A lot can change in seven years. In 2014, the Representative for Children and Youth’s office released two reports criticizing the Ministry of Children and Family Development for failing to find “forever families” for up to 1,000 children in care eligible for a legal adoption.
But yet another death of an Indigenous youth in care was the basis for a new report Thursday from the independent watchdog’s office that found the drive for legal adoptions can have deadly consequences.
The report, “Skye’s Legacy: A focus on belonging,” tells the story of Skye, a member of the Teetl’it Gwich'in Band of the Dene First Nation who was in ministry care when she died from an accidental overdose on her 17th birthday in August 2017. Skye entered foster care at age three and was removed permanently from her mother two years later.
The report found the ministry’s singular focus on securing a legal adoption for Skye, at the expense of her relationships with her birth family, family friends and even her long-term counsellor, resulted in three failed adoption attempts before her 12th birthday.
Placed in eight different foster homes with 18 different social workers in her short life, Skye’s nearly 12 years in care were marked by tumult and upheaval.
After reconnecting with her birth sister briefly at seven, Skye would never again be allowed the opportunity to connect with her biological family during her time in care. That included connection with her mother, who spent years trying to reconnect with Skye before her own death from a suspected overdose in 2016.
Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth says she sees a lot of parallels between Skye’s story and the lives of the 215 children whose remains were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School two weeks ago.
“She, too, was removed from her mother, sister, extended family and culture as she became part of what many have described as the modern-day residential school: the child welfare system,” Charlesworth said.
The report found pressure from the ministry and the representative’s office to find legal adoptions for children like Skye meant that adoption took precedence over the children’s need to feel like they belonged in their culture, school, community and family.
“The cumulative result was that Skye wasn’t able to realize a true sense of belonging that humans need and seek,” Charlesworth said. “She seemed to be constantly searching for identity and meaningful connections throughout her short life.”
Changes have been made to how adoptions work within the ministry since Skye’s death, which occurred the same year the BC NDP formed government.
The ministry is moving away from seeking adoption for Indigenous children and aiming for more informal kinship placements within communities, nations or extended families, consistent with Indigenous child welfare practices. This year’s provincial budget invested an additional $13 million into Indigenous kinship placements.
“I custom adopted my grandson,” said Chief Wanda Pascal of the Teetl’it Gwich'in Band, who opened the Representative for Children and Youth’s press conference Thursday morning.
Teetl’it Gwich'in means “people of the headwaters,” and their community is located in what is now known as Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories.
“Back in the day, they used to just give their kids to family to raise their children, and that’s basically what I’m doing,” said Pascal, who was raised by her grandparents on the land. “That’s the way I’m raising my children and trying to do more programs for my community.”
In a press conference Thursday, Mitzi Dean, the children and families minister, said her ministry has increased the early involvement of Indigenous communities in care planning for children.
Dean said the ministry is also supporting Indigenous communities in taking back child welfare jurisdiction from settler governments and is committed to “adopting and influencing the federal legislation, titled An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.”
The legislation came into effect in January 2020, but Indigenous communities and advocates have criticized the federal government for not yet announcing funding to help Indigenous people establish and operate their own child welfare systems.
However, as much as things have changed, Charlesworth says her office still encounters young people like Skye, harmed by a push towards legal adoption at the expense of their connection to family, community and culture.
That’s why the report recommends the government immediately increase investment in maintaining cultural and birth family connections for all children in care, and identify the funding needed to provide these supports.
The report also calls for a ministry review and revision of case management and care-planning practices, policies and resources to support the multiple ways of belonging highlighted in the report.
Finally, the representative wants all staff in the ministry who work with and plan for kids and youth in care to read the report and apply a critical lens to their own practices.
“In using Skye’s story, her legacy, as a teaching tool, as part of a discussion about practice, that can start to shift practice right now,” Charlesworth said.
Deadlines for implementing the recommendations range from August to April 2023.
Dean committed to implementing all three recommendations, telling reporters she has already instructed staff to begin working towards them.
The report will be used as part of ongoing staff training, and Dean added she also encourages ministry partners, including Delegated Aboriginal Agencies which deliver child welfare services to some Indigenous children in care, to read it.
While the representative’s report doesn’t shy away from detailing Skye’s struggles with anger, addiction and mental illness, it also uses interviews with her loved ones and former caregivers and social workers to emphasize how vivacious, intelligent and loving she was.
Including the positive parts of Skye’s life is part of a different approach the representative’s office now takes on its reports, especially those dealing with Indigenous children in care, who make up 67 per cent of the 5,370 kids and youth currently in provincial care as of December.
“It was important for us to tell her story in a good and respectful way,” Charlesworth said, noting the investigation team that researched and presented Skye’s story was led by Indigenous staff members of her office.
The representative’s office also created a circle of advisors of Indigenous academics, advocates, community practitioners and researchers who reviewed the report and its findings, telling the office the child welfare system must move away from the western idea of “permanency” through legal adoption and more towards “Indigenous concepts of belonging.”
“The research methodology used by the team has been significantly influenced by an Indigenous worldview in which it is understood that there are multiple stories, perspectives and truths that are relevant to any situation being considered,” Charlesworth said.
“And that these diverse stories and perspectives contribute to a more wholesome and holistic understanding of this child, and her family and the people connected to her and the situations that they all faced.”