Last May, Miriam Libicki watched the news with horror as the United States began separating asylum seekers from their children at the Mexico-U.S. border.
Three days later, she realized it could happen to her Vancouver family. That’s when a Ministry of Children and Family Development social worker called about a complaint that she let her two children, five and almost three, play outside with their friends without her supervision.
A week later, a social worker visited them. Three months of silence followed before Libicki heard their file had been closed.
Instead of keeping quiet about the experience, Libicki, a cartoonist who specializes in memoir, documented her family’s experience for TheNib.com. Below are some selections from Libicki’s piece, “Who Gets Called an “Unfit” Mother?”, and excerpts from her interview with The Tyee about her decision to go public and the parallels between her family’s experience and the situation facing asylum seekers in the U.S. and Indigenous families in Canada, where half the children in care are Indigenous.
On ‘the call’
“I felt a lot of shame about it and a lot of secrecy. I chose to tell one close friend of mine. She’s the mother of four kids and she told me two different occasions when she had been investigated for things that were very minor, but someone had decided were suspicious. Then another friend of mine said when she got divorced, her ex-partner made up a story about her and there was an investigation done on her with their son. It was kind of shocking that it was more common than I thought.
“I also realized that it’s something that parents, especially mothers — because it seems to be used against mothers especially — just don’t talk about. Even if it has happened to them, you just feel so ashamed that you don’t talk about it.”
Why it was safe for her kids to play outside
“I do know that there are other parents in my neighbourhood who let their kids play outside and are responsible for each other’s kids to a certain extent. So I thought in other neighbourhoods you couldn’t do this, but in my neighbourhood it was just a tacit understanding that kids play outside. Because on that day that my kids were outside, there were other kids and other adults outside.”
On racism and child apprehension
“I started out thinking about the ways family separation is punitive by design: the border separations in the U.S. Then I thought about punitive solutions to social crises in general, and ‘resentment politics’ that prioritize making sure the ‘undeserving’ don't get good things, even if it wastes money and keeps many of the ‘deserving’ from good things too.
“I know theorists in the U.S. say this consensus attitude is all down to racism. These systems are put in place so black people don’t get benefits, and any non-blacks caught in the snare are acceptable collateral damage. That led me to wonder if anti-Indigenous racism was the corollary in Canada: ‘If we let everyone raise kids the way they want we might have to let Indians do it.’
“Only then did I find through research that the numbers of First Nations, Metis and Inuit kids in the foster system is so huge."
On the lifelong trauma of separating children from families
“The idea of attachment theory for young kids, that the bond that especially toddlers and babies have with parents is extremely foundational to cognitive and emotional development, when that’s ruptured in any way, it can have lifelong effects. That’s part of what shocked me so much about the child separation: even if the kids aren’t being abused when they’re being taken into detention, even if the detention centres are really nice and everyone’s giving them dolls, just by separating them from parents it’s a lifelong potential brain trauma.”
On a better response to real parenting issues
“One quite likely outcome is children have their lives disrupted; kids in foster care end up with really bad outcomes, and the system itself might be punitive. It might be nice if we had a system that was more about helping parents, like if somebody really does have a dysfunctional parenting style, is there a way that you could help them with parenting their child without traumatizing their child forever and breaking up the family.”