Globe and Mail

The land of lost children

For most Canadians, the festive season is a time when families
gather and give thanks for their many blessings. But native people
find peace and joy in very short supply, especially now that more
than 20,000 of their youngsters languish in foster homes. How they
got there is no mystery: domestic strife, substance abuse and
non-native adoption's fall from grace. The real issue, MARGARET PHILP
reports, is how to get their lives back on track before it's too late

Saturday, December 21, 2002 – Print Edition, Page F4
The Globe and Mail

Janet Carroll and David Angus were crammed into the unbearable stuffiness of an auditorium crowded, no seat left vacant, with hundreds of couples wanting nothing more than a child.

For hours, they stared glumly at video footage of youngsters across Ontario available for adoption, a sad parade of children with histories of neglect and prenatal exposure to alcohol and drugs that filled the room with a palpable despair.

Then the toothy smile of one sturdy toddler flashed on the screen. The moment Ms. Carroll she caught sight of the boy's chubby cheeks and head of black curls, she was smitten.

She and her husband had turned to adoption after a string of miscarriages. They had considered other children, but none seemed to be as perfect a match as this one -- the son of a young native alcoholic and drug addict who lived on the streets of Toronto.

Not only is Mr. Angus part Mohawk, he and his wife worked for a time for a children's aid society based on the northern reserve where the child's mother has her roots. The reserve is also within driving distance of Thunder Bay, where they now live.

"We have always, as prospective adoptive parents, been committed to letting a child remain a member of the band," Ms. Carroll says. "We would commit to keeping him familiar with his home community."

To the staff at the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, she and Mr. Angus were a rare catch, a couple with native heritage willing to adopt not only a mixed-race child but one showing early signs of delayed development. Social workers courted the couple, shipping the child's records and a long video to Thunder Bay. But the couple tried not get their hopes up; they realized that adopting native children could prove to be a political minefield.

And it did. When the CAS wrote to notify the band about the proposed adoption, social workers with the reserve's child-welfare agency would hear none of it -- even though the boy's mother wasn't born in the community and had never actually lived there. Instead, they looked around for a native family to raise the child, at last finding a 60-year-old woman prepared to open her door.

The CAS staffers were flabbergasted -- never imagining the band would thwart an adoption by a couple with some aboriginal blood. Refusing to place a toddler with someone so old, they urged Ms. Carroll and Mr. Angus to push ahead with the adoption, as no right-minded judge would choose the band's proposed family over them.

The couple wanted the child, but not at the risk of defying his band. In a last-ditch appeal, Mr. Angus drafted a letter to the reserve agency, Weechi-it-te-win Child and Family Services:

"We pledge to you that we will offer [this child] the opportunity to learn about Ojibway legends and stories, art and history," he wrote, imploring band officials "to consider this matter with the utmost of compassion and sensitivity. . . . Janet and I know in our hearts that we have so much to offer [the boy] as his life unfolds. We vow to cultivate his passion for his native roots, and will devote our lives to his security, health and happiness."

Mr. Angus never even received a response.

"The rights of the community have been placed over [the child's] rights," Ms. Carroll would fume months later. "No longer was this about what was best for him."

What is best for the aboriginal children plentiful in Canada's child-welfare system is a thorny question that now divides social workers more than ever.

It has been nearly two decades since the end of the infamous "Sixties Scoop," the era in which roughly 20,000 aboriginal children were plucked from their reserves and adopted by middle-class families across North America with little thought to the culture and sense of identity they would lose.

Right now, about 22,500 aboriginal children are in foster care across the country -- far more than at any one point during the scoop. Natives make up only five per cent of all Canadians under the age of 14 but a hefty 40 per cent of those being raised by foster parents, the vast majority of whom are non-native. And with an aboriginal baby boom in full swing, that figure seems destined to swell. The latest figure is due next month, but even in 1996 fully 35 per cent of the native population was 14 and under.

