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Family Ties: Listening to Native Youth

'Today it still hurts to look back at it. How could they take us away from our mom?' Fourth in a reader-funded series.

By Jacqueline Windh 29 Jul 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Jacqueline Windh is a Tofino writer and photographer, and author of  The Wild Edge: Clayoquot, Long Beach and Barkley Sound and co-author of First Nations and the Pacific Northwest: Change and Tradition (with Alfred Hendricks). This series was made possible by the generosity of those who gave to The Tyee Reporting Fellowships Funds. To find out more about this way to fund excellent, in-depth work by independent journalists, click here.

[Editor's note: This article is fourth in a six-part series on Native youth speaking out about their challenges and their dreams. The 14 young people interviewed for this series are introduced in part one.]

Port Alberni teen Belinda Lucas, now 17, had just turned five when she was first removed from her parents. "It hurt. Today it still hurts to look back at it. How could they take us away from our mom?"

Belinda's parents were drinkers. When she was just four, they didn't come home for a week and a half, leaving Belinda and her seven brothers and sisters in the home alone. But Belinda's grandmother was keeping an eye on things. After a few days, she came to collect Belinda and her siblings. They all crowded into her grandmother's two-bedroom home for two months -- until the authorities found out, and removed the kids.

Six months later the kids were returned to the parents, but when Belinda was six and with her parents' drinking continuing, they were taken away again -- this time for two years.

"It affected me in school, because all I could think of was my mom and dad. I was quiet for two or three years. The teacher was yelling at me, asking what was going on, why I wouldn't talk."

This time, not only was Belinda removed from her parents, but she was separated from most of her siblings. "A couple of sisters were with some people," she recalls, "and some of my brothers lived with someone else near Walmart, and the youngest was with someone in Beaver Creek."

'You get scared'

From ages six through eight, Belinda lived in a foster home. There, she says, the foster parents drank even more than her parents did, and she saw them physically abuse her siblings. "If we didn't finish our dinner they would take off their belt... You get scared, you don't know what they're going to do."

But Belinda was lucky. Her parents could not stop thinking about her and her brothers and sisters. "They weren't themselves when they didn't have us. Finally they had enough, they wanted us back." When Belinda was eight, the whole family went to a treatment centre together; since then, her parents have stopped drinking and the family has been living together.

About 20 per cent of B.C.'s aboriginal youth have spent time in either government care, or living in the home of a relative -- or both. This compares with only about three per cent of the non-aboriginal population. According to the 2006 B.C. Children and Youth Review Final Report by the Hon. Ted Hughes, "an aboriginal child today is 9.5 times more likely to be in care than a non-Aboriginal child, and half the children in care in the province today are Aboriginal."

Why are so many aboriginal children taken away from their families?

Many children are removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse related to substance abuse, as in Belinda's case. Alcoholism and use of illegal drugs in many native communities are a legacy of the residential school system, which forcibly removed native children from their families -- battering their self-esteem and, in countless cases, also resulting in years of physical and sexual abuse of the children.

The children who attended those schools are the parents and grandparents of today, and Hughes does not hesitate in linking past with present: "The sad experience of many who attended these schools has had such an inter-generational effect on children and grandchildren that I have no hesitation in laying a significant portion of responsibility for today's unacceptable level of involvement of Aboriginal families in our child welfare system on the doorstep of that ill-conceived program of years ago."

The impact of poverty

Another influence is poverty, regardless of ethnicity. First Nations families are three times as likely to have incomes below the poverty level as other Canadians. The Hughes study goes on to show that, among low-income groups, Aboriginal families are reported to child protection agencies at the same rate as non-Aboriginal families.

"In other words," Hughes concludes, "the factors that result in child protection cases are closely linked to the social and economic conditions of families and communities."

Removal of children from their families -- even if those families have problems -- has effects numerous and long-lasting. The damage that Belinda counts from her experience is not only emotional, but extends to her performance at school and therefore to her whole future. "My heart was broken. I didn't know what to think, and I never talked. My whole life was taken away and changed."

The consequences of removal of children from their families are felt by our entire society. Of children who have been in care in B.C. at some point in their lives, over one-third find themselves involved with the youth justice system by the age of 17, regardless of race -- compared to just over three per cent of those who have never been in care.

Disappearing options

Once kids embark upon this path, their options quickly start to disappear: only 13 per cent of those involved both with the justice system and in government care graduate from high school. Without a high school certificate, they are less likely to participate in the labour force and thus more likely to face unemployment and then live in poverty -- creating a downward, self-perpetuating spiral that repeats through the generations.

Hughes, in his 2006 report, made a great leap in cross-cultural understanding by recognizing the different, and generally stronger, bonds that exist within native families. "The determination of 'best interests' in the case of an Aboriginal child can challenge all of us to understand and appreciate differing cultural perspectives," he wrote, and he pointed to the great value placed upon family and community relationships by traditional native communities.

"While we have an obligation to attend to the safety and well-being of the individual child, and many have flourished in non-Aboriginal homes, Aboriginal people generally see it as extremely detrimental to a child's best interests to remove children from their communities. These ties would be a much more significant factor, from an Aboriginal perspective, than would economic, educational and other opportunities."

And Hughes refers to the 2001 final report of Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission, which concluded, "In examining these differences, it becomes clear that interpretations of best interests of children are culturally bound, and not universal. Aboriginal views of the best interest of the child, or, for that matter, the views of any culture, can conflict with non-Aboriginal views. Such differences are legitimate and should be respected."

Belinda's experience is a case in point: removal from her birth family by authorities, to a supposedly "safer" environment, has left her damaged. Physical safety does not necessarily have a higher value than emotional health.

Family support works both ways

Family contact, support and acceptance are critical for teens like Becky. Unexpectedly pregnant at 17, Becky had a strong relationship with her boyfriend of three years, Gary. Now, with an infant son, both sets of parents are helping out; the young couple splits their time living with her mother in Opitsaht, and his parents in Ahousaht, allowing Gary to work full time and Becky to focus upon mothering.

The family support works both ways. Squamish teens Bud and LanLan are proud of the role they play in helping to support their family financially by working part-time jobs through school. "Working is a choice we make as kids," says LanLan, "so parents can say, 'This is what my kids do for me.'"

Bud nods. "Even if your friends are sick, we're still always told 'family comes before friends.'"

Pat Lucas agrees, too. He dropped out of grade eight in Port Alberni to return to remote Hot Springs Village to take care of his father, who was recovering following an accident. He points out that he doesn't know how long his dad is going to be around, and that caring for him was the greater priority. "No matter how old you are, you can still go back and get an education. That chance is always there, but your parents might not be."

Strong family ties is a key element of traditional native culture. In the next article in this series, we will look at what value native teens place on other aspects of their traditional culture and language.

Tomorrow: The power of culture.  [Tyee]

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