The source of social dysfunction we heard most about in public testimony was residential schooling, but inappropriate child welfare policies have also been a persistent and destructive force. The effect of these policies, as applied to Aboriginal children, was to tear more holes in the family web and detach more Aboriginal people from their roots.
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Canada, 1996
The unidentified girl in the casket died in March of 2010 at the hands of her foster mother. Her death was ruled a homicide. She had been admitted to the Stollery Children's Hospital on March 1, where, after spending two days in a coma, she ultimately succumbed to her injuries and perished.
"How I wish I could show you her sweet little face. The big fat pinch-able cheeks, the mischievous dimples, the soft tuft of brown hair. If I could show you what a dear cherub she was, you might weep for her sad little life, cut short at 21 months," writes Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal.
Yet Simons can't show you her smile, nor tell you her name. She can only show you her tiny casket, lovingly adorned with flowers, as it is being carried by her pallbearers.
As Simons explains: "Once again, the Orwellian lunacy of the province's Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act prevents me from publishing any information that might serve to identify a child who came to the attention of the ministry of Children and Youth Services."
The Orwellian lunacy of which Simons writes is the veil of confidentiality that has served over some decades of time to insulate a multibillion dollar industry, along with its bureaucrats, from meaningful public scrutiny.
Whatever happened in Morinville was no isolated incident, Simons writes, adding that: "We have a right to know why children in care keeping dying, why their foster parents keep getting arrested. And we can't know if the government keeps the most basic information secret."
"Sensitive and personal information is supposed to be confidential; confidentiality is to benefit clients, not to protect the system," notes a 1997 Opposition party report issued in Alberta.
As the Center for the Study of Social Policy explains: "Providing information to the public on a regular basis, rather than only when tragedy or scandal wracks the system, is one way to increase citizen understanding, knowledge and investment in improving the well-being of vulnerable families and supporting the role of the courts in that effort." Yet as Marcia Robinson Lowry of Children's Rights, Inc., explained during Congressional hearings held in the United States in January of 1995:
Every state in the country cloaks its foster care system in secrecy, prohibiting the disclosure of any information about children's experiences in foster care. Though these statutes often were enacted to protect children, they routinely are used by state officials to conceal illegal and unconscionable practices.
Child welfare agencies universally conceal their illegal and unconscionable practices behind the veil of confidentiality, and this must be recognized as a phenomenon that is unique to an ever-expanding global industry, rather than as being unique to one particular province's enactment.
Returning to the Opposition report, the study explained that: "Organizational decisions should be influenced by systemic and program goals which serve client interests but are driven instead by management priorities." Among the report's findings:
Staff ranks are plagued by burnout, high turnover, and low morale. Clear performance standards are lacking. Positions remain vacant for a long time. The work environment is seen as dysfunctional. Staff feel they cannot affect the system and their expertise is discounted. Collaborative relationships with external agencies, service providers, and caregivers are lacking. Departmental response to criticism or question is retaliatory. Staff fear reprisals and speaking out is discouraged.
In addition to these and other painstakingly enumerated deficiencies in Alberta's Child Protective Services system, the report found that:
No criteria exist to measure organizational effectiveness. Cases of serious abuse and death continue. The Department remains bureaucratic and centrally driven. The system lacks flexibility to respond at the community level. Community involvement is seen as synonymous with shrinking programs, withdrawal of services, and downloading of costs. There is no meaningful engagement of the community in decision-making.
All of this has a familiar ring to advocates for reform. And indeed, nearly everything that is wrong with the child protection industry is to be found in this anonymous girl's story.
Columbia University's Brenda McGowan noted in 1983 that the field of child protection is one which has been repeatedly attacked "for its failure to insure permanency planning, its inability to prevent placement, its failure to place children in need of protection, its inherent racism and classism, its anti-family bias, its violations of parents' and children's rights, its arbitrary decision-making procedures, the incompetence and inefficiency of its staff, its costs, and its mismanagement."
With such a laundry list of failings from which to choose, where does one begin? Perhaps it may be best to begin by examining the industry's "inherent racism and classism," as when combined with its anti-family bias, these three characteristics together contributed to - no, let us be more direct about it - caused the death of this anonymous little girl.
The anti-family bias is readily apparent, as Ben Gelinas of the Edmonton Journal reports that: "The family members of a 21-month-old girl who was killed this week while in foster care say relatives offered to take the child before the province stepped in."