"I would say it's the Nineties Scoop as well," argues Cindy Blackstock, executive director with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in Ottawa. "I don't really think we're at a place of enlightenment yet in terms of our child-welfare practice."

In fact, she considers the situation an even bigger disaster than the residential-schools fiasco. At its peak, that misguided program removed no more than 8,000 children from their families to be given a Christian education.

The residential schools sent students home in the summer, but few of the children now in foster care will ever return to the dysfunctional families from which they were taken. Fewer still will be adopted. The past clouds native adoption to such a degree that it has almost become a social taboo.

The scoop began in the mid-sixties when Ottawa struck deals with the provinces that for the first time awarded authority on reserves to mainstream child-welfare agencies. Young social workers were shocked to find ramshackle, crowded homes lacking indoor plumbing, an epidemic of alcohol and a style of parenthood so hands-off that it seemed to border on neglect.

The child exodus didn't grind to a halt until 1985. when the outspoken judge leading a Manitoba inquiry into native adoption reported that "cultural genocide has taken place in a systemic and routine manner."

Over the next few years, provinces slapped moratoriums on the practice, first nations agencies sprang up to service reserves, native bands won the right to veto proposed adoptions and the formal adoption of aboriginal children slowed to a trickle.

But the damage had been done. Over the years, many, if not most, of the adoptions have unravelled as the children reached adolescence. Many have landed on the streets; even more have gone off trying to rediscover their roots on the reserve.

Some social scientists blame racism for the breakdown. Others say it is the work of the fetal alcohol syndrome that afflicts so many of the native children stuck in foster care. In any event, "adoption of first nations and Métis kids by non-aboriginal families has been problematic," says Sid Rogers, a Manitoba family-services official. "With absolutely the most incredible best of intentions and the hardest work, it isn't the best choice."

If adoption is not the best choice, what is?

The 125 native child-welfare agencies that have flourished since the scoop were intended to solve the problem, to be an exercise in self-determination that would allow aboriginal social workers to preserve families according to native customs.

But the philosophy has crashed against the hard realities of underfunding and the sheer scope of protecting so many children on reserves plagued by poverty, addiction, violence and sexual abuse.

Native agencies are bound by the same provincial child-welfare laws as their mainstream counterparts, but must survive on far tighter budgets under a strict federal funding formula that takes little account of provincial legislation.

Also, in their struggle to leave a native imprint on child welfare, social workers sometimes seem more interested in cultural ties than in child safety. Youngsters have been placed with relatives or neighbours whose substance abuse rivals that of the parents. They also have been returned to the family fold long before the danger has really passed.

Last summer, a foster mother on the Hobbema reserve in Alberta was charged with manslaughter after the death of a two-year-old girl, one of six children in the woman's care. The child was the seventh to die under the watch of the Kasohkowew Child Wellness Society, and the province suspended the agency's authority on the reserve.

A few months ago, a one-year-old known as Baby Andy nearly died from head injuries on the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan after being returned to his mother.

But even more shocking was a case last year in Shamattawa, a reserve 1,300 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Native child-protection workers took four children away from their mother, leaving one of them, a three-year-old girl, with an aunt who went out drinking and left her on her own. By the time she was found face down in the icy water of the old water-treatment lagoon, the child had been dead for hours.

A bare bulb spills bleached-white light over the bent head of a woman using an oversized marker to jab greasy green-ink smudges on the bingo cards spread across her kitchen table. The monotone of the bingo caller blares from the radio, volume cranked high.

Behind her, the kitchen stove's old oven door hangs open, the glowing coil inside providing heat to the small, drafty house. The woman, let's call her Edna (by law, foster children and their family members cannot be identified in print), grinds her cigarette into an ashtray and reaches a hand into the broiling mouth of the oven to light her next one.

Walter, her common-law husband, sits brooding on the couch. He is blind in one eye, and his ruddy face shows the wear of a lifetime of welfare, alcohol, solvents and boredom.

