Number of Indigenous children in care in Alberta increases, as eight in-care deaths investigated
Thursday, June 6th, 2019 9:33am
Donald Langford, executive director with Metis Child and Family Services
“It’s a shock that any child can die in care, but it’s more of a shock when we make up such a small number of people in the community.” — Donald Langford
By Shari Narine
Donald Langford, executive director with Metis Child and Family Services, says his heart is heavy.
Alberta’s Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (OCYA) released its first mandatory review of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of children who died while in provincial care, or who died within two years of being in care.
In the six months between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2018, there were nine deaths investigated by OCYA, eight of whom were Indigenous children.
Provincial legislation makes it illegal for these children to be named.
“That’s been my greatest fear and anxiety over the years,” said Langford. “They don’t allow our parents to properly say goodbye to the spirit of their children, because they can’t name them.”
The report is the first one delivered by the OCYA since Bill 18. The Child Protection and Accountability Act was proclaimed in March 2018. That Act, layered over existing OCYA legislation, mandated the OCYA to issue a public report on all deaths of youth and children in government care or within two years of care. Previously, the OCYA issued public reports on systemic issues, which sometimes involved deaths.
While the report includes nine children’s deaths, there were actually 11 children who died within the timeframe. The OCYA was not able to investigate two of the deaths as a police agency or a Crown Prosecutor asked the OCYA to hold off, concerned that an OCYA investigation could make it difficult for the criminal investigation to proceed.
Advocate Del Graff said he does not know if the two investigations that have been put on hold involve Indigenous youth.
Graff says he is concerned with the high number of Indigenous youth who died in care in that six-month period.
“The challenge I have is I don’t know that we can make it generalizable to the future… it doesn’t have a predictive value that says there’s always going to be that proportion of young people who are Indigenous who pass away in care,” he said.
However, he points out, the number of Indigenous youth who are involved in the child intervention system is not going down.
In 2016, OCYA released a special report on Indigenous children in care. Graff says that from 2015 to 2018, the number of Indigenous children receiving child intervention services, whether still in their homes, temporary care or permanent care, had increased. Those who received permanent care, “the most intrusive level of care,” he said, increased from 73 per cent in December 2015 to 76 per cent in December 2018.
“It’s gotten a little worse in terms of the over representation of Indigenous kids in care, of the proportion that were in care. That’s concerning. I think about this an awful lot. I’ve seen efforts made to try and change this, but in the actual metrics it looks at least in December … it was, in fact, getting worse,” said Graff.
Langford knows the numbers well, having worked in the system for decades.
“It’s a shock that any child can die in care, but it’s more of a shock when we make up such a small number of people in the community,” he said.
According to provincial statistics (taken from the 2011 National Household Survey), Indigenous children account for approximately 10 per cent of Alberta’s youth population (those 19 years and younger).
Langford likens the lack of improvement in the number of Indigenous children in care to the recently released final report from the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
“It’s just talk. Lots of meetings, but no action. They didn’t accomplish anything,” he said.
As long as Indigenous people – whether women or children – continue to be “second best or third best agenda items” nothing will change, he said.
This newest report sets out five recommendations, ranging from better processes in foster homes to financial support to allow front line workers better access to experts. The children who died ranged in age from three months to 18 years.
The report also suggests that a public fatality inquiry may be beneficial in the death-by-suicide of “Nova,” a 16-year-old First Nations girl.
“Part of the changes to Bill 18 also includes that the fatality review board needs to consider our reports when they’re making decisions to do a review of children in these circumstances. That’s why we said we would like for them to consider it. We identified some areas of questions that still remain and suggested that they consider,” said Graff.
If the fatality review board decides not to hold an inquiry, the issues raised – including the extensive number of emergency room visits (an issue flagged in previous OCYA investigative reports)– could be examined by Alberta Health Services, he said.
Graff says he continues to be optimistic that the OCYA’s recommendations will be implemented, although this report does reference “repeatedly making similar recommendations.”
“Jaxon”, a 17-year-old First Nations boy, whose death is also included in this report, died by suicide, like Nova. In March 2016, the OCYA did a special investigative report addressing the challenges of indigenous youth suicide.
The Child Protection and Accountability Act requires the government departments that have been singled out by recommendations from the OCYA to respond within 75 days.
In a statement to Windspeaker.com, Minister of Children’s Services Rebecca Schulz said her department would “immediately begin reviewing the Advocate’s report and my department will meet with him to better understand these recommendations…. Our government will provide services, supports and resources to protect vulnerable children, and to improve that system when required.”
“Repeatedly making similar recommendations does not change the circumstances for young people — only a change in the systems that serve them, and a change in what young people and their families experience, will result in improving their outcomes.”
The report’s recommendations aren’t binding in any way, but in an interview Wednesday, Graff said they’re still meant to be taken very seriously.
“Our expectation is that government does take action on the recommendations that we’ve made. … It’s not easy for a family to disclose this type of information. They do it because they hope something will be different for young people in the future.”
The report is the first mandatory review since a change in legislation that compels the child and youth advocate to report on a young person’s death within one year of being notified about it. Graff said that going forward, two reports will be published per year — this report was ready for release in March, but when the provincial election was called, they had to hold off.
Graff highlighted some instances where he said the system worked well, and supports aligned to help families and caregivers prioritize a child’s needs. In the case of 17-year-old Christine, who had complex mental health needs, Graff said effective collaboration between her parents and professionals from a variety of programs helped improve her circumstances. Christine died after being hit by a car while crossing the street — she had been living in a group home at the time.
The difficult stories underline what works and what doesn’t for children, parents and caregivers often struggling to get the help they need in complex situations. And Graff said it’s crucial to make sure those stories are heard and the circumstances that led to their deaths are understood.
“One of the most important parts of the role that my office has is to influence government toward improving services for vulnerable young people,” he said.
“When these kinds of tragedies happen, if we’re not able to say we are doing our best to learn from them, then inevitably, the circumstances will show themselves again.”
Madeline Smith is a reporter/photographer with Star Calgary. Follow her on Twitter: @meksmith
Well-Controlled Epilepsy Also Tied to Sudden Death
June 19, 2019
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Although people with refractory epilepsy, including some with frequent, ongoing convulsive seizures, are at high risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), a large North American registry study reveals that even those with well-controlled and “benign” epilepsy also are at risk.