"The family member did not know why offers from relatives were turned down in favour of a Morinville-area foster home," he explains. The child was put into foster care around the end of January after being taken from her mother, who had a history of mental health problems. Her father was not a part of her life, a family member said.
"The girl's family was not made aware of the circumstances surrounding her placement. They say they weren't told where she was living or how many other children were living in the home," Gelinas explains.
100 mourners attended the service for the little girl at Edmonton's Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. Rev. Jim Holland told the mourners that if the people don't speak up for changes to the foster care system, the young girl's death will have been in vain, reports Darcy Henton in the Edmonton Journal.
"There are good foster parents but the system has got to be changed," Rev. Holland said as the child's mother wept. How many potential caregivers among the assemblage of anguished mourners had the Ministry overlooked?
While we don't know very much about her, we do know this much, as Simons explains: "This is the fourth time in the last five years that a foster parent in the Edmonton region has been charged with killing a foster child. All of the dead children were aboriginal."
Twenty children died of "traumatic injury" while in provincial care between 2004-05 and 2008-09. Some were murdered. Others died in accidents or killed themselves, she explains, adding that: "Of those 20 dead children, 14 were Indian or Metis. Last year, in fact, every child in care who died an unnatural death was aboriginal," Simons explained in a follow-up article published on March 6.
Karen Kliess of the Edmonton Journal provides these recent accounts of aboriginal children murdered while in Alberta's care:
On Nov. 26, 2005, a 13-month-old boy was shaken to death by his foster father, who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The boy had recently joined the two foster children already living in the home and a fatality inquiry later heard the family was showing signs of being overwhelmed in the weeks before he died.
On Jan. 27, 2007, a three-year-old boy died from severe head injuries after a struggle with his foster mother in the bathroom of her Edmonton home. A jury later convicted the foster mother of manslaughter but the Court of Appeal recently ordered a new trial. The foster mother, a nurse, had been caring for up to six kids at a time, including two of her own.
On Jan. 13, 2009, a four-year-old girl was found dead from head injuries she received while she was in the care of her 24-year-old aunt, who was caring for five other children at the time.
Then another child died. CBC News, Ottawa, reports that: "A teenage Alberta boy has died in foster care. Children and Youth Services Minister Yvonne Fritz confirmed Friday that the RCMP are investigating the death of the teenager from the Paul First Nation, west of Edmonton near Lake Wabamun."
The problem is hardly isolated to Alberta. CBC News reported in early June of 2010 on the death of 22-month-old Evander Lee Daniels. The child died while in foster care in Saskatchewan, and First Nations leaders were calling for a public inquiry.
"For the second time in six months a child belonging to Sturgeon Lake First Nation has died in the care of the province," a media release said. "In both cases, the children died in suspicious circumstances." The First Nation demanded a public inquiry into both deaths, while also demanding access to files on other children for a review of their circumstances.
"The band is demanding an independent assessment of all of the foster and alternate care homes where their children are currently placed," the release said. Band Chief Wesley Daniels said he was aware of 116 children who were in the care of the province.
Chief Daniels blasted the legacy of previous government policies. "The reason many of our families are dysfunctional in the first place is because of federal and provincial assimilationist policies," Daniels said, citing the residential schools and programs that encouraged the adoption of aboriginal children into white families.
Chris Martell, the child's father, told CBC News that he had visited his boy days before his death. His son was in foster care as a temporary measure, he said, adding that he was still looking for information about what happened.
"Thick makeup applied by funeral-home staff couldn't hide what looked like burns covering the face of a 22-month-old boy who died while in foster care in Saskatchewan this week," reports Jeanette Stewart in the Vancouver Sun.
While the coroner's report said the young boy had drowned, mourners could see that something else may well have been to blame for the young boy's death. As the boy's family gathered at a Warman funeral home for the viewing and a Catholic service, Chris Martell questioned a coroner's finding that his son had drowned, noting that he appeared to be covered by burns.
Stewart explains that: "At the viewing, a rosary was wrapped around the boy's small hands, which appeared to be covered with red burns. What looked like blood was beginning to discolour his white shirt, sewn by a family member with four coloured stripes to represent elements of First Nations culture."
Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were saying that it could be as long as six to eight months before their investigation would be complete.
