they identified themsevels as Métis – and Lii Michif Otipemisiwak brought them back together.
“Before that, we had to jump through so many hoops, and each seemed set up for failure,” Boyko said.
The two youngest now live with Boyko’s mother; the eldest with his wife Pamela’s mother.
Through the ordeal, Boyko discovered a deeper connection to his Métis roots.
“You actually felt like a human being again,” he said. “They brought in my and my wife’s family, it was 100 per cent different: we went from facing adoption to having full access to our kids again.”
Lucier said their story is no anomaly. Holding even a little more authority as Métis “changes the entire tone of child welfare.” Since becoming delegated last fall, no Métis children under her watch have been taken from their extended families.
“As a Métis person, I have this opportunity to work for my own people, to draw on our traditional ways of caring for and supporting one another, to remember who we are,” she said. “We take care of our children when our families are struggling; they belong in a strong Métis community.
“I wouldn’t and couldn’t do this work if I didn’t feel it was possible to do it differently. We’re demonstrating that every day.”