Investigators found that SUDEP occurred in patients who had not taken their last dose of epilepsy medication, those who were sleep deprived, and individuals who had not had a seizure in at least a year.
Dr Orrin Devinsky
“What is really important is that SUDEP affects every segment of the epilepsy population,” Orrin Devinsky, MD, professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, chief of the NYU Epilepsy Service at NYU Langone Health in New York City, and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, told Medscape Medical News.
SUDEP can affect men, women, and children. It can affect “children diagnosed with benign epilepsies who are told they don’t need to be on medication, that they will outgrow the epilepsy. Unfortunately, [some] die before they have a chance to outgrow it,” Devinsky said. The severity of epilepsy cases in which SUDEP occurs varies widely, from cases characterized by centrotemporal spikes to epileptic encephalopathies and failed resective surgeries.
The study was published online June 19 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Modifiable Risk Factors
It is estimated that about 1 in 1000 individuals with epilepsy die suddenly every year. During a 10-year period, there is a 1% risk for SUDEP; that risk is five times greater among those at highest risk.
SUDEP is not the only epilepsy-related cause of death — drowning, car accidents, falling down a flight of stairs, and severe burns also occur. Several risk factors are modifiable, so it is possible to lower the risk for SUDEP.
“Medication adherence is probably the most important one. Getting adequate sleep is probably a close second or tied, more or less, and in adult populations, it’s also excess alcohol,” Devinsky said.
Combining one or more of these risk factors, such as drinking more alcohol than usual while sleep deprived, has a synergistic impact on risk.
Many previous population-based studies, medical examiner case-control series, and clinical case-control studies have focused on subgroups of epilepsy patients or patients whose condition was refractory to medication or surgery.
In contrast, Devinsky and colleagues evaluated a more general epilepsy population enrolled in a large international registry.
The current study is the largest series to evaluate and confirm medical records, death scene investigations, and autopsy reports.
For the study, the investigators evaluated all enrollees in the North American SUDEP Registry (NASR) from October 2011 to June 2018. The registry includes patients with epilepsy who died; living first-degree relatives of people who died from presumed SUDEP; living control persons with epilepsy; and control persons with or without epilepsy who died.
The investigators classified cases as definite SUDEP, definite plus SUDEP (people with a secondary finding that may have contributed to death), or probable SUDEP.
A neurologist or cardiologist associated with the registry adjudicated seizure type, epilepsy syndrome, and findings on EEG/video EEG, MRI, and/or ECG testing to confirm the diagnosis.
Of the 331 individuals with epilepsy who died, 237 of these deaths were classified as SUDEP. This group included 135 individuals with definite SUDEP (57%), 25 with definite plus SUDEP (11%), and 77 who died from probable SUDEP (32%).
Most Die Alone, Asleep
There was a witness present for 7% of the SUDEP deaths in the study. In 10 of these 16 instances, the witness reported that a seizure immediately preceded death. Nine of these patients died while awake. The remaining seven were presumed to be asleep.
Overall, dying from SUDEP while asleep was much more likely than dying while awake. Among the 153 unwitnessed cases of SUDEP, 73% occurred during sleep.
The population included 203 individuals for whom there were sufficient registry data on medication prescription. Within this group, 89% were prescribed antiseizure medications, and 11% were never prescribed such agents.
Prior to their deaths, only 37% of 180 patients for whom dose information was available reportedly took their last prescribed antiseizure medication. Interviews with next of kin revealed that nonadherent individuals frequently forgot to take their medications, took subtherapeutic doses to minimize side effects, or intentionally avoided taking their medications.
Although information on alcohol intake just prior to death was unavailable for most registry enrollees, 15 patients were noted as having alcohol use disorder around their time of death. Four of these individuals were drinking the night they died, including three who had engaged in binge drinking.
The median age of the 237 patients with SUDEP was 26 years (range, 1–70 years); 38% were female. This group was 79% white, 11% Hispanic, 9% black, and 1% of other ethnicities.
For the 143 individuals for whom sufficient data were available for electroclinical diagnoses, 40% had generalized epilepsy, and 60% had focal epilepsy. There was also some crossover, with 10% having both generalized and focal epilepsy.
Regarding the frequency of seizures before death, 54% of patients had no generalized clonic tonic seizures in the prior month. In the year prior to death, 15% of 182 individuals who died were seizure free.
Start a Conversation
“The other finding from our paper, which has been identified before…is 84% of the family members we spoke to had never heard of SUDEP, and they believed their loved one had never been told about SUDEP,” Devinsky said.
Clinicians should discuss SUDEP with all patients with epilepsy for two reasons.
“First, some reassurance can be given to relieve anxiety for those at low risk (eg, focal aware or absence seizures only). Second and most important, patients and families must understand the critical — and potentially lifesaving — importance of seizure control,” he said.
“Someone might think: ‘If I have an occasional seizure because I missed a med, no big deal, I will be a little tired for an hour, and then I will be on my way.’ But if they understand there is a chance they could die from that seizure, one would hope they would be better about being fully adherent with their medication,” Devinsky added.
He acknowledged that neurologists might be reluctant to raise the specter of SUDEP.
“They don’t want to scare their patients, but they need to learn how to talk about it,” he said.
A conversation with a patient whose seizures are well controlled could start, for example, as follows: “Listen, I just want you to know you’re doing fantastic. There is a problem called SUDEP, or sudden death in epilepsy. Your chances of suffering it are extremely low; however, they do exist. If you can take your medications religiously and you can get good sleep and avoid excess alcohol, you will dramatically reduce your chances of getting this from very low to close to zero. But if you miss a single dose of medication, unfortunately, you could have a big seizure, and that big seizure could be deadly,’ ” said Devinsky.
Going forward, the investigators will evaluate individuals who experienced seizures that were recorded in an epilepsy unit. They plan to assess those who subsequently died in order to identify distinguishing factors in their clinical histories or diagnostic test findings in comparison with age- and sex-matched control persons who had a similar seizure but did not die from SUDEP.
“We hope studies like this will allow us to identify markers that more accurately identify patients at high risk for SUDEP and inform us about the mechanisms for SUDEP so we can more effectively prevent it,” he said.