These tragic events did not play out in isolation, rather they are a part of a continuum best described as a steady stream of tragic - and in many instances remarkably similar - events in foster care. The reports come in from all parts of the globe as the child protection industry continues to expand.
From Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reports: "The Northern Territory Coroners Court will examine whether the state's child protection system contributed to the preventable death of a 12-year-old girl." The Coroners Court heard that Deborah Melville was an "energetic, happy-go-lucky girl", who acted as the parent and protector of her younger siblings while in care.
The Tennessean reports in February of 2010 on the death of Cherokeewolf William Diedric: "The baby died Tuesday at 12 weeks old after he was taken off life support. Police are investigating his death as a homicide, but no charges have been brought."
From California, the Daily News reports that Viola Vanclief died as a result of "blunt force trauma." Her foster parents were arrested on suspicion of having beaten her to death - apparently with a hammer.
From Minneapolis, the Star Tribune reports: "St. Paul police Sgt. Paul Schnell said Brianna Rose Jackson, 18 months, was declared dead on Thursday after the near-drowning Wednesday in a foster home. . . Police continue to investigate the circumstances around her death."
The Associated Press reports: "The family of a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy is suing the operators of a Detroit foster home where they say their son starved to death." One month prior, the AP had reported: "A Milwaukee couple is still waiting for answers after their baby boy died in foster care last week - two days after being removed with three other children from their home."
Maine's Morning Sentinel reports: "Virginia Blackmore was to be reunited with her son this month for the first time in more than three years. Instead, she will be presiding over his burial at a family plot."
Returning to Canada, this time to Manitoba: "The foster father of a 13-month-old boy who died while in care has been charged with second-degree-murder," the Winnipeg Free Press reports. A CBC News report explains that 13-month-old Cameron Ouskan was from Fox Lake, a small First Nation of about 125 people.
What must be understood is that it can happen to anyone - at any time. Someone makes a call. The caseworkers sweep in. Your children are gone. It happens just that easily, often striking families like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. If you are a member of a Native American, Australian Aboriginal, or First Nations family, all things being equal, the odds of it happening to you are greatly enhanced. Your family is, in effect, a lightning rod for child protective services to strike.
Gabriel Yahyahkeekoot is an accomplished Canadian filmmaker, poet and artist of First Nations ancestry whose mother experienced the residential schools firsthand. He'd spent some time living with his mother - a single parent - while about half of his early life was spent in foster care. "Stability was a virtual no show," he explains.
Gabriel describes a life in which hunger was "a normality" that came complete with regular visits to a food bank. "My mother is a product of a system which took her and her sisters from their birth parents when they were very young," he writes. He graphically continues on to explain what his mother, along with countless other First Nations children experienced at the time:
Now imagine this if you can: you are taken from your mother and father as a child and herded onto a large truck or plane with complete strangers. Then you are taken to a place far away from your original home with other children whom you have never seen before. Once there, you can expect to have your hair shaved off, and to be beaten severely every time you speak your native tongue because it is the "devil's tongue." Your former way of life is gone, and you are taught that it was wrong and evil. Once you get through that, the daily struggle to get enough to eat seems like the only challenge left to overcome. That is, unless you are one of the many unfortunate ones that catch the eye of the priest or one of the nuns.
Gabriel writes about the "ripple effect" that the residential schools continue to have in today's society, noting that: "These people came back so ashamed of who they were that they would often turn to alcohol to forget their past. Because of how horrific it was, they often let the drink become the only importance in their lives, the only thing to help numb the pain and to forget. When they had children of their own, they raised these children the only way they were taught - producing the ripple effect."
Writing in the industry journal Child Welfare, Joyce Timpson explains that in relation to her ability to raise her children, one Native woman declared:
Many of us raised our children the way we were raised at the schools. We disciplined our children with physical force, and we called them stupid, dumb, or lazy. We showed little or no emotion, and we found it hard to say we loved them. Many of us realized too late the damage we did to our children, unintentionally of course, but only because we did not know better.
Timpson explains that the loss of language, spirituality, and an economic base; abuse from residential church schools; and forced relocation are cited repeatedly by the Indian and Inuit Nurses of Canada and the The Ontario Native Women's Association as among the root causes underlying increased domestic violence among Native people.
