Daphne Bramham: Indigenous children continue to be failed in government ‘care’

All these years later, the story of Skye and her mother are proof that so much is still broken, writes Daphne Bramham

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Skye Crassweller was as much a victim of a colonial system as the thousands of Indigenous children who were forced into residential schools or scooped up in the 1960s and adopted by non-Indigenous families.

She was born in 2000, two years after the last residential school had closed. Her story, told in latest report from the B.C. representative for children and youth, tracks the effects of intergenerational trauma and how the child protection service continues to fail Indigenous children.

Skye’s mother had been part of the Sixties scoop, taken from her Dene home in the Northwest Territories and adopted into an abusive, non-Indigenous family, which led to her lifelong struggle with addiction.

When Skye was five, Marnie Crassweller voluntarily put her into temporary care while she dealt with her addiction. She never saw her daughter again.

Skye died on her 17th birthday, less than a year after 49-year-old Marnie had also overdosed and died in one of Atira’s supportive housing units on Vancouver’s downtown eastside.


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Nearly three decades ago, Thomas Gove’s inquiry into the tragic death of Matthew Vaudreuil recommended a sweeping redesign of the child-protection system.

All these years later, the story of Skye and her mother are proof that so much is still broken.

There’s the ever-shifting definition of what the “best interests of the child” means. There’s the lack of resources to support the substantial needs of both floundering parents or their vulnerable children including keeping them connected.

And, there’s a substantial gap between the number of Indigenous families willing to be foster parents and the number of Indigenous children in need. In 2021, only 17.8 per cent of foster parents are Indigenous compared to 68 per cent of the children in care.

The fact that Indigenous people across Canada are more likely to be poor is a contributing factor. So too is culture. Most Indigenous cultures do customary adoptions where a family member agrees to raise a child without going through all of the legal rigmarole required by governments that have failed them in the past.

So, time for yet another systemic review. That’s the recommendation in the 118-page report titled Skye’s Legacy: A Focus on Belonging, B.C. Child and Youth Representative Jennifer Charlesworth.

Jennifer Charlesworth is B.C.’s Representative of Children and Youth.
Jennifer Charlesworth is B.C.’s Representative of Children and Youth.

Skye’s short and unhappy life resulted, she said, from the ministry of children and family development’s relentless search for a “forever family” for her.

Its “narrow focus” on adoption came at the expense of all other aspects of her belonging,” Charlesworth wrote.


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There were three failed adoption plans. The first that would have reunited her with her sister in Alberta failed because of a bureaucratic, interprovincial snafu. The second was aborted when her foster family refused to meet a two-month ultimatum: Adopt her or we’ll place her in another family.

The third completed with only a two-week transition from supportive foster parents in Campbell River to strangers in Nanaimo was a disaster for the 13-year-old, who started using drugs, cutting herself and running away, ending up in an exploitive relationship.

In a note written at that time, Skye asked: “You’re born into a family. It should be forever. … What if I’m never ready to be adopted?”

Skye was cycled through 15 foster homes, eight different communities and eight schools. She had 18 different social workers during the search for a permanent home.

That emphasis on adoption resulted from the systemic change recommended by Charlesworth’s predecessor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

In 2014, she wrote a stinging rebuke to the government after only 205 of the more than 1,300 children in care had been adopted in the previous year.

“The fact is the proportion of Aboriginal children in care has continue to grow in recent years while the proportion of Aboriginal children with adoption plans has decreased.”

Turpel-Lafond, who is Indigenous and now heads the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, acknowledged the “historical tension between government and First Nations created by colonialism and fuelled by resident schools and the 60s Scoop.”


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A “forever family … is so vital to their optimal development and well being,” she wrote.

The ministry’s scrambled to find families, placing ads for children as if they were stray puppies or kittens. The ad for eight-year-old Skye is in Charlesworth’s report.

In that ad, “Selina” is described as “sweet, warm and playful” and “a great little helper.”

But Charlesworth uses Skye’s story as evidence that the search for “forever families” hasn’t worked.

Now, emphasizing her reliance on Indigenous leaders for input, she recommends the ministry focus on fostering children’s sense of identity and their sense of “belonging” to families, place, culture and community.

A “systemic needs analysis of cultural and family support resources required” and “immediate and substantive new resources” for implementation should done by no later than April 1, 2022.

On the list for consideration are: cultural training for social workers; hiring family finders; money for children to travel to their home communities for significant family or milestone ceremonies at least twice a year; and, financial support for family member visits.

In the “best interests of the child” — a phrase that pervades every action including the historically worst ones — Charlesworth wants the ministry’s policies, standards and practices aligned with national standards enacted in January 2020 regarding “permanency planning” for Indigenous children in care.

Is it enough? Likely not. Will it solve all the problems? No because improving Indigenous children’s lives goes far beyond the child protection system.

Indigenous children will only thrive once Indigenous families and communities are lifted out of the cycle of poverty, despair, distress and addiction.


Twitter: @bramham_daphne


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