SUDBURY — Jason and Tabitha’s children have been out of the house for years, but their nest is no longer empty — last fall, they took in two of their school-age grandchildren because their daughter was unable to raise them.
“We have noticed issues for years,” Tabitha says. “The kids have gone through so much neglect.”
Jason and Tabitha (for privacy reasons, TVO.org has changed their names) live in Sudbury; the children were placed in their care through Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services. The social-services agency is controlled by the seven members of the North Shore Tribal Council, which are located between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.
Nogdawindamin staff provide Jason and Tabitha with smudge kits, and home visits include traditional drumming and Ojibway language lessons — all to ensure that the children learn about Anishinaabe teachings and traditions.
In April 2017, Nogdawindamin became the child-welfare authority for the North Shore communities, taking over from the Children’s Aid Society. It’s one of 14 Indigenous-led agencies in Ontario that have assumed control over child-welfare services for Indigenous children across the province.
Indigenous children are overrepresented in the child-welfare system — while just 7 per cent of all children in Canada are Indigenous, Indigenous children make up nearly half of foster-care cases. Government statistics show that, in 2011, more than 14,000 Indigenous youth 14 and under were in foster care. Last fall, federal Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott called the disparity a “humanitarian crisis.”
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies last year stated that its member organizations had made mistakes in the name of child welfare, one of which was to needlessly separate children from their parents and their cultures — “practices [that] have resulted in cultural genocide for the Indigenous people of Ontario.” The association promised to support Indigenous agencies in their bids to take control of their own child-welfare cases.
“There is a high number of children that have been taken into foster care without the consent of the First Nation families,” says Serpent River First Nation chief Elaine Johnston, who is also the president of the Nogdawindamin board. And when Indigenous children are brought up in non-Indigenous families, Johnston says, they lose contact with their communities, roots, and culture.
For Nogdawindamin, it took eight years to come up with a plan to take over from CAS. “We had to get all seven First Nations on board,” says executive director Kerry Francis. “We built a service that needed to be something different than the Children’s Aid Society — create our own system, our own care model.”
At the official handover last spring, Nogdawindamin assumed responsibility for nearly 300 child-welfare cases in two districts: Algoma, and Sudbury and Manitoulin. The CAS chapters in both districts offered to help with the transition.
Francis says serious issues cropped up almost immediately. Although he’s not sure why, he says service volumes spiked dramatically after the handover: Nogdawindamin had to take responsibility for an additional 150 children within six months of the handover. The agency wasn’t prepared. Francis and his team hurried to secure additional federal funding to provide mental-health, neonatal, and other services to meet the need.
Nogdawindamin is dealing with the unexpectedly heavy workload by hiring more staff. It now employs 200 people, including an on-staff family physician and a registered practical nurse.
The agency also recently received funding to help families living outside the seven North Shore First Nation territories and launched a prevention program aimed at keeping children in their own homes where possible. Staff members visit homes to intervene when problems arise involving children and their parents or guardians. It currently covers 40 of the 220 First Nation member families that live off-reserve, and Francis is seeking financial support to cover the rest.
For all the difficulties the handover of child welfare has created, Jason and Tabitha are glad it has taken place. Otherwise, they believe, their grandchildren might’ve bounced from one foster home to the next, getting lost in the system — and lost their connection to Anishinaabe culture.
Instead, the family is spending the summer camping out at the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, near Sudbury, swimming, fishing, and playing board games.
“It’s starting to feel like a home,” Jason says. “We are sharing our love with them and they can feel it — I know they can.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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