The cycles that had been set into motion by the assimilationists of yesterday, today provide the lubricant that greases the wheels of the child removal apparatus, and the "ripple effect" continues against a backdrop of poverty. As the Canadian Opposition's report explains: "This so-called 'plenty' in Alberta is a myth. Edmonton Community and Family Services states that in Edmonton 27% of children are poor, 19.3% of families are poor, and 59% of single parent families are poor. A 1996 study by Edmonton Social Planning Council showed that food bank use in Edmonton had climbed 122% since 1993, and that 40% of food bank users were children."
Aboriginal children continue to be overrepresented in the Canadian child welfare system generally, and in Alberta in particular, as a study reported in early 2010 in the industry journal Child Abuse & Neglect explains. The aim of the study "was to test the hypothesis that extraneous factors, specifically, organizational characteristics, impact the decision to place a child in out-of-home care. A secondary aim was to identify possible decision making influences related to disparities in placement decisions tied to Aboriginal children." Among the study's findings:
The chronic overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in Canadian child welfare care has been well documented. Analysis based on national census data noted that while 5% of children in Canada were Aboriginal in 1998, Aboriginal children made up 17% of children reported to the child welfare, 22% of substantiated reports of child maltreatment, and 25% of children placed in care in Canada. The disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in care relative to the Aboriginal child population is a major concern throughout Canada but is most pronounced in the western provinces which have significant populations of Aboriginal peoples.
This overrepresentation can be attributed in part to higher rates of placement at the conclusion of the initial child welfare investigation and substantiation phase. In Canada in 2003, 17% of Aboriginal children were placed in formal child welfare care following investigation compared to 6% of non-Aboriginal children. The rate of placement for Aboriginal children varies by provincial and territorial jurisdiction ranging from 9% in Ontario to 23% in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
To put this into its proper perspective, Timpson cites a 1983 study by the Canadian Council on Social Development that detailed - province by province - the disproportionate numbers of Native children in care.
The most quoted theme of the study, she explained, "was that the child welfare agencies were responsible for the high rates of Native children in care." The term "sixties scoop" was coined, she notes, "suggesting random apprehensions of Indian children."
Timpson notes also that the report specifically charged that: "provincial social workers would literally scoop children from reserves on the slightest pretext in order to 'save' them from what the social workers thought to be poor living conditions."
In the United States, the destruction of Native cultures by the child welfare industry in Alaska continues unabated. As Julie Kitka, representing the Alaskan Federation of Natives, explained to a Congressional Committee in 1987:
Approximately 98 percent of all the litigation Alaska Natives are involved in at this point are not dealing with our land and resource issues, with subsistence or other related issues. The litigation is dealing with Alaska Native families and Native organizations trying to protect their rights to keep Native children with their families and extended families. This is something that cannot be allowed to continue - the tremendous litigation, and the waste of resources of Native people and communities just to try to protect children in their communities.
Kitka implored the Congress to conduct a field investigation into what was causing almost 50 percent of the inmates in Alaska to be Alaskan Natives, and she called for an inquiry into why 50 percent of all the Alaska Natives in the correctional centers were from one particular area of the State. She further explained that: "All these things combined are impacting our families and our children. They are primary causes on why our children are being brought into the State system and in, either foster care or being circulated around the State outside of native families."
A decade passes, as little changes. According to the Alaska Judicial Council, during the mid-1990s, 46 percent of the children in the custody of the State Division of Family and Youth Services were Alaskan Native children. In Anchorage, Fairbanks and Sitka, roughly one-third of "Child in Need of Aid" cases involved Native children. In Bethel, this figure had soared to an incredible 98 percent.
Writing in Alaska Law Review, Sheri L. Hazeltine explains that "rates of termination of parental rights and adoption of children from Alaska state foster care have exploded in recent years." The dramatic increase "resulted from new and stricter child protection laws passed by the Alaska Legislature in 1998 that make it easier to terminate Alaska Native and non-Native parental rights. The legislature passed these new child protection statutes to conform with the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997."
Hazeltine explains that while it had been crafted to solve the problem of foster care drift, the new legislation instead resulted in other consequences, among them that the number of adoptive homes for children did not appear to have kept pace with the increase in terminations of parental rights, in turn creating a "cadre of legal orphans" - children legally severed from their natural parents without an adoptive home.
Hazeltine notes that "the aforementioned outcomes directly conflict with the ICWA's definition of the best interests of the Indian child and the ICWA's goal of promoting the stability and security of Indian tribes and families."