“A Great Effort”
“There are many unknowns about SUDEP, and we do not talk about it with our patients, likely because of the lack of knowledge about the mechanism causing this condition, or the risk factors associated with it,” Jorge G. Burneo, MD, MSPH, FAAN, writes in an accompanying editorial.
The current study “represents a great effort, as it collected a substantial amount of data from different referral sources in the United States and Canada, and is the largest cohort of SUDEP cases so far,” writes Burneo, the Jack Cowin Chair in Epilepsy Research at Western University and coleader of EpLink, the epilepsy research program of the Ontario Brain Institute.
“The important take-home message from this study is that from now on, clinicians should start conversations about SUDEP with their patients with epilepsy earlier rather than later,” he notes.
Burneo cautions about extrapolating the findings of the research to low- and middle-income countries.
“Knowledge about SUDEP in the developing world is scarce, likely related to a lack of resources necessary to establish and maintain surveillance tools or population databases. For that reason, a similar effort to the North American SUDEP registry should be replicated in other parts of the world,” he writes.
The study was supported by Finding a Cure for Epilepsy and Seizures at NYU Langone Health, Lundbeck, and the American Epilepsy Society. Devinsky is the principal investigator (uncompensated) for the NASR and the Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood Registry and Research Collaborative. He receives grant support from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Defense, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Burneo receives funding from the Ontario Brain Institute, Western University, and the Rick Berg Legacy Fund.
Neurology. Published online June 19, 2019. Abstract, Editorial
On a punishingly hot afternoon last June, Ali Cole stepped into Philadelphia’s elegant, French Renaissance Revival Bellevue Hotel carrying Father’s Day gifts for a man she didn’t know existed two months earlier ― her biological father, who was not the man who had raised her.
Until last spring, Ali had no reason to question whether the man she grew up believing was her father really was.
And to make matters even stranger, her friend Jess McIntosh had been through something similar just six months before that, when an email from Ancestry.com landed in her inbox naming the man who had donated sperm to her mother more than three decades ago.
Neither woman had set out to find her father. Ali, 39, and Jess, 37, have been friends for more than 15 years. They were roommates as undergrads, and have seen each other through the stresses of college, starting their careers, breakups, and family deaths. Ali recently left a career in advertising to become a floral designer, and Jess is a political consultant and broadcaster. They’re both my friends, too, and I’ve watched over the last year as they confronted these exhilarating and painful new truths about their lives.
Both women had signed up for an online DNA testing service, spit into a vial and mailed it off to a lab for analysis. Ali had wanted to learn more about one branch of her family tree, and Jess had wanted to know more about her mother’s Mexican ancestry.
Neither was emotionally prepared for what the tests would find. What’s become clear to me listening to their stories and talking to experts is that it’s difficult to predict how a person might react if the story of their life is rewritten.
Spokespeople for Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage all emphasized that the vast majority of their customers don’t confront shocking revelations about their families, which is undoubtedly true. But as Ali and Jess learned, there’s sometimes more at stake for some people ― and it’s not in those companies’ interests to highlight the downsides. Exploring your ancestry or trying to find biological parents isn’t new, though online DNA services have made doing so much, much easier.
Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage and smaller competitors have analyzed the genes of more than 26 million people worldwide, according to a studypublished by the MIT Technology Review. All of those people paid around $100, spit into a vial and shipped it off to a company that then added their DNA to its vast and ever-expanding databases.
But doing so can abruptly reveal long-kept family secrets ― affairs, adoptions, long-lost siblings or entire new branches of a family. It also raises a long list of challenging questions that our society is nowhere near prepared to address: Where do your rights to learn these secrets end and the rights of others to keep them begin? What makes a family? What role should your DNA play in your sense of self or identity?
“We’re at the very early stages of a whole new ethic,” said Laura Hercher, director of research on human genetics at Sarah Lawrence College. “When you put your information out there, you don’t just do it for yourself, you do it on behalf of all your family members, who do not get a chance to consent.”
Even 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki has encountered surprises, she said at a Wall Street Journal conference in February. Her uncle, believed to not have any children, fathered at least one child; an adviser to the company also discovered his father wasn’t a biological parent, she said.
“There’s no family that doesn’t have a story,” she said. “If you’ve done 23andMe, it’s just a matter of time before you figure out your own family story.”
From what Ali’s been able to piece together in the last year, her story began at a house party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in September 1979. Her mother, Dorothy Cohen (née Mao), then 28, was enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan. She was divorced from her first husband and in a long-distance relationship with Brett Cole, then 41, who was separated from his first wife.
Dorothy had threatened to cheat on Brett if he didn’t get a divorce and marry her. She made good on that threat by sleeping with an acquaintance, a professor at the university, which she quickly confessed to Brett.
Six weeks later, Dorothy discovered she was pregnant. She was adamant that the child was Brett’s, and that she wanted to marry him and raise the child together. And that’s what happened. Alison was born June 6, 1980. The family moved to New York’s Long Island in 1983, where her sister, Emily, was born two years later.
“My young childhood was good. But then it wasn’t,” she said. “After my sister was born, they fought a lot and they fought badly, and they really put my sister and I in the middle of it a lot.”
Things deteriorated when Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was ill, and Brett couldn’t handle the emotional strain. “My dad could not get his shit together when she was sick,” she said.
Soon after Dorothy’s cancer went into remission, she and the girls moved out. Brett “completely fell apart,” Ali said. He began hoarding his belongings and stopped taking care of the house and the property. He also developed an opiate addiction and various physical and mental health problems.
When Dorothy died in 1995, the girls moved back in with their father. He was in no shape to parent his young daughters, and Ali was embarrassed at the condition of her home. She felt abandoned by her surviving parent. “I know he loved me,” she said. “But he didn’t know how to talk to me and I was going through this very hard time, having lost my mom.”
“At a certain point, he wasn’t capable of being a dad anymore,” she said.
Brett’s health continued to decline. He died of lung cancer in 2004, leaving Ali parentless at 24. Ali has no idea if Brett ever doubted whether she was his daughter. She began using Ancestry.com to research his family, about which she knew little, and build a family tree. She also decided to have her DNA tested to see if she could learn more about her lineage.
