Letter: Removing an Indigenous child disrupts the whole family system, says family therapist

Since March 2018, reporter Brielle Morgan has been covering the trial of an Indigenous mother who’s fighting to get her four daughters out of foster care, and she’s been getting lots of feedback. The following letter was emailed on June 24, 2018, in response to the story, “Psychologists Using Biased Tests to Assess Indigenous Parents, Experts Say.”

Hi/She:kon Brielle,

I’m sharing my information from an experiential and professional place; I am a registered family therapist and a member of the Canadian Psychological Association. I’m of Haudensaunee (Mohawk), Irish and English heritage. I chose to study and register as a family therapist because the profession generally replicates Indigenous cultures: it is relationship-focused, and holds a systemic view of the family as opposed to the typical Western view of the individual.  

I have years of experience in working with families who are doing their best to navigate through the child welfare system — which includes the legal system and psychologists who perform assessments on the kids. I have seen heartbreak after heartbreak. And I have felt frustration, anger, and rage at the attitudes, lack of understanding, lack of information and authoritarian arrogance of so many professionals involved with the families.

I want to say too, that there are people within the system who are doing their best to change it.  I want to acknowledge these workers and administrators. Often they don’t see all of the system, but they do what they can to change what is before them. Many are former foster kids who have gone on to become change agents in social work and law and government ministries. Foster kids are standing up now too, and calling for change. They tend to be quite specific in what they see needs to change in order for their lives to have a better outcome. I also have taught Decolonization to third and fourth-year social work students who really want to make a difference, and who have eagerly absorbed all that I could teach them.

Here are my main points:
  • The current child welfare system is generally viewed by Indigenous communities and families as an ongoing extension of the residential schools.  

  • Attachment of children to their family, land, community and language is the foundation of Indigenous cultures as it ensures the child will go forward as a nurtured, healthy adult that leads the community. Great attention, care, ceremony and time was spent traditionally in ensuring each child was powerfully anchored to the earth. This is rarely seen or understood or respected by the child welfare system.

  • The child is understood to come from spirit as a gift to the earth and family. Roles and responsibilities of the family and community are based on children being their focus. Indigenous families traditionally are spiritually centred, and child-based.

  • When a child is forcibly removed by an external force, then their spirit is disrupted, often broken — and so is the family’s spirit. 

  • Therefore, when you remove a child, you are also removing the whole family system. Professionals do not grasp this concept. Family systems is not usually taught as a course to social workers, at least here in B.C. Indigenous family systems is not taught formally that I know of.

  • Social workers are generally not taught child development as an in-depth course, unless they seek it out for themselves. They receive human development generally, but the last time I checked with social workers in the field, as well as with the local social work faculty, an in-depth child development course was either not available or not required. Without this information, social workers are unable to grasp the depth of harm that is done at an attachment and developmental level when a child is removed. If they did, they would hopefully make better choices.

  • This is also true regarding information about trauma and loss, and the mental and physical and behavioural manifestations of incredible trauma and loss for Indigenous peoples. Because foster parents and the child-welfare system have not been informed or attuned to complex trauma and loss until very recently, children’s behaviour is understood as ‘bad,’ and they are removed from one foster home to another.  

  • Often, the professionals in the child and family services agencies hold little information about Indigenous cultures or Indigenous family systems. They burn out quickly but stay on in their job. It is my belief that the people helping our most hurting families need to be the professionals and healers who have the most education, and the most compassion and the most support on the job. For social work agencies, this means the minimum of a Masters degree, and a specialty in family systems, Indigenous family systems, child development intensives, trauma and loss and neurobiology specialities, and experience in working with the Indigenous worldview. And a strong employee assistance program and self-care plan, which is constantly reviewed, is important too.

  • Child protection social workers have the same legal rights to enter a home and apprehend as do the RCMP. Armed with this power, an authoritarian and superior attitude and the use of force if necessary, great harm can easily happen with removals.  

  • The most hurting families have the most hurting kids. What they need is assistance to heal the hurt. A continued attitude of ‘you are wrong and bad’ inflicts further shame and harm to these families and kids. When an Indigenous perspective of ‘return the families and their kids to balance’ is applied instead, then you can see positive changes in both the families and communities. The pilot project in Nisichawaysihk First Nation in Manitoba has become a model for this change. Ten years ago under the guidance of the Elders, a community family therapist and healing leaders in the community, parents were offered the choice of having themselves removed for healing and keeping their children in the home — instead of the child-welfare system approach. More and more parents are now choosing this Indigenous approach, and violence, crimes and alcoholism in the community have dropped sharply. 

  • The families are often treated as though they are criminals in a system that presents itself as right and superior. It is neither. Foster care has created a continued cycle of foster care families, and families involved with the ‘justice’ system.

I have a hunch I could say more, but I’ve hit the main topics for me.

Thanks for listening and offering me an opportunity to share what I see.

Onen Kiwahi (may you go well).



Jann Derrick PhD R.M.F.T.
Registered Family Therapist


What do you make of Brielle Morgan’s coverage of this case — and the broader child-welfare system? How can she improve her reporting? Share your thoughts publicly or email [email protected].

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