He wasn't here when the social workers took the little girl and her three siblings from this dreary home with its broken windows and no running water. He was in jail for battering his wife in a drunken rage. Now, six months later, the two wait on this blustery November night for the children to be returned. Except for one, of course.

The eldest daughter bursts through the door trailed by an icy blast of winter air. "Good-bye, Julie," the flush-faced young woman who has been her foster mother for six months calls as she slips away. Julie's real mother lifts her gaze from the bingo cards for a split-second, and her husband breaks his long silence: "It sure feels good to get the kids back."

"We were supposed to get them three weeks ago," Edna grumbles, "but we were still drinking."

"I'm gonna give it all of my power to quit drinking," Walter promises, but admits, "It's gonna be hard for me."

Hard because he has been drinking bootleg alcohol and sniffing gasoline-soaked rags since childhood. Harder still because he is still in mourning.

The little girl's death became the talk of the reserve. In a tight-knit community of about 800 where one person in three is named Redhead, everyone knew the girl. Police laid a charge of child abandonment against the aunt (she's due to return to court Jan. 16), but accusing eyes also turned to the agency that had entrusted her with the tot.

"I was a little pissed off at Awasis," Walter says with a shrug. "They didn't even apologize."

For a decade, Awasis Agency of Northern Manitoba has struggled in Shamattawa and other reserves along the mighty rivers that drain into Hudson Bay to repair the damage done by the scoop. Rather than ship neglected and abused children to distant white homes, Awasis workers scour the reserve for upstanding relatives and neighbours who can fit another child into their cramped houses.

Even in Manitoba, where an unprecedented restructuring of the child-welfare system will see aboriginal people control three of four child-welfare authorities, native children occupy the majority of foster homes but are the minority of children adopted.

Native children account for 21 per cent of Manitoba's child population, but fully 84 per cent of the children in permanent care. Few are adopted: Only 38 of the 88 children placed across the province last year. Under the revamped child-welfare system, there will be fewer still.

Manitoba is hardly alone in this regard:

Last year in Saskatchewan, only five aboriginal children were adopted -- three by non-native families -- even though they account for about 72 per cent of all foster children. Most are assigned a legal status invented a decade ago to appease native leaders that disqualifies them from adoption.

In Alberta, social workers can place a native child for adoption only with a band's written consent. Last year, just 11 of the 216 foster children adopted were status Indians even though they accounted for close to 60 per cent of the children in permanent care.

Just to search for a non-native home for an aboriginal child, B.C. social workers must apply to an "exceptions committee" and guarantee that the family will nurture the child's heritage. Only 75 of the 508 children registered last year were adopted.

Ontario keeps no official record of how many native children are adopted by non-natives, but George Simard considers all such adoptions tainted.

He is executive director of Weechi-it-te-win Family Services in Wabaseemoong, the home reserve in Northwestern Ontario of the toddler Janet Carroll and David Angus wanted so badly.

Whitedog, as it is known in English, is a place of rustic beauty and spiritual decay. Although not exactly remote (Kenora is only 60 kilometres away), the reserve is plagued, like Shamattawa, by lacquer-thinner sniffing and alcoholism. It is rare to walk from one end to the other without passing someone staggering down the road.

The battle with the bottle goes back generations. Sexual abuse haunts the place, and it has been rocked in recent years by a spate of teenage suicides. The band has long fought a lucrative traffic in lacquer-thinner -- the dip of a rag fetches $10 -- so rampant that last year's council election is now under federal review. Some of the winning campaigns, it is alleged, were financed by the thinner trade.

For recent years, more than 100 of Whitedog's children have been placed in outside foster homes by the very native agencies intended to stop the bleeding of young people. "We had our own people doing that to us," says Eric Fisher, a former chief. "So it went from a white face to a brown face that was taking the children out."

At one point, 118 youngsters (about one in four) had been removed, such a drop in the school-age population that reserve teachers had to be laid off.