“When I opened the Ancestry results, I was actually disappointed at first,” she said. She learned she is about 25% Asian and 25% Eastern European, which she expected based on her mother’s background. But it also said she is 41% Irish ― “a shocking amount,” given that it was not part of her family’s ethnic identity.
A few days later, a woman identified on Ancestry as Ali’s second cousin sent her a message. Then another second cousin reached out, with a surname Ali couldn’t link to the Cole family tree. In fact, no one from the Cole lineage showed up among the more than 1,000 people who matched her DNA.
She began to suspect the truth before she confirmed it. “I think my dad might not be my dad,” she told her husband. Ali began to entertain fantasies about babies being switched at birth. It didn’t occur to her that she might be the product of a one-night stand.
Ali wanted her sister to take a DNA test, which was a tough ask. The sisters have a strained relationship, and while they were in a friendly phase at the point, they weren’t close. Ali couldn’t get Emily to take her calls. She finally asked via text, and Emily immediately agreed to take the test. When the results arrived, they were crystal clear: Emily didn’t share any of Ali’s mysterious DNA relatives, though it was clear they had the same mother. Ali and Emily were half-sisters.
“It’s very strange to wake up one day and suddenly find out you’re somebody completely different from who you thought you were,” said Ali. “I’m still trying to process that.”
Jess, however, has almost always known that her father was not her biological father. Jess’ mother, Nana McIntosh, was home sick from work when she saw a “Phil Donahue Show” episode on artificial insemination, still a very new technology in 1980. The show listed medical facilities offering the procedure in the U.S., including the Cleveland Clinic, which was within driving distance of her Ohio home.
Nana and Jess’ father were in their mid-30s had been married for six years at the time. They wanted children, but he’d had a vasectomy during his previous marriage. Nana made plans to travel to Cleveland. (Jess is estranged from her father and, at her request, I am not using his name in this article.)
The clinic told Nana a little bit about the donor, though he was always supposed to remain anonymous. He was a physician at the facility, healthy and married with children of his own.
Nana told Jess the truth quite early on. She and her husband divorced when Jess was 5, and he told his new girlfriend about her conception, who then told his entire family. Nana felt she had no choice but to try to explain it to her daughter so she didn’t find out from someone else ― an explanation that involved a turkey baster and an illustrated children’s book on human reproduction.
Jess had never felt close to her dad, and the news that he was not her biological father didn’t have much of an impact. “I was just sort of like without a dad, and now I was even more without a dad.” It was almost liberating, she said, “to not have a history.”
She’d had a big family on her father’s side, including three older stepsisters and tons of cousins. But when they learned Jess wasn’t his natural child, they completely abandoned her. She and her mother moved to the New York City suburbs. Nana didn’t remarry until Jess was in high school.
Jess says she never felt the absence of a father figure. “Dads seemed kind of overrated based on my friends, and so I didn’t really feel like I was missing out on much,” Jess said. “It was like an amusing, weird thing that made me a little bit different, and I was fine with it.”
Jess started a “half-assed search” for her biological father in college, and signed up for a donor-sibling registry. It didn’t produce any results, and life went on.
She tried 23andMe in 2014 to learn more about her maternal grandfather ― a Mexican immigrant named Mario Gutierrez who had changed his name to Myron Guthrie, told everyone he was French Basque nobility, and passed as white for most of his life. Jess’ uncle had discovered this only after “Myron’s” death.
She signed up for Ancestry.com in November 2017. When the results arrived about a month later, Jess was busy greeting guests for a housewarming party for the apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Brooklyn. She hurriedly opened up the email.
Though she had considered the test might connect her with other donor children, she hadn’t expected to learn the name of the man who had fathered them. But there it was, right at the top of the page: “Jon Rainey is your father.”
“It’s hilariously blunt,” Jess said.
Family secrets are as old as families. The reasons for keeping them haven’t changed much. To cover up a lie. To protect someone. To avoid social stigma. While revealing secrets can cause harm, so too does deceit.
This is part of what makes Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, extremely uncomfortable about how direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies market themselves. “They treat finding out information about your DNA or genetics or heredity as kind of a lark, or a sort of fun, light activity,” he said.
It’s not in these companies’ interests to talk us out of giving them money, and there are no laws telling them they have to warn customers that a test might damage their families or unsettle their sense of identity. Caplan advises against using online DNA services, but urges people to really think hard about it if they’re going to do it anyway. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: Think before you spit.
“Genetic information implicates your biological relatives. It’s not the same as knowing your weight or your blood pressure, which tells you nothing about anybody else,” Caplan said. “But if that’s not my dad, then maybe it’s not your dad, and maybe you didn’t want to find out.”
It’s irresponsible, then, to offer genetic testing without genetic counseling, he said.
“You have to know what you’re getting into, assume the risk in an informed, deliberate way,” he said. “You’re not going to stumble your way through this and wind up with the best possible outcome.”
This, of course, is not how Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andMe see things.
23andMe customers have to affirmatively opt in to making the DNA information available to relatives on the website, spokesman Andy Kill highlighted. In the case of 23andMe, they can learn their ethnic heritage or genetic predispositions to certain traits without using other parts of the service.
Rafi Mendelsohn, a MyHeritage spokesman, emphasized that cases of revealing unknown paternity are rare, although the company doesn’t explicitly track that. “We have, however, seen the positive impact that DNA testing has had in connecting family members,” he wrote in an email, adding that they “are seeing lots of reunions, both in the U.S. and around the world.”
“Almost everyone who takes our AncestryDNA test finds something surprising, and for most customers it’s something exciting and enriching; but there are certainly cases where a discovery might be quite unexpected,” wrote Ancestry spokesman Mark Ranneberger.
He added that the company provides “a small, dedicated group of highly experienced representatives who speak to customers with more sensitive queries and guide them to their own discoveries.” The other companies offer similar services, although they’re not always equipped to handle delicate situations.
None of the experts I interviewed disputed any of that. All of the forms have language stating that you may discover something about your family background you find unsettling, said Henry Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School in California. But the disclosures resemble those software update agreements all of us click without reading closely.
“They don’t go into a lot of detail about it,” said Greely, who has used Ancestry and Family Tree’s DNA services himself. “They don’t put it in bright red letters, 24-point fonts.”
