You might know Reina Foster’s name already. If you follow Indigenous issues in Canada, you soon will.
Currently working full-time as the community Aboriginal recreation activator in her Lac Seul First Nation in northwestern Ontario, 19-year-old Foster has been making headlines for a couple of years now for her activism on behalf of First Nations kids and youth from care. Her essay on the subject, “Reimagining” the Child Welfare System, appeared in the most recent issue of York University’s Journal of Law and Social Policy.
Foster spoke to The Tyee via phone from her home in Ontario about her own time in care, what could have been done to help her family stay together and what needs to happen now to help Indigenous families and communities rebuild.
The Tyee: How old were you when you first went into care?
Reina Foster: I was two years old.
Did you go into care alone or did you go with siblings?
I went with my brother, who was not even a year old yet at the time. We were placed in a town nearby with a non-Indigenous family.
Were you able to maintain contact with your family?
I remember we had visitation, and we were allowed to see them when we were able to. But I remember growing up that every time I would visit, my brother and I would get so sad — not act out but just really show that we miss them a lot.
Did you stay in that nearby community or did you end up going further away?
So this non-Indigenous family, they were our first foster parents. When we were about eight or nine we went back with them. But it was in between those times and after those times that we were placed in our own home community and with people that we knew on our reserve.
Did you stay in care until you were 18?
No. It was on and off, actually. There were times where we were able to get out but there were also times we had to go back in. And it wasn’t until I was about 11 or 12 that we had officially gotten out of care, we lived with our mother.
We spent our teenage years with her, but when I was in Grade 12 my brother and I made the decision to call Tikinagan [Child and Family Services]. He would have been in Grade 9 then.
Why did you make that decision?
I was put in the position where I had to be the motherly figure in my household. I had to take care of my brothers when I shouldn’t have been doing that. And overall we saw that our mother could not take care of us the way we should have been properly taken care of. It was such a heavy burden to take on, to be put in the position of having to take care of my siblings.
How old was your other brother?
He was six. But he was OK, he was [placed] with his father.
Did you feel like there were any other options other than you and your brother going back into care?
At the time I didn’t see that there was any other option. My mental health wasn’t exactly all that good during the times we were in our mother’s care, and I didn’t want that feeling anymore. So my brother and I talked with our father, and he supported our decision to call Tikinagan.
I remember the day that I called them, actually. I was really hesitant at first and I really tried to build up the courage to do so. It was a rather cloudy day and I was at school, so I called them in the afternoon, I talked with one of the directors there and I told her that we needed their help. So we met with them the following week after that and that’s when we were taken into care again.
What kind of placements did you and your brother go into then?
I stayed with an adult figure in my life who isn’t family, I stayed with her family, and my brother went to a group home or something of that sort in our community. I was on independent living.
What was the experience of being back in care like compared to when you were younger?
My brother and I had faced many forms of abuse. We were always placed together in foster homes [as kids], we were never separated, so that built a really strong relationship between us. When I called them, I had lots of mixed emotions because of how we were treated back then, and it reopened some wounds. I was really scared and nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
But when we got in there, we received really great support. We were being taken care of and we were in good placements. My second experience in care, it really brought me a positive outlook on care. I believe that [Tikinagan] Child and Family Services have really good support systems in place in terms of different kinds of services for youth. I think the only bad part about it is some of the things that go on inside foster homes aren’t entirely positive.
Did you age out of the system?
Yes. After I turned 19, which was this past year, that’s when I got off of their services. It was last year that my brother was out of care, but I still stayed on for their financial assistance. I was on my own by then.
I’ve been doing great so far. I am working full-time now, and by the time I turned 19 I knew that I could take care of myself financially with my full-time employment. So it was a mutual understanding, myself and my child-care worker, that I got off the assistance that they helped me with.
What, if anything, could child welfare services or the government have done differently that would have kept you with your mom when you were two?
There’s a really huge call for addictions and wellness programs, like treatment, mental health programs. Also I think funding is a really huge deal... looking back at our old situation, the treatment and mental health resources would have been best I think.
Are those services available to people in your community now?
Yes there is.
Do you think that is making much of a difference in terms of the kids going into care?
That's a yes and no answer. There are more resources out there. We have an Indigenous child-care agency [Tikinagan Child and Family Services]. I don’t know where it came out of but they serve all of northwestern Ontario and all the communities up north. Now that they’re in place I know that they and First Nations chiefs all fight to keep their children in their communities.
Is there anything that you can think of that could have made your time in care better?
At the time I was two, so I do not know. I do know that we were looked after well in terms of clothing, proper health care and safety. But for my time with Tikinagan there were times where I first handedly and second handedly witnessed abuse. More than a decade ago I had watched my younger brother be physically abused, and I couldn’t do anything about it. But being young as we were, I do not recall telling anyone about what happened in that placement. One thing I do recall is feeling powerless and unprotected. So that’s what I mean by first hand and second hand.
That was abuse by the people who are supposed to be taking care of you?
I do know that emotionally our foster parents weren’t all that positive, and it was actually their children that had done the abuse to my brother. They were older than us. I was about maybe six, my brother was about maybe five.
Do you think your foster parents were aware that that was going on?
No, they weren’t.
What would your ideal child and family services system look like for Indigenous people?
If any form of abuse still occurs in child care today, Indigenous children and youth need to know that they have a safe place within the system, that they can trust their foster family, child-care worker, child-care agency. I think that healthy child development is essential in a child-care setting. I think that mental health services, sexual health services, counselling, leadership opportunities, community involvement and cultural needs are very important for Indigenous children who are in child care.
Why are those things in particular important?
Because children and youth struggle a lot with their identity. And in some cases these same Indigenous children and youth are placed in non-Indigenous homes and/or are far from their respective communities. Some children are placed in the group homes in southern Ontario that are a really huge concern. What kind of services and needs are being brought to this child? Are they safe or are they culturally grounded in this particular place where they are at? I think there needs to be a lot of emphasis on the topics I just gave you for our Indigenous children and youth.
What’s something that could be done right now for kids and families who are dealing with this system?
With children and families who are within the system, I think there needs to be more collaboration and involvement to keep their bond strong and alive and well, rather than trying to separate children from their families with no communication or connection at all. There needs to be more collaboration with children, their families and the child-care agencies. So this could be having their family and this child go attend some conferences or some family well-being camps or something of that sort to help them try to overcome what they have been situated with and why their child is in child care. So essentially, if anything, more resources for families and their children.
What gives you hope about the future?
I’m not gonna tell you what gives me hope, I’m going to tell you what I hope comes out of this. [I] really hope we don’t have to keep having these same conversations that have been going on for more than 60 years, and that we do not have to reform or to reimagine child welfare, and that the government can fully be supportive and be involved and that they walk in the same direction as us. And that we do not have to keep having these legal battles or just having the same dialogue that each government has with us.
Note: This story was updated on June 6, 2018 at 2:45 p.m. after receiving additional information from Reina Foster.
Coming Wednesday: In part nine, how one First Nation fought to take control of child welfare — and how it has made a difference.