The Indian child assimilation stampede driven by the Child Welfare League of America in the United States lead to the placement of scores of Native American children in residential boarding schools, and the stampede was mirrored in Canada. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples explains in its 1996 report:
The source of social dysfunction we heard most about in public testimony was residential schooling, but inappropriate child welfare policies have also been a persistent and destructive force. The effect of these policies, as applied to Aboriginal children, was to tear more holes in the family web and detach more Aboriginal people from their roots.
In the opening word from the Commissioners, the findings are summarized as follows:
We held 178 days of public hearings, visited 96 communities, consulted dozens of experts, commissioned scores of research studies, reviewed numerous past inquiries and reports. Our central conclusion can be summarized simply: The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong.
As the Conference Plan and Outline for Honour the Past - Live the Present - Create the Future, the First Annual International Aboriginal Youth Conference, held in August, 1996 explains: "Recent decades saw the rise and fall of the residential school system which removed aboriginal children from their homes for years at a time and disrupted traditional families. Other children were removed by Child Protection Services into foster care or adoption. Such enforced breakup of families has eroded traditional First Nations foundations and has resulted in the dislocation of the current generation of aboriginal youth."
Andrew Armitage explains in "Comparing the Policy of Aboriginal Assimilation: Australia, Canada and New Zealand," that by the 1970s, "child welfare agencies had succeeded residential schools as the preferred care system for First Nations children." These agencies were "most active in those regions of Canada where residential schools had been most prevalent; they were introduced to accomplish some of the same purposes as had the residential schools; and they were subject to some of the same types of internal child abuse problems as were the residential schools."
Armitage notes that there were some important differences between the residential school period and the child welfare period. The child welfare system was not designed so much to change the culture of First Nations communities in the name of equality of service, as the extension of services overlooked significant differences between mainstream Canadian and First Nations cultures. Rather, as Armitage explains:
Children were removed from their parents without regard to differences of history, culture, or ethnicity because the assumption was that these factors were much less important than were physical health, diet, housing, absence of alcoholism in the home, and so on. It was assumed that children were pliable; once admitted to care or placed for adoption, the child welfare system regarded childhood as primarily a period of physical and emotional development in which prior heritage and culture were relatively unimportant. It was thought that the heritage and culture of the adopting parents or foster parents could be acquired by the child. Ethnic origin was not seen as a serious problem, for, although the children were unmistakably different from their non-adopted siblings, it was hoped that some basic education in the history and culture of First Nations peoples would provide them with sufficient understanding of their origins. Finally, it was believed that loving adoptive and foster parents would protect the children from any instances of racial prejudice to which they might be exposed.
In his opening remarks while presiding over the Indian Affairs Subcommittee hearings on Indian Child Welfare in 1974, South Dakota Senator James Abourezk explained:
It appears that for decades Indian parents and their children have been at the mercy of arbitrary or abusive action of local, State, Federal, and private agency officials. Unwarranted removal of children from their homes is common in Indian communities. Recent statistics show, for example, that a minimum of 25 percent of all Indian children are either in foster homes, adoptive homes, and/or boarding schools, against the best interest of families, tribes, and Indian communities. Whereas most non-Indian communities can expect to have children out of their natural homes in foster or adoptive homes at a rate of 1 per every 51 children, Indian communities know that their children will be removed at rates varying from 5 to 25 times higher than that.
He added that the "Federal Government for its part has been conspicuous by its lack of action. It has chosen to allow these agencies to strike at the heart of Indian communities by literally stealing Indian children, a course which can only weaken rather than strengthen the Indian child, the family and the community. This, at a time when the Federal Government purports to be working to help strengthen Indian communities. It has been called cultural genocide."
The roots of cultural genocide - whether masked in the rubric of assimilation or as child protection - must be understood, and they extend deep into European culture, as Margaret A. Waller and Michael Yellow Bird of the School of Social Work at Arizona State University explain:
Since first contact, the well-being of Indigenous Peoples has been continuously challenged by internal colonialism. Europeans interpreted Indigenous Peoples' unfamiliar physical appearances, beliefs, and practices as signs of biological, intellectual, cultural, and moral inferiority. In the minds of European colonizers, this interpretation was justification for exploitation, appropriation of land and resources, and genocide, all of which were, according to the Europeans, "God's will."