After Emily’s DNA report came in, Ali reached out to the new Ancestry-linked cousins to try to learn the identity of her biological father. She eventually landed on the name of a man who was about the right age. She found his Facebook profile, which listed “Visiting Professor at University of Michigan” at the top.
He is a writer, and there was a lot of publicly available information about him. That’s how she discovered he had cancer, the same disease that took her parents. “And I’m like, fuck, of course he does,” she said. “Now I suddenly have family again but of course he’s dying of cancer like everybody else in my family.”
His Amazon author page listed an email address. Ali emailed him with a made-up story about researching her mother’s life for a podcast. “I need to figure out if he even knows who my mom is, because I can’t just start out with ‘I’m probably your kid,’” she said.
He wrote back the same day: “I believe you are referring to Dorothy Cohen, who is a person who is very near and dear to my heart. … There are very, very few people in this world that I liked as much as your mom.”
After downing some wine, Ali wrote back and told him the real reason she contacted him. She described what she knew about her biological father: He was Irish-American, lived in Philadelphia, and was a writer and former professor at the University of Michigan.
“My first reaction is joy. And my second reaction is, oh my God, what is my wife going to think? What is my family going to think?” he wrote back the next morning. “I think I need to go take a walk.” (At his and Ali’s request, I am not using his name or the names of his family members in this article.)
Ali had long felt there was something missing from her life, something that might explain things about her. She’d felt out of place in her own family, especially after her mother died. Her dad and her sister shared a closeness that she didn’t feel. She’d loved her father, but never really felt connected to him.
“I always thought I was just weird or that there was something wrong with me,” she said. “And I carried that well into adulthood.”
She began to feel her biological father was the missing piece that would complete her puzzle. She could sense there were shared traits, like a creative nature. But when they finally got around to the subject of meeting in person, there were signs the relationship might get complicated. His wife seemed to be struggling with the idea that Ali existed.
“Had I hoped that she was going to be like, ‘Come and be a part of our family and I’m your new mom?’ Yes, that’s totally what I wanted, even though I lied to myself for weeks and said that’s not what I wanted at all,” she said. “When that didn’t happen, that was hard.”
Nevertheless, when my wife and I told Ali we were planning a weekend trip to Philadelphia last summer, she and her husband quickly decided to come along. She told her biological father she would be in town if he wanted to meet.
That’s how they ended up at that hotel a couple blocks from Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall last June, nervously bearing gifts. Ali’s husband, a woodworker, made him coasters, and another friend made a cutting board.
“I hadn’t bought somebody a gift for Father’s Day in years,” she said. “And he bought me some books for my birthday, which was awesome because I hadn’t gotten a gift from a parent on a birthday in 14 years.”
After a nervous greeting, they went upstairs to the hotel’s opulent XIX restaurant to have lunch. They talked for two hours. He had a lot of questions for her ― about her family, her life so far, her interests. “It actually felt a little bit like an interview at times.”
Before the meeting, he’d asked for her permission to call her his daughter. “This is my daughter, Ali. She’s just in from Brooklyn for the afternoon,” he told the server.
“He made it sound like we knew each other, like he had raised me, which is very sweet,” said Ali afterward.
But that lunch has been the high point to date. Their subsequent emails grew tense, and they haven’t been in touch since September, when he told Ali he needed a break because his wife’s feelings of anxiety about him having another child were too strong.
“I fell into a depression for a solid month, because it triggers every single one of my abandonment issues and all of this stuff from my past,” Ali said.
Ali had spent most of her life dealing with her own family’s dysfunction, only to find herself now mired in a new family’s difficulties. The situation dredged up a lot of old, bad feelings for her, which is not what she’d expected to find after spending so much time pining for familial connection.
Ali did, however, get to meet her biological father’s three sisters in November. The youngest of the aunts, the one to whom Ali has grown closest, wrote her on Facebook with an invitation to visit the Philadelphia suburbs and spend time with the sisters and some of their children. Ali has seen that youngest aunt twice more since then, and even spent Mother’s Day with her and her adult daughter, and they text regularly. Ali’s father’s ex-wife, mother to their son who died as a teenager years ago, also reached out, and Ali has met or corresponded with several cousins.
Her aunts have welcomed Ali into their family, over their brother’s objections. He was angry about Ali’s visit and tried to forbid his sisters from seeing her again. Two agreed ― for the time being, anyway ― but the youngest refused.
Although Ali is upset about her father and his wife, getting to know the women in the family has been a blessing, and has made Ali believe that nature is stronger than nurture. “As much as we think we have a choice in our genetics and the things we like and the things that make us, we don’t,” Ali said. “My sense of humor, my way of speaking, the things that I’m interested in ― the natural world, flowers, birding ― these are all the same things these women love.”
Jess had very little trouble tracking down her donor. Jon Rainey’s photo was right there on the Cleveland Clinic website.
She didn’t see any of her face in his, though she thought he looked kind. “He has very smiling eyes,” she said.
She called the phone number listed on the clinic’s website the next day, but it went to a directory. She wrote him a message on the Ancestry website, where his profile was public, but could see he hadn’t logged on in a long time. She tracked down a DNA cousin who was able to provide the crucial link. The cousin told her thatRaineyhad been open with his family about being a sperm donor; his wife and kids know he likely has other children out in the world.
Still, Jess was nervous about reaching out, worried he might think she was after something.
“I don’t want to fuck with anyone’s life,” Jess said. “My life is fine. I don’t need money. I don’t need a father figure.”
She decided to send the cousin a message to see if she could help fill in some of the blanks about her life. Her newfound relative was “super into it,” Jess said. They still communicate regularly.
After their initial messages, Jess agreed to let her cousin tellRainey about her. The cousin passed along his email address. Jess decided to wait a few weeks before writing to him.
“So I guess the important thing I want to say is thanks,” she wrote in a brief note. “You did a cool, weird thing 36 years ago, and I’m pretty grateful for it.
“If you were into saying hello sometime, I think that would be rad.”
He replied 13 days later. It was a nice note, and he told her about his family. They’ve been infrequently corresponding since then ― long, intimate emails, though they have never spoken on the phone or met in real life.
“It’s more like writing to a friend you’ve known a very long time,” she said. But she hasn’t heard from Rainey since last July. She figures she’ll probably send him an email wishing him a Merry Christmas this year, but is fine with things as they are.
