Sarah Thomas believes she wouldn’t have been able to keep her three nieces if she had called the Ministry of Children and Family Development when her sister went missing in February 2010.
Instead, when Thomas discovered her sister had left her 18-year-old daughter to care for her three younger sisters, ages three to 12, two weeks earlier, Thomas phoned her aunt, a member of the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation band council.
“Because my aunt was on council I contacted her, and she said, ‘let me get back to you because we can take care of it. Don’t call the ministry down there,’” said Thomas. Both she and her sister lived in Surrey at the time, and Thomas still lives there.
As previously covered in this series, almost all First Nations in Canada are under the child welfare jurisdiction of the provinces and territories they live in. More than half of the children in care in this country are Indigenous, a number that rises to roughly two-thirds of kids in B.C. government care.
However since 1980 the Splatsin have been the only Indigenous community in Canada with jurisdiction over their own child welfare services.
Instead of the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development taking responsibility for services and supports, the band provides these services, including taking kids into care, for band members on and off reserve through Splatsin Stsmamlt Services.
At the time Thomas’s sister disappeared, however, the ministry was contesting the band’s jurisdiction over members living off reserve, despite agreeing to it back in 1980.
Despite being related to a band council member, it wasn’t easy for Thomas to take over her nieces’ care. A single mom, she already had six kids of her own under the roof of her five-bedroom home, ranging from four to 17. And two of her four nieces had complicated special needs requiring almost constant adult supervision.
Thomas had to prove to the band, located nearly 450 kilometres away near Enderby, B.C., that she could take care of such a large family. This included sending the band her resumé and evidence of training in working with youth in and from care she had completed to work at Aunt Leah’s Place and the Ministry of Children and Family Development. She also had to consent to a home inspection by a Splatsin social worker who travelled down to meet her and the children, and a criminal record check.
“I had to go up against chief and council because they didn’t think I was able to take care of 10 kids on my own,” Thomas said.
“I explained to them that I pretty much was taking care of my sister’s kids before anyway, and if you look at it historically, a lot of our elders on the reserve had 17 kids, and if you would have let them parent their children, there wouldn’t be so much dysfunction in the world.”
Chief Wayne Christian of the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation band agrees that the community knows best about taking care of their own. Unlike the ministry, he said, their child protection social work model focuses primarily on keeping families together, instead of taking kids into permanent care.
“Their system is around apprehension and protection, and for them it’s about liability. They’re always trying to mitigate liability for their workers, for the ministry, and for the province, and I think that’s why they do some of the things that they do. But they still get themselves into trouble because they just don’t seem to be able to operate — in such a large process it’s hard to change your thinking,” he said.
Splatsin Stsmamlt Services works with entire families if necessary, sometimes bringing those who have moved away back to the community for things like parenting classes and addictions treatment.
Both the provincial and Splatsin child welfare programs are concerned with the best interests of the child, Christian said. The difference is the Splatsin believe a child’s best interests are served by providing supports for the family to stay together.
“It’s really about jurisdiction based on your own laws and your own traditions, culture and history,” Christian said. “It’s going to work because we’ve had those in place for thousands of years before they imposed white law on us.”
Life with 10 children
The band and council eventually agreed Thomas should care for her three nieces, providing $1,000 per month per child for their care, including clothes, food, rent, transportation and any extras. The children’s child tax benefits were put in a trust for them to access when they turned 19.
“I ended up having to take off five years of employment because the kids were so high needs,” Thomas said.
The $3,000 per month was a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of taking care of nine underage kids.
But if Thomas had opted to call the ministry instead of her band, she says she would have received a fraction of that amount — just $250 per child. The province’s Child in the Home of a Relative program, administered by the Ministry of Social Development for caregivers who voluntarily and temporarily take in minor relatives at their parents’ request, would have provided $257.46 per month for Thomas’s three-year-old niece, $314.31 for her 11-year-old niece and $357.82 for her 12-year-old niece. She would have also received federal and provincial child tax benefits.
Enrolment in that program was capped in March 2010, but caregivers taking in relatives because of child protection concerns could receive funding through the Extended Family Program run through MCFD, which provides from $554.27 to $625 per child depending on their age, in addition to the children’s tax credits and eligibility for additional payments to help with back-to-school, Christmas and health-care costs.
Thomas’s sister did reappear, but Thomas says she “gave up” on getting her children back. While it was difficult to care for 10 kids as a single mom, Thomas says the support she receives from Splatsin Stsmamlt Services social and youth resource workers made it work.
