When the Rising Sun Daycare opened its doors a decade ago in Verdun, Que., a suburb of Montreal, it offered a safe, temporary environment for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children to learn and thrive while their parents spent the day elsewhere.
Every day, approximately 80 children between the ages of three months and five years make their way through the center’s doors to participate in drumming circles or other activities intended to promote their self-esteem while imparting an early sense of cultural pride.
But as Rising Sun’s Executive Director Alana Phillips recalls, some of those children never returned home.
Shortly after the daycare opened, a one-year-old infant – a little boy – was dropped off by a family member.
Philipps said hours later, a social worker swept in and apprehended the child, shuffling him through five foster homes before a more permanent solution was found.
It wasn’t the first, or the last, apprehension that daycare staff would witness.
Phillips recalls an incident where two twin boys, barely three-years-old, were taken from the daycare mid-day, separated, and placed in different foster homes due to a bed shortage that continues to pervade the child welfare system in Montreal.
“If one place only has one bed for the moment, I don’t believe that twins are really going to mind sharing a bed. They probably already share a bed,” she said.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
“I just remember going to the meetings and thinking ‘how can you do this?’”
Over the last 10 years, Phillips estimates that 100 of Rising Sun’s children have cycled in and out of foster care through the Batshaw Youth and Family Centre – a child welfare and social work organization aiming to provide services in accordance with the Youth Protection Act.
In a new report, Indigenous frontline workers like Phillips assert that questioning Batshaw’s methods of child apprehension, and the lack of subsequent follow-ups, yielded “very negative and stressful interactions” between parties.
The 21-page document, titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Child welfare services for Indigenous clientele living in Montreal,” presents a scathing analysis of Indigenous youth care in the Montreal area.
Assembled over three years by stakeholders from the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, Concordia University, Rising Sun Daycare, and the Youth Department of the public health network, Centre Integre Universitaire de Sante et de Services Sociaux Ouest de l’ile de Montreal (CIUSSS-ODIM), the goal of the project was to “gain a better understanding of the ways Indigenous children and families are responded to by the child welfare system in Montreal.”
“Decolonizing Montreal’s colonial child welfare system means delivering culturally grounded, prevention-focused child and family services to Indigenous families,” the report says.
Batshaw is no stranger to controversy when it comes to its handling of Indigenous children.
Earlier this year, reports surfaced that children transferred to a Montreal group home from Nunavik were told to stop having conversations in Inuktitut.
While there are no official statistics published on the number of families reported to youth protection, Phillips says that all of the Inuit children apprehended at Rising Sun were placed with non-Indigenous foster families.
Also cited in the report are “many instances” where apprehended children wished to remain in contact with family, but were denied access by social workers or foster families.
Children removed from home are not offered any emotional support, according to the report, and like the aforementioned case of the separated twin brothers, siblings are often denied contact or access to each other.
“Foster families lack of knowledge and sensitization has resulted in racist comments and prejudice towards the children’s parents,” the report says, while also perpetuating a cycle of systemic discrimination.
“We felt we wanted to make the results more public so that we could help move the advocacy efforts forward,” explained Elizabeth Fast, Concordia University researcher and former Batshaw employee, explained.
“There’s just a total lack of knowledge around Indigenous histories and realities from most of the workers at Batshaw,” Fast said.
“The report is not an attack on the workers, it’s meant to demonstrate the extent to which things need to change.”
At the time of the report’s publication, the First Nations, Inuit and Metis team at Batshaw “did not employ any Indigenous people.”
Of the health network’s estimated 10,000 employees, there are less than 10 Indigenous employees.
Even the network’s sole “Indigenous liaison” is non-Indigenous.
According to Fast, Batshaw has implemented “piecemeal” solutions, but have not shown a will to change their hiring practices to have more Indigenous representation.
“It seemed like they wanted to take little steps, but not really respond to what the commissions, what the Indigenous community is saying,” Fast explained. “The report talks a lot of basic things, [but] at the end of the day, there’s many, many more issues that are happening in the system.”
For one, Phillips said there needs to be more support for children – particularly Inuit children – who age out of the child welfare system and end up in the real world with no clear idea of how to function.
“If you’re an 18-year-old, you’re still young – you still need support,” she explained. “If you’ve never had that, or [don’t] know how to find an apartment, how to find a job or start school, I think it would be great to provide that to them.”
Providing quality care “top priority” for Batshaw
In the report, eight employees from different departments within Batshaw reported concerns about training, education, policy barriers, and a general “incapacity to do culturally safe and appropriate work with Indigenous families.”
In a written statement to APTN News, a spokesperson for the CIUSS-ODIM said, “The CIUSSS… and the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS) have signed an agreement to further develop the continuity of services provided to young Inuit and to better safeguard their cultural integrity.”
And that providing quality care and services to children and families is the centre’s “top priority,” according to the statement.
“Batshaw Youth and Family Centres have a well-established reputation for the experience and openness in working with ethnocultural diversity,” it reads.
The report’s recommendations are extensive and address the gamut of concerns. Its authors are requesting another meeting with the health network by 2020 with the expectation that annual reports will detail which recommendations have been addressed, and how.
“Indigenous self-determination as it relates to Indigenous children and their families and communities is how we are proceeding, and we expect the CIUSSS-ODIM to begin working immediately with established working committees and organizations that represent and are represented by Indigenous peoples living in Montreal,” the report concludes.
A preliminary progress report is expected by December 2020.
-With files from Tom Fennario.