“I was curious, and that was really the extent of it.” Jess said. “But try telling that to people ― or therapists ― and see if they’ll believe you.”
Jess has also found six half-brothers and half-sisters via Ancestry and 23andMe, including two sets of siblings. None of them had known they were donor children before taking DNA tests. They’re all in their 30s now, some with kids of their own or parents who are no longer living. The information about their families has been devastating in some cases.
Jess fears she was the one who accidentally broke the news of being a donor child to one of those half-sisters. She wrote her an email, but never heard back.
“It never occurred to me that it would be traumatic for the other donor kids,” she said. “I just assumed they were like me. … This has major ethical implications that I have not even started to think through despite having been thinking about this for my entire life.”
In a more positive development, Jess spent a weekend this April with two of her half-siblings, a brother-sister pair. “It was incredibly easy to be around them. It was sort of like I always hoped it would be, inasmuch as there was an immediate familiarity. We have very similar mannerisms, ways of speaking, processing humor,” she said. “It was like hanging out with people I had known for a very long time.”
As direct-to-consumer DNA tests become more popular, more people will face situations like those Jess and Ali have encountered.
“The level of secrets that’s being uncovered is far more than I anticipated and probably most people anticipated,” said Debbie Kennett, a genealogist based in the United Kingdom. There are many ways family secrets can be uncovered, but nothing matches the certainty, ease and cost of an online DNA test.
“DNA is just another way of revealing these secrets, but I think that fact that it’s science-based, in some way it has more of an impact,” Kennett said.
The medical community is also engaged in a debate over whether it’s still even possible to sustain the idea that donor parents or people who give children up for adoption could maintain anonymity.
The growing number of people searching for donor fathers on these websites has also raised tricky legal questions about what rights the children have to use these services to identify and contact their biological families. In one case, a sperm bank threatened to sue an Oregon woman for attempting to contact the biological father of her daughter.
In Kennett’s view, the right to know the truth about one’s lineage supersedes the rights of those who seek to conceal the truth. Jess wasn’t party to the agreement her mother made with the Cleveland Clinic. Ali will never know if her parents knew the truth ― and if they did, it was their choice to withhold it, not hers.
“In some ways, the DNA tests are actually rectifying past wrongs. I think everyone has that right to know their identities, have access to their family history, to their medical history,” Kennett said. “And if they’re denied that, then that really is very much unethical.” Family medical history alone could save someone’s life by making them aware if they are predisposed to certain health problems.
Anyone who submits their DNA to these websites is opening themselves up to surprising and discomfiting revelations, said Hercher, the Sarah Lawrence College genetic research director. “It may be an invitation they didn’t mean to extend, but it is an invitation.”
Jess’ mother confessed to a fleeting feeling of anxiety when her daughter first told her she’d found the sperm donor. They’d always been close, and Nana, now 75, had never had to share her daughter’s affection with anyone.
But she liked the thought of Jess having access to more relatives. “As I get older, it’s kind of been a concern of mine that we don’t really have extended family,” Nana said.
For Nana, the experience has proven the wisdom of telling Jess the truth, even as a child. “It’s when you keep it a secret that the revelation becomes difficult,” Nana said.
For Ali’s younger sister Emily, both nothing and everything has changed. She still has the parents she thought she had, and her love for Ali hasn’t diminished. But it resurfaced difficult memories of her mother’s illness, of her parents’ marriage disintegrating, and of the sense that they had been keeping things from their daughters. She wondered what else had been hidden.
There is so much Emily would like to ask her mother as she struggles to fit this new truth into her conception about the kind of person Dorothy Cohen was.
“I see her now more as a human. She had issues in her life that were difficult and she may have made a decision I would not have agreed with if I had been there,” Emily said. “But still, in the grand scheme of things, it was her life and her decision.”
Over the last few months, both Ali and Jess have become more accustomed to the revised versions of their stories.
While Jess thinks it would be nice to meet her biological father, she doesn’t feel a need to expand her family. “I have a family. It is not made up of blood relatives,” she said. “My family is my mother and my friends.”
Ali is less sanguine, in part because her biological father’s illness and his wife’s unhappiness about fitting her into their lives.
“It’s been made very clear to me that if I didn’t exist, it would be better,” she said. “And that’s a very hard thing to deal with.”
Forming a relationship with her newly discovered relatives, however, goes a long way toward making up for that, Ali said.
“My dad’s no longer in the picture, and I don’t imagine that he ever will be,” she said. “But because of this, I now have family ― and real family who genuinely care about me.”
Mother’s complicated life made searching for family challenging
Jun 12, 2019 12:00 PM by: Scott Hayes
Velvet Martin of St. Albert, right, hugs her sister for the first time at the Edmonton International Airport on Tuesday. Bonnie Williamson-Powell arrived from Ontario for a week-long visit with her newfound sister.
DAN RIEDLHUBER/St. Albert Gazette
There were balloons, hugs, smiles and tears when two long-lost sisters were reunited at the Edmonton International Airport on Tuesday morning. St. Albert’s Velvet Martin finally looked straight into the eyes of Bonnie Williamson-Powell, arriving from Ontario.
It was a moment Martin thought would never come – that is, until her genealogical detective work solved some riddles last November. A lot of those riddles started because of their mother’s complicated life.
“I thought I was an only child growing up. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that my mom had had another life before myself and my dad,” she began. “I promised her when she disclosed this to me that I would not search for the past because she was … afraid of the past. I wouldn’t search until she passed.”
Losing her mother in 2015 meant that she could now start asking questions about who else might be out there. She wrote to children’s aid societies, posted messages to Facebook groups and made requests of online genealogy sites, and more.
“I wasn’t sure where to write because my mom was born in Nova Scotia and lived in Ontario. To complicate matters, my mom was a foster child so she had many names growing up.”
She contacted her mother’s orphanage and even took one of those DNA kits. Through all of her research, she determined that her mother had a sibling that she never knew about.
“I was actually on a Facebook group for Nova Scotia and met a woman online who lives in Alberta, coincidentally. Her father was my mother’s brother. She’d been doing a lot of DNA digging for quite a while. Her brother already did the DNA test so she convinced me to go do it. I did it and sure enough, we were first cousins.”