Then, at Mr. Fisher's invitation, Weechi-it-te-win became Whitedog's fifth native child-welfare agency in a decade, and Mr. Simard began to bring children back from Kenora and Dryden as quickly as he could. Within six months, he had retrieved 18.

Weechi-it-te-win swept in with a philosophy that Whitedog could never return to health devoid of children -- that youngsters raised in flawed homes within their culture will turn out better than those raised in stable homes elsewhere.

"From an aboriginal viewpoint, it takes a community to raise a child," Mr. Simard explains. "So, when you begin to develop your programming to empower that and draw the circles that lend credence to that, then you begin to appreciate why we posture the way we do."

In one of the little houses that dot the hillsides of Whitedog, Mary stands at the stove, thick grey hair swept back into a long ponytail, frying bacon for her grandson's birthday meal. For all but a few months of his 12 years, Andy has lived under the watch of social workers. Only since Weechi-it-te-win arrived have he and his seven-year-old sister returned to their grandparents.

"We stopped drinking two months ago," Mary's husband Peter says, "but we were drinking when the kids were brought back."

A jovial man, with ruddy cheeks and a mop of grizzled hair, he sits back, belly protruding, on his couch beneath a wall covered in framed photographs of his six children and countless grandchildren. The curl of a smile never leaves his mouth, even as he sits grumbling about the hooligans who slashed two of his tires the night before.

This house has known despair. As well as the drunken brawls and children taken in the night, one of the couple's five daughters hung herself at 21 on the hill out back. She had returned home drunk and in a rage, banging on the door her father had locked in fear. One of her four children still lives here. Another recently left for treatment for her solvent addiction.

Andy was six months old when his 19-year-old mother first left him alone in the house while she went out drinking. Before he took his first few wobbly steps, social workers had seized him four more times. Each time, he was returned as soon as his mother had sobered up.

Later, she tried to hang herself like her sister had. She wanted to quit drinking, but living in her parents' home surrounded by alcohol made sobriety impossible. When she returned from the hospital, she opened the door to find everyone drunk.

And so it went. The children bounced back and forth between their mother and their grandparents, who sometimes reported themselves to the authorities. "We told them to keep the kids when we were drinking," Mary recalls.

Finally, a neighbour discovered Andy's sister, then 3, sitting out in the snow. She had a wet bottom and hands flaming red from the cold -- but no mitts, no hat, no snowpants and no idea where her grandparents were.

Social workers placed the children in an emergency home on the reserve. But then Peter was found drunkenly driving around with the little girl in the back seat not buckled up. He went to jail and the children went to live in Kenora.

"That first year they took the kids, holy smokes, it was hard for us," Peter now says. "We had nowhere to go to get help. I went all over the place to get my grandkids back. To shaking tents and sweat lodges and all that. And it didn't help."

Social workers applied for a court order that would turn the children into Crown wards with access to their mother and grandparents only so long as they remain sober. But then Weechi-it-te-win appeared on the scene, and "I got 'em back," Peter growls, gleefully punching his fist into the palm of his hand. "Oh gee, I didn't believe my eyes. I wanted them. I really wanted them."

"They're losing the language when they're out of the community," his wife adds through a translator. "What we're going to teach them when they grow up is not what they get when they're in a foster home."

Mr. Simard knows the family's situation isn't ideal. "Yes, they might be recent alcoholics," he says. "Whether their sobriety continues or not remains to be seen. But from those children's perspective, it's their blood relatives. Where do you think their choice is going to be?"

A larger question is whether anything be done to rid Whitedog of its addictions. Not unless there's enough of an economic incentive, says one veteran band councillor.

Eli Carpenter, the council member responsible for child welfare, says too many jobs on the welfare-dependent reserve -- police officers, lawyers, judges, prison guards, foster parents and child-protection workers -- stem from the battle against addiction.

"If you shut off lacquer and liquor," he says, "what are these guys going to do? This is why it's never cut off, because these guys have to survive."

