Nunavut’s child pipeline: The story of how the northern territory shipped an Inuk boy far from home

“He misses his family, he misses his culture, he misses his community up here.”

A little Inuk boy plays with a stick at the end of the lane way on a chilly and wet October morning.‎

He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt waiting for the school bus.

Maybe his mother should have told him to put on pants, and maybe a jacket. ‎

But his mom isn’t home.

At least not at this one. ‎

He lives in one of many group homes in Ottawa.‎

He likely doesn’t know it but he’s big business – a moneymaker.

Group homes here make millions every year housing‎ dozens of Inuit kids just like him and there’s no shortage of places looking to take them in. ‎

They’re Crown wards.

Not from Ontario.

But Nunavut.

A territory that can’t care for them.

An APTN National News investigation has looked at how they get plucked from the landscape of Nunavut and dropped in the city suburbs of Ottawa.

Some stay for years.

If they do get to go home, they can end up almost wiped clean of their Inuit culture and way of life.‎

That’s what happened to one boy who came to the south at 13-years-old speaking broken English and Inuktitut. This summer he returned home, over three years later, only speaking English.

When asked what it meant to be Inuit before he left he responded: “It means be dead.”‎

But the boy, who we’re calling Jacob, had other options than Ottawa. He had family in another part of the North who wanted to take him in but Nunavut kept him here.

An Inuk boy waits for the bus at the same group home Jacob was living in Ottawa.

She still remembers the telephone calls from Jacob.‎

He was new to Ottawa and struggling with the language and culture shock.

“He used to phone me up to five times a day, every single day. He would be crying hysterically,” recalled Jacob’s sister, who we’re calling Sarah. “He was going through a lot of emotional turmoil. He felt abandoned. He felt neglected. He felt alone. He didn’t know how to properly deal with his emotions. He was a 13-year-old boy.”‎

He also has epilepsy and cognitive problems from undiagnosed, yet strongly believed ‎fetal alcohol syndrome disorder.

Stress would trigger seizures, and he would convulse on the ground eventually landing in the fetal position. Cognitive damage made it that more difficult to deal with or simply understand, stressful situations like kids picking on him. ‎

When he first went to school in Ottawa his classmates teased him trying to trigger a seizure for laughs. ‎

“It was almost on the daily. It was heart wrenching,” said Sarah.

But he’d have them at the group home, too, trying to explain to his sister what was happening. ‎

“He would have a seizure on the phone with me and I could hear him fall asleep,” she said.

He wasn’t in Ottawa long before he was charged with assault. He pleaded guilty and got probation.

He was charged again in 2014 when he punched a student and got expelled. ‎

“School has suspended the attacker indefinitely, and is seeking a board expulsion,” said a police officer in his report.

Jacob then hit a group home worker and was transferred to a different home – one that was supposed specialize in Inuit culture and had other Inuit boys.‎

The Crown pushed the case through the youth court.‎

Jacob got a new lawyer who started asking questions.

Like what specific care did the boy get for his medical issues and what plan was in place at the school or with Nunavut to ensure he was getting help.

“(Jacob’s) English language skills are limited and he has absolutely no family here. No provision was made for his special needs in either the group homes or his school placement,” wrote his lawyer to the judge on the case after what he described as months of discussions with the group home and social workers.‎

The lawyer asked that the judge to order a Gladue report to explain how and why Jacob ended up in Ottawa and was struggling to adapt.

Ottawa courthouse

‎“The Gladue report, at this crucial time in this young man’s life, has the potential to make a life and death difference,” wrote the lawyer. “If interventions aren’t made that help him learn to control his emotions, his seizures, his depression and sense of despair and alienation … his path seems only to be leading to a life on the street, or in the penitentiary, or suicide or an early death in tragic circumstances.”

The judge agreed and ordered a Gladue report. Jacob had been in Ottawa for over two years at this point. ‎

In that report the court learned Jacob lost his father at a young age, his mother was homeless and his aunt, who had taken him in before being shipped to Ottawa, cared deeply for him.

But Nunavut didn’t have the resources to help with his medical needs in her remote community.