The two ended up working together to help Martin in her search. They developed a list of possible surnames for her sibling and photos that went with them. Near the end of 2018, there was one picture that had potential, though the face in it was off in the distance. There was no way of knowing what she should be looking for to recognize the face anyway.
Martin contacted the person in the photo who ended up being her sister’s sibling.
“She’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know who Bonnie is. That’s my sister,’ ” Martin said.
A phone number was passed along and last November she received the call from Ontario. The puzzle hadn’t been solved just yet. Skepticism in such circumstances is understandable. The difference in their ages is nearly 20 years. Williamson-Powell didn’t exactly know all of the details of her mother’s life either.
When the two spoke on the phone, they figured that sending photographs by email might help solve the mystery once and for all. Williamson-Powell sent along a portrait photo of herself as a young child with her father and her mother right there, wearing an outfit that Martin immediately recognized.
“Throughout my whole childhood growing up, mom had this portrait hanging up in the house, which now that she’s passed it hangs up in my house. It’s identical… it’s got to be from the same photoshoot because she’s wearing the same outfit. It’s just a portrait of her. I sent that back to Bonnie and said, ‘Oh, yes, this is definitely the same woman.’ ”
They were indeed sisters and, in true sisterly form, they’ve spent hours talking on the phone, sharing details and asking questions to catch up on all of the years as fast as possible.
“It’s nice to be able to find your past,” Martin said, starting to choke up with emotion. “My mom and dad both passed. My daughter passed. We’ve had so many losses. For the first time, it’s like we’re gaining family. It’s incredible.”
Williamson-Powell, too, is relieved to have a new sister and to have been able to put some of the sad stories of her family’s past to rest, though there is much more to discover.
“I really don’t know how to describe it. I have had a pretty complicated life so this didn’t come as a huge surprise to me. At first, I think I was just happy and sad at the same time, I guess, because I had been looking for my birth mother for most of my life. When Velvet found me and I spoke to her, and I found out that my mother had passed on was really, really sad. There’s a lot of mixed emotions,” she said, later writing in an email, “In the end, we are left with family and friends and nothing else matters as much.”
The two suggested that there would probably be a lot of photo albums looked at during this week-long visit. They still have much to talk about. It turns out that their mother had another relationship, and there are three other sisters from that as well, though one has already passed away. There is another that lives somewhere in Canada and another in the United States. The search for them continues.
Dianna Leigh Holden, who operates National People Locator (NPL), took Lee Hanlon to court for online statements he made over the course of about 14 months, between July 2016 and September 2017.
Those online statements, which the court broke down collectively into 11 individual claims, were made on Facebook, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Hanlon’s personal website and a website called brainsyntax.com.
Those claims included that she is a liar, doesn’t fulfill her refund guarantee, is a con artist, gives the profession a bad name, harassed Hanlon by pretending to be a lawyer, appropriates money from her company, is mentally unstable, has a criminal/violent background, makes false claims to authorities, sets up parents dealing with the ministry of children and families and that she is “extremely litigious.”
According to the ruling, by Justice Jane Dardi in Vancouver’s courthouse, Hanlon and Holden first came into contact in September 2011, but did not make contact for another five years after that.
After Holden responded to a Craigslist posting by Hanlon in early 2011, the two made intermittent contact over the following months, discussing work and business opportunities, including potentially working together.
Hanlon also encouraged Holden to apply for a private investigator licence, which she eventually did, and she considered hiring him as a loss prevention officer, though nothing materialized at that point.
But the relationship turned tumultuous, and ultimately ended with a cease and desist letter sent to Hanlon, followed by Hanlon’s series of online statements against Holden.
Holden took the matter to the Abbotsford Police Department, which recommended criminal libel charges, though that recommendation was ultimately never taken up by Crown prosecutors.
Instead, in the latter half of 2017, the matter went to civil court, where there is a much lighter burden of proof on the claimant.
In her judgement, Dardi found nearly all of Hanlon’s 11 claims to be “plainly defamatory of Ms. Holden,” largely because Hanlon could not substantiate the claims, often relying on inadmissible hearsay and other unreliable evidence.
His assertion that Holden sent him inappropriate messages in 2011 with a fake Facebook profile under the name “Myrtle Higginbottoms” was made “without any cogent evidence” to support his claim that “Higginbottoms” had listed the same birthdate as Holden, Dardi wrote.
With respect to another claim, that Holden appropriates money unethically from her company, Hanlon “admits that he has no documentary evidence whatsoever to support this allegation.” Dardi also pointed out that owing taxes to the Canada Revenue Agency makes one a debtor – not a tax fraudster.
Although Dardi said claims that Holden has mental health issues is not defamatory, because mental health “should not bear a negative stigma,” she did find Hanlon’s claims that Holden was “delusional and mentally unstable” to be defamatory.
On only one claim – that Holden was “extremely litigious” – was Hanlon found not to have defamed her, as Holden acknowledged that she was involved in a number of lawsuits.
Dardi awarded Holden $20,000 in damages, and further found that Hanlon acted with malice, awarding an additional $7,500 in aggravated damages.
“Mr. Hanlon published the impugned statements with a reckless indifference as to whether they were true or false. He was not merely careless with regard to the truth,” Dandi wrote. “Moreover, he insisted on pursuing the justification defence through to trial without a reasonable evidentiary basis for doing so.”
Category: Local News
Published: Thursday, 06 June 2019 05:00
Written by Ryan Forbes
Protesters in Dryden are working to bring more awareness to the potential dangers of the Child, Youth and Family Services system. On a monthly average, there are close to 12,000 youth in care.
Protesters in Dryden are calling for more supports for youth in care, and more investigations into the child’s home before they can be taken away from their family. On a monthly average, there are close to 12,000 youth in care in Ontario.
Yesterday, in front of the community’s courthouse and Service Ontario building, anonymous protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks were raising awareness of, in their opinion, the dangers of the Child, Youth and Family Services system in Ontario and Manitoba.
“We’re raising awareness for children that are in care. Children in care are being denied retribution. Children are in hotels with no supervision, and they’re getting preyed upon,” said the protester, who wished to remain anonymous.
Treaty #3 member Tina Fontaine of Sagkeeng First Nation was found dead in Winnipeg in 2014. She was supposed to be in protective custody in a hotel room at the time. The province of Manitoba has since banned the practice of using hotel rooms for children at risk, but the practice continues in Ontario.