On a clear wintery afternoon in northern Manitoba, the snow is powder-dry and squeaks beneath boots trudging along a road carved with snowmobile tracks.

On the small wooden porch of one house, teenagers huddle against the chill, giggling deliriously. When they spot strangers walking by, they shriek and scatter like ants exposed. No sign of the plastic bags and sodden rags that have fuelled all the hysteria.

Here in Shamattawa, gasoline is the substance of choice, and this house is known as headquarters for shiftless teen sniffers. The father, once a hard-core sniffer himself, works in the band office and turns a blind eye to both his wife's drinking and his children's solvent addiction. At times like this, when he is away at a conference in Winnipeg, the place churns with self-destruction.

"There are parents living in that house, and it boggles my mind," Jennifer Thomas says, shaking her head. She sits at her desk in the drop-in centre she started 18 months ago after returning from far-off Winnipeg.

She can see the house from her office window, and she fumes at the first-hand evidence of what inspired her to turn a derelict community hall into a drug-free hangout with old pool tables, second-hand arcades, chocolate bars and potato chips for sale. (The Jesus music blaring over mounted speakers serves as a reminder of the Christianity that runs like a spine through the reserve.)

The centre is named in honour of Leonard Miles, a teenager who suffocated in the plastic bag that held his solvent-soaked rag, and the kids from across the street used to drop by. One of the daughters assaulted another girl and was sentenced to scrub the walls and mop floors, but kept dropping in for while even after the punishment ended. Miss Thomas was thrilled, especially when her older brother showed up too. But then they stopped, and despite her entreaties, have never come back.

Still, the centre shines like a beacon of hope. It is here that Percy Redhead mops the floor at closing time every night before trudging out into the blistering cold to patrol the roads for solvent sniffers. And it is here that Sheri Schweder works for next to nothing, selling pop and candy.

Today, she is behind the counter as a crush of giggling pre-adolescent girls surveys the inventory. Some of the faces betray the telltale flattened features and wide-set eyes associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. One girl, a month shy of turning 12, has been in foster care in Ms. Schweder's home. Once, she arrived wide-eyed with fright after a party at her initial foster home degenerated into a fistfight.

"Me and my husband, we don't drink," Ms. Schweder explains. "But there are a lot of foster parents here that I know of that drink. That drink a lot."

Even so, this girl couldn't stay. Her real mother started hanging around the house, which unsettled her, but then she started ignoring her foster mother and giving her a hard time -- and she resumed sniffing gas. "She was acting up, saying horrible things to her mother," Ms. Schweder recalls. "I had to let her go. I didn't want my kids to hear that or to see her talking to her mother like that. Then they think that can do that to me."

The girls dash away from the counter, clutching bags of chips, but a few moments later the one in question returns. "Sheri," she blurts out in Cree. "Would you take me back? I'll start listening."

Ms. Schweder smiles reluctantly, draws a long breath and finally says, "Yes, I'll take you back."

She and her husband became foster parents as soon as she was old enough. At 18, she had a year-old son of her own, and all around her, children were being shipped out to Thompson or neighbouring reserves -- and she wanted to open her door to babies whose parents were in no shape to take proper care of them.

She has wound up caring for a procession of children -- for six months, Edna's daughter Julie was one of them -- many whose thinking and judgment have been impaired by FAS. This makes them less resistant to pressure from their peers to sniff gas in the bush.

The more of these children she welcomes, the more guilt she feels when she and her husband talk about leaving Shamattawa. He wants to join the army and build a career. And, as their own children grow, they fret about the addiction and dysfunction they themselves had to endure as adolescents on the reserve. "It's hard to leave," she squirms, "especially with all the kids. I worry they won't have a proper foster home."

And Jennifer Thomas is also thinking about leaving again. She has grown weary under the constant onslaught of drinking and sniffing -- and Shamattawa's newest addiction: the bingo games introduced to the reserve's radio station a few years ago in the fight against substance abuse.

