Newsletter: Child-welfare system comes up in a third to half of MMIWG testimonies, commissioner says

Heads up: Lots to share this week, so I’m experimenting with a longer newsletter (let me know what you think).

Bernard Richard, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, attended a 2017 workshop organized by The Discourse.

By now you’ve probably heard that the Ministry of Children and Family Development has tabled a bill outlining the changes they’d like to make to B.C.’s child-welfare laws. Last week I asked Bernard Richard, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, for his take on this bill. I also spoke with a recently retired ministry worker, Chief William Schneider of the Samahquam tribe and a child-protection lawyer.

See my story here — and let me know what you think: Will this bill help reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care in B.C.?

On another note, I recently had the chance to pick Qajaq Robinson’s brain about the connection between child-welfare and gendered, race-based violence.

She’s one of the commissioners for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and she spent the past year listening to stories about violence, loss, healing — and the impact child-welfare systems are having on families across Canada.

“I’d say probably a third to a half of all the testimonies I’ve heard in each area speak to child welfare,” she said. “It’s been an issue in every jurisdiction that we’ve been to.”

The Inquiry’s held 15 hearings so far. The commissioners have listened to stories and recommendations from nearly 1,300 survivors of violence and family members of survivors. And they’re hoping to listen to more: their request for an extension from the federal government is still pending.

After meeting Robinson at the last hearing in Richmond, B.C., in April, I asked her for a phone interview. Here’s a condensed version of that interview:


Brielle Morgan: Tell me when you started this work as a commissioner.

Qajaq Robinson: Our mandate was announced on Aug 3, 2016, but we didn’t start until Sept. 1 … We’ve been tasked to look at systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls, trans and two-spirited — gendered, race-based violence.

In addition to identifying root causes, systemic root causes, we’ve been asked to … [come] up with recommendations to decrease or eliminate violence against Indigenous women. And also to look at programs and policies that are effective or ineffective. The broader mandate of any public inquiry is to raise awareness.

How often does the child-welfare system or foster care factor into these stories?

It’s been an issue in every jurisdiction that we’ve been to. I’d say probably a third to a half of all the testimonies I’ve heard in each area speak to child welfare or child and family services (or whatever that institution is referred to as in the different jurisdictions) — from limitations in terms of the supports that they receive; the eligibility; the lack of services available, particularly in remote locations … where the agencies are either not staffed enough or just don’t have the resources available to assist with the needs that families have.

In a number of the cases involving disappearances or murders, often we hear about it as a factor for women who, for example, have either struggled with addiction or struggled with trauma, and their struggles have resulted in their children being either apprehended or, you know, [placed] under some form of care and supervision. And then the removal of the children having a really, really devastating impact on [their] will to go on — I don’t know how else to describe it. It has a real devastating impact of loss and of grief … that heartbreak of being separated from one’s child, whether it was through residential school — because we hear a lot about that — or through the child-welfare system.

Commissioner Qajaq Robinson presents an Elder with a copper necklace in appreciation for sharing her wisdom and guidance at a community hearing in Rankin Inlet in February 2018.

Was there a particular story that really touched you?

One of the things that really struck me from Richmond [B.C.] was [hearing from the panel of] youth coming out of care, and even hearing from adults and their experiences coming out of residential school, just not being equipped, just not having been given the tools in those institutions, whether it was in residential school or in the child-welfare system — historically or even current day — to be independent.

Hearing specifically from the youth who are experiencing it and the challenges. The impact it has on them … their separation from their families and their culture and identity, and then what it ultimately means for their ability to be independent, self-sufficient humans.

What were the most pressing concerns you heard around the various child-welfare systems in different jurisdictions? And was there a particularly interesting idea for change that kept coming up?

One thing that I heard across the country was the need for more preventative assistance, you know, especially looking at the impacts of intergenerational trauma … when you look at the residential schools’ impact on parenting and relationships.

[People are calling for] a lot of Indigenous-knowledge-based parenting and relationship capacity-building, and re-education at all levels, like, even in the young years, within the schools, within family groups, within the community. And just the importance of building that knowledge base and sharing it.

And also supporting families before things become problematic. I heard from a number of families talking about how it felt like they only got the help they needed when it got really, really, really bad. And then they feared that coming forward when things were really, really bad would mean that the children would be apprehended. A bit of a double-edged sword — that seeking help was more risky than not seeking help.

A lot of the recommendations revolve around support. Supporting family capacity, individual capacity, community capacity, really the importance of culture, the importance of keeping families together, maybe not physically together, but keeping those relationships intact.

Can you give me a sense for how heavily the child-welfare system is going to factor into the recommendations the commission will make?

I can’t really speculate on that right now … We’re looking at issues with policing … the child-welfare system, but also the medical system, coroners, education system, government system…

We’ll also be having an expert panel on racism. That is something that we’ve heard throughout, whether racism played a role in how a situation was covered by the media, in how it was treated by the police, how first responders reacted to situations when it involved Indigenous women.

One of the things that I heard over and over in Vancouver was concerns about media portrayal, and I even had families asking to speak privately and in-camera because they did not trust how they or their family would be portrayed … they felt that racism would play a role in the coverage.

Can you tell me what it has meant to you to serve as a commissioner?

It’s been the most humbling experience of my life, and probably the hardest in a very personal way, in a professional way. But also inspiring, too.

You were there in Richmond. In the midst of compound intergenerational trauma, there is this profound intergenerational resilience … just witnessing that is so humbling. I don’t know how else to describe it. The strength and the drive and the determination that I witness in the women [and] in the families that have lived with this and fought for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years — who have pushed and continued to kick down doors to be heard. It has been amazing.

It’s also really opened my eyes to issues around privilege. You hear about intergenerational trauma, but there’s a whole bunch of people in Canada who have had intergenerational privilege — and that sort of complacency that that has allowed to cultivate has been something that I’ve witnessed as well. We need to confront both. We need to address the intergenerational privilege that has come off of the backs of intergenerational trauma.


Thanks for reading this conversation. To learn more about the Inquiry’s work and findings to date, check out its interim report. And if you’ve got ideas about how I can deepen my reporting or improve this newsletter, lemme know: email me or contact me via Facebook or Twitter.

Resources

Interested in learning more about violence against women? Atira Women’s Resource Society is a not-for-profit organization committed to the work of ending violence against women. I subscribe to their monthly newsletter and I found the list of resources they provided in their latest letter really helpful.

What does it mean to be the product of intergenerational privilege? I’d love to find some good resources on this — got any suggestions for me?[end]

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