“Throughout the eight years that I’ve had the kids it’s only been two social workers, which has been amazing, and the team leader has always been there, never changed, and also the [youth resource worker] hasn’t changed,” said Thomas, adding the workers have all made the 450-kilometre trip to visit her Surrey home in the past eight years.
“I can phone any one of them because they know what’s going on, and the support has been amazing. I would never ask for anything different.”
The social workers have been available to the girls, too, said Thomas’s niece Stephanie Strong, staying in contact through email, text and phone, as well as home visits.
“She said we could contact her whenever,” said Strong, adding she knows she could contact her social worker still today, even though she’s 19 now.
Lower caseload, more varied work
Deb Pepper has been a child welfare social worker for three years, two with the ministry and one with Splatsin Stsmamlt Services where she currently works. It’s difficult to compare her work at MCFD and Splatsin, she says. Her caseload today is roughly half what it was when she did guardianship work with the ministry, which made her responsible for the planning and supervision of kids in government care, but her job with Splatsin is much more varied.
“I do a lot of guardianship work for the kids that have been in care quite long term. But then we also do all sorts of things off the side of our desk,” she said, adding she sometimes sees kids and their birth parents once a week, more often than she did while working with MCFD.
“I got the opportunity to do a funding proposal and run a cultural event. The positions are quite fluid and creative.”
Pepper doesn’t only keep in contact with the kids. She maintains relationships with their birth parents, keeping separate files on both the kids and the parents, because with Splatsin there is no equivalent to the ministry’s Continuing Custody Orders which sees children taken permanently into care.
Instead of going to court to talk about custody, parents come before the chief and council, who often know the family well.
“We do not ever see that the parents do not have an opportunity to work towards reunification, that is always on options that’s on the table,” she said. “Even if kids have been in care for 10 years — because people can make changes in their lives and that’s really supported by the bylaw and by practice.”
Even if parents never regain custody, Splatsin focuses on maintaining contact between the kids and their birth parents and arranging visits if the kids want it and their parents are able to handle it, as well as keeping kids connected to siblings and cousins.
“I think research would show that when kids age out, they’re going to generally want to make a connection with their parents, regardless of what their relationship looked like, and they’re always going to have a relationship with their parents. So fostering that along the way, I just think, is a really healthy thing,” Pepper said.
“Even by being connected to their parents, that’s connection to their culture in and of itself. We try really hard to keep them connected to the community and to cultural events.”
This includes summer culture camps for kids in care, including help with travel costs for kids living outside the region to attend camps. When Thomas’s nieces attended the two-week camps, the agency even provided respite money for Thomas’s cousin who hosts the girls.
It’s important that all youth in care feel connected to their culture and their community, band Chief Christian said.
“They don’t necessarily have to go back right away, but they need that ‘you’re from here, and these are your people,’” he said.
“And I think once they get an understanding that they belong somewhere, that they actually are connected to a people, to a family, to a nation, that that starts a healing process for them as children. And as they evolve into teenagers and then to adults, they’ll make their own connections and find their own way back.”
Helping the transition out of care
Unlike the Ministry of Children and Family Development, which cuts off services for youth in care on their 19th birthday unless they are eligible for extended support programs, youth in the care of Splatsin Stsmamlt Services go through an extended “aging out” process, Christian said.
“We actually have a two-year process to reintegrate them as adults. You just don’t kick a child out — just because they turn a certain age doesn’t mean they’re mature,” he said. Splatsin Stsmamlt Services offers mentorship opportunities, helps youth get into post-secondary education and even assists with purchasing their first home if that’s what they want.
“I think the children coming out of care in our system know who they are, who their relatives are, and have a better sense of that and are able to connect with their own people, can do what they need to do for themselves,” Christian said.
“That’s the biggest difference in the two systems: in the provincial system you see that going on with the Sixties Scoop, and the adoptees who are returning to their community, they don’t know who they are, they don’t know their family, they feel like foreigners in their own land.”
Pepper hasn’t yet had a youth in her care age out of the system, but says she’s already started preparations for the 16- and 17-year-olds she works with, which is similar to MCFD protocol — although it doesn’t always happen in ministry practice.
Today, Thomas’s three oldest nieces have moved out on their own, with help from Splatsin to ensure there were no gaps between the end of their child welfare services and the beginning of services like Community Living BC, which one of her nieces receives.
Strong is the most recent to leave, moving out earlier this month to live with Thomas’s oldest daughter, just down the street from her aunt’s home. She turned 19 six months ago, the age the ministry would cut off supports.
“I would never do that to my nieces,” Thomas said.
Coming Monday: in part 11, Dylan Cohen talks about his time in care — and what needs to change.