If a community's sober and dynamic adults have lost hope, what chance do its children have?

Amid all the gloom, there are rays of hope. On a reserve a world away from the despair of Whitedog and Shamattawa, aboriginal children removed from troubled families are being legally adopted by first nations families.

Two years ago, history was made when a judge from Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench drove hundreds of kilometres to the Enoch reserve north of Edmonton to grant the final adoption orders for three former foster children. The ceremony was done with none of the courtroom's usual dourness. Instead, it was a blend of native and mainstream customs, with the chiefs and elders and burning sweetgrass of aboriginal tradition mixed with the staid courtroom formalities of granting an adoption with legal clout.

For three years, Alberta has paid an aboriginal child-welfare agency called Yellowhead Tribal Services Agency to broker "customary adoptions," which follow native traditions but straddle the mainstream and aboriginal worlds. In all, the agency has matched 31 children with relatives, neighbours or families on nearby reserves in open adoptions that, wherever possible, preserve links with the biological family.

Leaders on the five reserves served by Yellowhead started out trying to halt adoption. Like everywhere else, they were fearful over losing their children to the outside world, but then it dawned on social workers that no one would be opposed to adoption if it could be done according to native tradition.

Some families had been adopting the old way, but found that such an informal arrangement wasn't being recognized off the reserve. Lie would be a lot easier if they actually had a piece of paper that awarded them the full rights of parenthood -- from changing the children's names to registering them for school.

"We had to accommodate something of the non-native way," says Linda Borle, program supervisor and adoption co-ordinator at Yellowhead. "It has provided security for our families. It has opened the doors so that our agency can provide more than protection.

"And it has also opened the door that adoption is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. That what we're doing is providing first nations families and first nations children with their culture, their identity, their communities, and if not their communities, other first nations families. And to me, that's the ultimate. It's the best of the best."

It's also about to end. Funding for what's called "customary adoption" dries up at the end of this month, and with it will end one of the rare success stories in native child welfare.

"We were told quite clearly that the province couldn't commit any more funding," says Carolyn Peacock, executive director of the program. "The funding formula that we receive for providing child-protection services is not even close for us to provide comparable adoption services to the province."

So the Alberta native agency will go back to having enough money to take children out of bad homes but not nearly enough to place them in good ones.

This, of course, is the story across the nation. Native agencies are not funded either for adoption services or to work toward preventing the child abuse and neglect that brings the social workers knocking in the first place.

But even if they were, there are not enough aboriginal families to cope with all the native children currently snagged in the foster-care system. Is there still a place, then, for families in mainstream society who willing to preserve a child's cultural ties?

Back in Thunder Bay, Janet Carroll and David Angus bask in the glow of new parenthood. It has been six months since their adoption finally came through.

The new addition isn't a boy. Rather, she is a 14-month-old toddler named Chance found through the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto. She is also black, not native, although she shares with her adoptive father a congenital defect: a missing hand and forearm, in her case the apparent result of exposure to cocaine while still in the womb.

But the little boy tied to Whitedog is no longer looking for parents. When the reserve dashed their hopes for Thunder Bay, social workers in Toronto scrambled to find fresh candidates. A couple in Hamilton was smitten but backed away when their lawyer warned against wading into the thorny thicket of native adoption.

Finally, a home was found right in Toronto, and CAS director of adoptions Nancy Dale reports that he is thriving. But the mother is single, has no native blood and lives in constant fear that Whitedog will try to unravel the adoption before it is finalized in court.

How does Janet Carroll feel about the way things turned out? She dotes on her daughter and will always wonder about the little boy too native to be raised by her and her husband.

"Chance is beautiful," she concedes. "I'm her mother, so of course I'm saying this. She stops traffic, she's so beautiful. I couldn't imagine another ending to this."

Margaret Philp reports on social policy for The Globe and Mail and Patti Gower is a staff photographer. Both have won National Newspaper Awards and they recently completed a joint Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy during which they examined the state of adoption in Canada.

Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.