Between 1500 and 1900, slavery, disease, introduction of alcohol, warfare, and forced removal from traditional lands all contributed to genocide that destroyed between 95 and 99 percent of the Indigenous population. As a continuing consequence of internal colonialism, Indigenous Peoples today contend with more severe problems related to income, education, occupation, employment, health care, mortality and housing, than any other population group in the United States.
"The boarding school era is the first generation of child removal and assimilationist welfare policy. The national Indian Adoption Project of 1958-1968 represents the second generation of child removal and assimilationist welfare policy," explains Lila George in the industry journal Multicultural Social Work. The transformation was made possible by an alliance between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America.
Citing government documents, George explains that in 1957, "the BIA contracted with the Child Welfare League of America to operate a clearinghouse for the interstate placement of Indian children with non-indian families." This contract was necessary because the BIA was not authorized to engage directly in adoption. Commissioned by Congress, the BIA was to act in the best interest of Tribes, hence a direct role in the out-of-culture adoptions would have readily been identified as a violation of this trust.
Thus was born the Indian Adoption Project, which George describes as "a fiscal collaboration between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America." The project formalized its operations in 1958, setting about the task of providing adoptive placements for American Indian Children whose parents were deemed unable to provide a "suitable" home for them. The Bureau of Indian Affairs hired social workers to place American Indian children in long-term care with non-Indian families.
The torch had thus been passed to the child welfare agencies, who continued the destructive assimilationist policies of the past under the cover of "rescuing" children from their homes. George continues on to explain that:
Due to the historical practice of assimilation, as well as economic hardship and nonexistent social welfare services, the Native American family was in a position for governmental intrusion to terminate parental rights for reasons of dependency and neglect. This life situation also suited a market demand for adoptable children. The Native American family ranked on the lowest rung of any social welfare ladder, while the caucasian middle-class family held a valued position in society, supported by the economic-ideological philosophy of assimilation: the conscience of the adoption system was cloaked in the Christian zeal of "saving God's forgotten children" and economically supported by assimilationist policy.
George explains that the Child Welfare League of America's Adoption Standards, as set forth as long ago as 1958, explain that "when there is a conflict between the interests of the child and the natural parents, the situation should be resolved in the child's favor."
In every nation in which the assimilation-turned-protection industry exists, similar trends are found. In Australia, thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were affected by the forcible removal of children from their homes. Bringing Them Home: The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families recounts the history of forced assimilation into the boarding schools, followed by the impacts of misguided child protection polices which to this very day account for the continued separation of aboriginal children from their families and their cultures.
Chapter 1, The Inquiry, begins with a submission that describes in vivid detail the removal of eight siblings from Cape Barren Island, Tasmania, during the 1960s:
So the next thing I remember was that they took us from there and we went to the hospital and I kept asking - because the children were screaming and the little brothers and sisters were just babies of course, and I couldn't move, they were all around me, around my neck and legs, yelling and screaming. I was all upset and I didn't know what to do and I didn't know where we were going. I just thought: well, they're police, they must know what they're doing. I suppose I've got to go with them, they're taking me to see Mum. You know this is what I honestly thought. They kept us in hospital for three days and I kept asking, "When are we going to see Mum?" And no-one told us at this time. And I think on the third or fourth day they piled us in the car and I said, "Where are we going?" And they said, "We are going to see your mother." But then we turned left to go to the airport and I got a bit panicky about where we were going ... They got hold of me, you know what I mean, and I got a little baby in my arms and they put us on the plane. And they still told us we were going to see Mum. So I thought she must be wherever they're taking us.
Another submission from New South Wales provides an account of a woman removed at 2 years of age during the 1940s, first to Bomaderry Children's Home, then to Cootamundra Girls' Home. She was at the time of these hearings "working to assist former Cootamundra inmates."
My mother told us that the eldest daughter was a twin - it was a boy. And in those days, if Aboriginals had twins or triplets, they'd take the babies away. Mum swore black and blue that boy was alive. But they told her that he had died. I only found out a couple of years ago - that boy, the nursing sister took him. A lot of babies were not recorded.
And so it goes - page after heart-wrenching page of detailed accounts beginning with "assimilation," followed by accounts of "rescue" into state care by child welfare authorities acting under the rubric of providing for the "best interests" of the child. As the Inquiry's report makes clear, most of those who contributed submissions adamantly denied having been "abused" or "neglected" prior to having been taken into custody.
