Change needed after funny, smart Indigenous girl died on 17th birthday: report

Death of Indigenous teen in foster care reminiscent of the fates suffered by residential school students, Children’s Representative says in new report

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Skye’s life began as a mischievous, funny, inquisitive girl who loved fishing and being in nature; it ended years after she was ripped from her Indigenous family and put into foster care, with a fatal overdose on her 17th birthday in 2017.

“She was spunky, outgoing and vivacious, with a zest for life — a child who bubbled with energy. … Skye also struggled with anger rooted in the trauma she experienced as a child,” Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth says in her newest report, Skye’s Legacy: A Focus on Belonging.

“Skye always seemed like she was a hundred years old, even as a little girl. She had a very funny, playful side to her. But she just always seemed like she’d lived a really hard life … She just seemed worn down, like kind of old before her years,” a former social worker told Charlesworth.

The colonialism that led to generations of Indigenous youth being forced into residential schools still influences child protection decisions today, the report says. “(Skye) became part of what many have described as the modern-day residential school: the child welfare system,” Charlesworth told reporters Thursday.

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Skye Crassweller.
Skye Crassweller.

Skye, a member of the Teetlit Gwich’in band in the Northwest Territories, was removed from her family and Dene culture at age five and forced into a traumatic life, a similar fate to the estimated 215 children whose remains have been discovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School.

“They are different chapters of the same continuing saga — the story of colonialism and the devastating damage it has done, and continues to do, to First Nations, Métis, Inuit and Urban Indigenous children, families and communities,” says the report, released today.

Indigenous children make up more than two thirds of kids in care, but represent just 10 per cent of the provincial population.

Skye Crassweller with her mother Marnie.
Skye Crassweller with her mother Marnie.

Skye’s own mother was removed from her family as an infant as part of the Sixties Scoop, and placed with abusive non-Indigenous adoptive parents, which led to mental health and substance abuse challenges.

With Skye, social workers pursued three unsuccessful adoption attempts, rather than trying harder to keep her connected to family, community and culture — such as by supporting a return to her mother, or placing her with relatives, or letting her stay with a “nurturing” Indigenous foster family, the report says.

“During her nearly 12 years in care, Skye was moved 15 times, lived in eight different foster homes, attended eight schools and had 18 different social workers,” Charlesworth wrote. “Skye wasn’t able to realize the sense of belonging that all humans need and seek.”

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Skye Crassweller.
Skye Crassweller.

While many improvements have been made to the child welfare system since Skye’s birth 20 years ago, the representative continues to see families dismantled because of perceived poor parenting, rather than addressing their vulnerabilities caused by trauma, racism or poverty.

On Thursday, Children and Family Development Minister Mitzi Dean promised, without specifics, to follow through with one of the report’s three recommendations: that all staff read the document to improve care plans for youth. Another recommendation was for a “substantive investment of new resources” by April 2022 to better promote a sense of belonging in First Nations youth; Dean said that request must be discussed in the context of the next provincial budget, but added improving the child protection system has been a priority for her government.

Since being elected in 2017, the NDP has reduced the priority on adoption when it’s not right for some youth and tried to keep more children with extended families, Dean said. “We also know that there is much more to be done to support Indigenous children, youth and families,” she added.

Skye’s mother, Marnie Crassweller, lived for years in supported housing run by the Atira Women’s Resource Society, and became friends with CEO Janice Abbott.

“She was wicked smart, she was articulate, she had just an infectious laugh,” Abbott told Postmedia in 2020. “Marnie never, ever really was able to deal with the trauma of losing Skye. … The system failed Marnie and it failed Skye.”

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Crassweller fatally overdosed in November 2016, and her daughter suffered the same accidental death nine months later, on Aug. 11, 2017, her 17th birthday.

Skye Crassweller with her mother Marnie.
Skye Crassweller with her mother Marnie.

When Skye’s mother, a talented artist, was unable to care for her young daughter, she asked social workers to place her with a Métis friend who was raising Skye’s older sister. But after two years of lifting Skye’s hopes, that plan fell apart, as did two other failed adoption attempts.

Throughout this fractious process, Skye’s trusted relationships with a counsellor and Indigenous foster parents were inexplicably severed, and the Teetlit Gwich’in unsuccessfully asked for adoption to be paused until a band member could be found to take her in, Charlesworth wrote.

Crassweller asked social workers many times to see her daughter, and records indicate Skye wanted to visit her mom, but they never saw each other again after Skye was taken away at age five. “I have always had you in my heart. And I have spent time every day since I last saw you, crying for you,” Crassweller wrote in one letter to Skye.

Skye Crassweller.
Skye Crassweller.

By Grade 8, Skye was skipping school, drinking and cutting herself. She ran away from her foster home, and was in an “exploitive” relationship with an older man. She threatened suicide.

The report documents efforts by social workers to try to connect Skye to help and housing. One sent a note to Skye’s mother, saying her daughter “is desperately seeking a sense of belonging.”

Skye, like all children, just wanted to belong to someone, to belong somewhere. But our child welfare, education and justice systems often “unbelong” children in crisis — removing them from their families, suspending them from school, detaining them in hospitals or youth jails. That, the report urges, must stop.

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Skye Crassweller.
Skye Crassweller.

A youth outreach worker who bonded with Skye at the age of 15, wrote in her notes that Skye was empathetic and had incredible “intelligence and insight” about family, trauma and addictions, and thought she would “make an amazing social worker one day.”

By the fall of 2016, Skye enrolled in an alternative high school, where she made good friends and listed her goals as graduating, getting a job, and “being happy without using drugs.” But those hopes were dashed later that fall by the death of her mother, which caused a grieving Skye to increase her drug use again, the report says.

Skye Crassweller.
Skye Crassweller.

“Both could have had better lives, might have had a lasting relationship with one another and might have had different fates, had they been better supported to deal with past traumas,” Charlesworth said Thursday.

lculbert@postmedia.com

Marnie Crassweller and her 17-year-old daughter Skye Crassweller died nine months apart of overdoses.
Marnie Crassweller and her 17-year-old daughter Skye Crassweller died nine months apart of overdoses. jpg

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