‎His longtime social worker, Maryanne Angidlik, and her supervisor Michael Mulroney were interviewed for the report on Nov. 27, 2015.‎

“He misses his family, he misses his culture, he misses his community up here, he misses going out on the land and fishing,” said Mulroney, adding he felt the group home was doing a good job taking care of him, including having him see a psychologist. Records seen by APTN National News show he was visiting one throughout his last year in Ottawa.

Mulroney said Jacob had been to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario “many, many times” because of his seizures.‎

“I think it’s pretty safe to say if he’s not full blown FASD then there is certainly a negative association prenatally that this child was exposed,” said Mulroney “We all know that that manifests itself in many different ways but often it is kind of a lifelong affliction that (Jacob) had no control over.”

But at that point, Jacob had never had a FASD assessment done according to Angidlik who said Nunavut first got involved in 2012. ‎

During the interview, Mulroney learned of Jacob’s sister Sarah, who also lived in a city in the North outside of Nunavut and was “adamant” she’d like to care for Jacob.

Mulroney called it a “perfect middle ground” but he had never known about the sister. ‎

“This is the first time that I have heard about the sister, that she might want him to live with her… If that was something viable and could be assessed and that was in his best interest and that’s what he wanted and that’s what she wanted, that could happen,” said Mulroney.

Later on in the interview Angidlik said she knew of the sister but had never reached out to her. She also said she never received any calls from Sarah. Jacob not only had Sarah but another sister and step-dad in the same northern city.

“(The aunt) had mentioned (her) to me before but I have never received a call from any of the sisters or even from the step father,” said Angidlik. “But (the aunt) had mentioned to me that maybe it would be good idea if (Jacob) would one day live with either one of them but they never called this office or contacted me.”‎

That’s not how Sarah remembered it, telling APTN she first contacted Angidlik in 2013.‎

“There are numerous emails between her and I. It was like pulling teeth to get a response with her,” said Sarah. “I called her and left voicemails.”

The emails were sent from her former work email and she no longer has them. ‎

Sarah did have an email she wrote Angidlik‎ June of this year requesting again to take custody of her little brother as he was posting on his Facebook wall about wanting to kill himself.‎

She wrote: “Hi Mary, My name is (Sarah), I am (Jacobs’s) eldest sister. We had spoken once before back in 2013 via e-mails. I am writing in regards to (Jacob) and would like to discuss with you some prosperous opportunities that I have available for (Jacob).”‎

She had steady job and has an education in psychology, child care and Indigenous studies, as well as being an Inuk woman.‎

“I would make myself dedicated to making sure he gets the full support he will need, with classes, tutors, or special needs, and counselling,” she wrote.

Angidlik wrote back about an hour later.

“Thank you for your email message, I will forward this to my Supervisor and consult with him and proceed from there. I will keep in touch,” she said according to emails. ‎

Soon after Jacob was sent back to live his aunt and Sarah said she only found out because her brother called to tell her.

The headquarters of Nunavut’s Child and Family Services in Iqaluit. Steve Mongeau/APTN photo

According to Nunavut’s director of Child and Family Services, Joanne Henderson-White, they have 65 kids out of the territory. Forty are in Ottawa and 34 of them are spread out amongst seven group homes here. Six others are in foster care.

The remaining 25 children are in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Documents obtained by APTN, through Nunavut’s access to information, show the territory spends upwards of over $9 million annually on what it calls “Out-of-Territory Residential Care Placement”. Henderson-White told APTN about 80 percent of the money goes to group homes and paying for foster care. Some of it is  used for travel as the kids sometimes get to have short visits home.‎

Placements have been happening for years but, according to documents, Nunavut didn’t track them well, as far back as four years ago. The territory knows the total number of children shipped out in 2009 and 2010 but couldn’t provide where. ‎They also couldn’t say how much money was spent specifically for the program prior to 2013.

The department said it’s working to update its electronic management system as the placements used to be under the health department. That responsibility was given to Child and Family Services in 2013. As of last week, they have 442 kids under their care in total.