The Inquiry is not limited to considering only those removals which could not be "justified," for example, on the ground of protecting the child from injury, abuse or neglect. Due to the dispossession and dependence of Indigenous families, many children's physical and sometimes psychological well-being was endangered. These children are nevertheless within our terms of reference because they were separated from their Indigenous families and communities, typically by compulsion. In contrast with the removal of non-Indigenous children, proof of "neglect" was not always required before an Indigenous child could be removed. Their Aboriginality would suffice. Therefore, while some removals might be "justifiable" after the event as being in the child's best interests, they often did not need to be justified at the time. Most witnesses refuted suggestions that they were neglected or abused by their parents, some making the contrast with their subsequent experiences in institutions or foster homes.
Outcomes for former foster wards are as bleak in Australia as they are anywhere else. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs stated in 1977 that: "It is not possible to state with certainty that the very high rates of Aboriginal juveniles in corrective institutions and of Aborigines in prison is a direct result of their having been placed in substitute care as children, but that their is a link between them has often been asserted and seems undeniable. In Victoria, analysis of the clients seeking assistance from the Aboriginal Legal Service for criminal charges has shown that 90% of this group has been in placement - whether fostered, institutionalised or adopted. In [New South Wales] the comparable figure is 90-95%"
Even their most ultimate of outcomes may be impacted. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody examined ninety-nine indigenous people who had died in State custody, finding that nearly half of the deceased had been taken as children from their families by State authorities, and placed into State care.
It bears emphasis that the Child Welfare League of America fully understood that all that it needed to do to set its assimilationist policies into full motion was to put social workers out on the front lines, even as it clearly understood that they would do what it is that social workers do - identify family dysfunction in the absence of a clearly articulable threat of harm to a child, and "rescue" the child into state care, while terminating forever the rights of her parents.
It must be recognized that these events were simultaneously mirrored with great precision throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, and that this was no mere coincidence.
Each and every individual Aboriginal and Native child's point of entry into state care was at the hands of a social worker who was faced with making a decision. Indeed, this is true of each and every child's point of entry - regardless of her ethnicity. Children will continue to be separated from their families in staggering numbers, with all of the documented ill consequences that continues to bring on society, so long as social workers are allowed to do what it is that they do.
The current child welfare era of the child rescue crusade may some day come to be recognized as folly - just as was the assimilation crusade itself. When that day arrives, may the child removal apparatus be forever disassembled, and in its place may a system be established that is truly supportive of children and their families.
Darcy Henton of the Edmonton Journal provides this touching account of the unidentified 21-month-old girl's funeral at Edmonton's Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples:
Three children have been killed in government-appointed foster homes in the past five years.
The body of the most recent victim was in a silver-handled, lace-trimmed, open pink casket. A great aunt eulogized her as "a beautiful little bird" whose death has reminded everyone that life is precious and short.
"We will miss your angelic face," she said, her voice faltering. "You truly will be an angel who will be fluttering around heaven. Thank you for your hugs and kisses."
Family gathered quietly in the church basement before the mass, exchanging softly spoken words of support and embraces. Many prayed in front of the casket, which was set against a pink backdrop in front of a stage adorned with flowers, balloons and numerous photographs of the child, smiling and laughing in the arms of family members.
A drummer and aboriginal singers led the procession of family and friends into the church.
After the interment at Evergreen Memorial Gardens, where the balloons were released to signify the baptized child's passage into heaven, her 31-year-old mother described her as the "greatest baby in the world.
"She was a beautiful child, always happy. She was pretty and beautiful and smart. She sang and hummed ... She was our little angel."
On March 11, 2010, approximately 100 people attended a candlelight vigil for the little girl.
At that time, her case was still officially under investigation by the RCMP, and the Ministry had not released any details, but family members were told that her death was consistent with brain injuries caused by shaken baby syndrome.
Those who came out to remember the toddler "are hoping to see changes in the foster care system in our province," Karyn Mulcahy of Global News explained.
"It's not about blaming one another it's about what we can do together to change things," Bernadette Lahtail of Friends of Children in Care said. "I would like to see supports for our families and our communities. I'd like to see programs being set in there."
Father Jim Holland of the Sacred Heart Church agreed.
"If we don't start treating their children like they're a national treasure we're going to all suffer for it" he said at the vigil. "We should be paying attention - we should be coming together for them."
Father Jim Holland is right.