All kids out of territory have medical or special needs that can’t be provided in Nunavut said Henderson-White.‎

“We try to care for our children in our territory,” she said. “We do our very best to maintain our kids at home. Of the 65 kids out of territory they are there because they have needs we simply can’t meet within the territory.”‎

Henderson-White said she couldn’t speak to why the territory doesn’t have those services available as it was the Health department that provides them.‎

“We’re working with what we have. We are trying to build capacities,” she said.‎

Henderson-White said shipping kids south is not the first option. But places like Ottawa have the medical services the kids need.‎

“This is the last resort. I want to tell you before we do that we exhaust every other possibility,” she said.‎

She added they also have an oversight board that reviews each child’s case.‎

But something appears to have gone wrong with Jacob’s case. His sister said she didn’t just email to get custody, but called, too.

“Whoever needed to make a choice was always out of town or they need to wait to hear a response from someone else and then I would get a random email after a month or two saying that he is just not ready,” said Sarah.‎

APTN emailed Maryanne Angidlik asking for comment but never heard back.

APTN then asked Child and Family Services if this was a case of Nunavut dropping the ball or a social worker acting independently.

“The Department of Family Services is unable to comment due to client confidentiality,” said spokesperson Jade Owen.

APTN has nothing to suggest Jacob didn’t receive proper care and his social workers said in documents he seemed to be getting used to life in Ottawa and enjoying it.

But Nunavut has had issues with the homes they pay to house the kids when it comes to culture. During routine checks, they uncovered “issues” at Ottawa homes, including lack of culture, and kids are not being able to speak their own language or get traditional food.

Group homes have long been an issue in Ontario according to Ontario’s child advocate.

Irwin Elman said the Ontario government recently wrapped up a review of the concerns around group homes and foster care.

“They had to design an expert panel and have them travel around the province to decide how dire the problem was in terms of the experience of young people living in these homes,” he said.

The panel released a 141-page report ‎explaining the problems and how they should be fixed. ‎

Some kids told the panel they felt they were being warehoused and that staff provoked incidents or were not properly trained. ‎

“Certainly it was more difficult for First Nation young people who are not only away from their families thousands of miles from home but away from their culture and their way of life,” he said.

The panel also found problems with how group homes were licensed and no tracking system for over 20,000 serious incident reports filed each year, that include when a child runs away, is harmed, police are called or when the home puts them in restraints, which happened to Jacob because he would run away.

‎Back in Iqaluit one city councillor would like to remove all concerns and bring the kids home. Terry Dobbin worked as a counselor for 12 years at one Iqaluit group home which was home to about six kids.

“The kids were healthy. They were happy. They went to school. They had friends at school. It was a loving home. It was great. People loved it. Kids interacted within the community. They kids were happy. It was a healthy loving environment,” said Dobbin.‎

He said the home in Iqaluit closed in 2012 and Nunavut shipped the kids south. Each with different medical or special needs to join all the others out of the territory.

Dobbin said he flew with one boy to Ottawa where he has remained since.

“I wasn’t really impressed. It was out in the country. They had to set up a room for that particular kid. They weren’t even ready for him and it broke my heart to leave that child there but I didn’t have any other choice because a decision was made to ship all these kids south,” he said.

That group home in Iqaluit re-opened focusing on troubled youth but has now suspended operations again, as they try to again refocus its efforts said Henderson-White.

Jacob’s sister said what happened to her brother was “cultural assimilation” and the only connection to his Inuit culture in Ottawa was through volunteering at a local Inuit centre.‎

“Just culturally where we come from it’s all about family, it’s all about support and love and being there for each other,” she said.‎

Sarah tried to be there for her brother, even at a distance. With every painful phone call and visit to Ottawa. ‎

Nunavut has no plans to stop sending kids south and west.

It did say it does intend to hire a permanent social worker in Ottawa by the end of the year. ‎

A consulting company has managed all these kids on a contract basis.

Acting as the eyes and ears for children thousands of kilometres from home.

-Clarification: Since this story was published APTN learned the consulting company didn’t have their contract renewed as of March 31. An updated story on this can be found here.

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