Fontaine’s story was featured in the recent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report. The report calls for a transformation of the child welfare system, citing a “lack of respect for Indigenous families and the rights of Indigenous children.” Between 1989 and 2012, on-reserve First Nation youth were found to be 12 times more likely to go into child welfare care.
“Children’s aid societies do help, but there are a lot of children being taken away from their families after a single accusation. The accusation may not even be true. We want to bring awareness to that. There should be more investigations to make sure that these allegations are true. It can really affect the children. It does more damage than it does good,” added the anonymous protester.
Doctor Dirk Huyer is Ontario’s Chief Coroner, and he counted 12 youth who died in care over the last four years in the province. His thorough report on the system, released in September of 2018, looked into 12 cases of deaths stemming from children in care. Eight of the 12 committed suicide.
Azraya Kokopenace was one of the 12 youth involved in the report. Kokopenace was 14-years-old when she passed away suddenly in the woods across from Kenora’s hospital in 2016. The teen was supposed to be in the care of family services.
Recent census figures show that the First Nations population for youth in care increased by almost 40 per cent in the last ten years in Ontario, while more than half the children in foster care 14 years and younger, are Indigenous.
An estimated 90 per cent of Manitoban children in care are Indigenous, and its estimated that Manitoban children in care graduate high school at a rate of 25 per cent. The first five calls to action of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, December 2015, called on the government to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care.
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’s national youth homelessness survey, conducted in 2015, found that almost 60 per cent of the 1,103 homeless youth (aged 13 to 24) surveyed in nine provinces and Nunavut, had previous or current involvement with the child welfare system.
Staff at Kenora’s hospital have requested additional resources to deal with youth in crisis, saying they see — on average — one a day. While the youth are meant to be transferred to Thunder Bay, staff say the stabilization unit in Thunder Bay handled about 300 patients a year, and their unit is often full, which can lead to delays for youth in crisis in Kenora.
At this point, the hospital has a unit on the fourth floor for adults. However, youth aren’t allowed to mix with the adults, and it can take several days for a bed in a stabilization facility to be found. Similar concerns can be found across northwestern Ontario.
In Ontario, child protection services are provided by children’s aid societies, governed by the Child, Youth and Family Services Act. Children’s aid societies are responsible for investigating reports or evidence of abuse or neglect of children under the age of 18, and when necessary, taking steps to protect children.
In 97 per cent of investigations done by CAS, the child or children remain in the home and receive supportive services. In Ontario, Children’s Aid Societies have the exclusive legal responsibility to provide child protection services 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
For more information:
Local reactions from MMIWG report
Child protection system failed Azraya, report
Canada’s indigenous seek to break vicious cycle tearing families apart
WHY WE WROTE THIS
Decades of mistreatment of Canada’s indigenous communities have led to precarious family lives, which in turn have put families at risk of being split up by the government. Now indigenous groups are trying to stop the cycle.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Collette Norris (l.), Patricia Dawn (c.), and Joe Norris pose on traditional First Nations land in Duncan, British Columbia. They work with Red Willow Womyn’s Society to help indigenous women in the Cowichan Valley at risk of having their children taken into custody by authorities.
June 5, 2019
By Sara Miller Llana Staff writer
DUNCAN, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Joe Norris, at 81, still wakes up with blood on his pillow some mornings, the result of a blow to the ear that he received as a boy for speaking his indigenous language at the residential school where so many of his generation were sent.
The stain represents the violence of forcefully being taken away from his family to a boarding school intended to assimilate indigenous peoples. But it also represents the bonds to his grandfather, who brought him home and taught him the language, customs, and culture of his Halalt First Nation on Vancouver Island.
“I’m glad he did. I don’t think I would have made it at that school; it would have killed me,” says Mr. Norris, a hereditary chief and retired businessman.
Today he is playing the role his grandfather did for him, as an elder working with the Red Willow Womyn’s Society in the Cowichan Valley, a grassroots network working to stop “child apprehensions,” in which the government takes children from their mothers as a last-resort protection, the government maintains, of the children. The practice disproportionately affects indigenous families. “What we’re looking at is to reclaim our culture, our language, our teachings as a native people.”
Although Canada’s indigenous population has more visibility in Canadian political and cultural life than America’s, colonial policies have a dark history here. Traumas from assimilation policies from the 19th and 20th centuries have generated a lasting vicious cycle: Generational issues often see indigenous children born into more precarious family lives, yet those families become victims of a child-welfare system built on centuries of stigma and bias. In British Columbia last year, of all children apprehended at birth, 55% were indigenous, according to provincial government data. In the 2016 census, 5.9% of the province’s population identified as aboriginal.
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Authorities at the top recognize the challenge, but members of the indigenous community, from grassroots activists to elders to doulas, say it’s not enough. They are taking action now, helping to reclaim traditional cultural and family practices to try to break the cycle. “People started saying, ‘This is enough. We are literally falling apart,’” says Marnie Turner, an indigenous doula working in the Vancouver area for indigenous women.
Canada’s residential schools
Canada’s residential school system was established in the 19th century as a network of government-sponsored religious schools, the majority of them Roman Catholic, aimed at assimilating indigenous children into Euro-Canadian society. But according to the 2015 findings of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the establishment and operation of residential schools is best described as “cultural genocide.” An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were removed from their homes; the last school did not close down until 1996. (The government formally apologized for the schools in 2008, when it set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.)
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Doulas with the Indigenous Birth Keepers group say a prayer before a meeting at the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Surrey, British Columbia. The Birth Keepers support expectant mothers during pregnancy through the postnatal period and help First Nation mothers reclaim traditional practices.
In the 20th century, families were split again by what is called the “Sixties Scoop”: mass adoptions of First Nations and Métis children in Canada. And many see disproportionate child apprehensions as the 21st century iteration in the guise of child protective services.
“It’s an echo of residential schools,” says Patricia Dawn, founder of the Red Willow Womyn’s Society, which began a decade ago as a peer support group for indigenous women. “We’re still dealing with this colonial mind, that we’re too drunk. We’re not smart. We need to be helped.”
Canada’s female indigenous population is particularly mistreated, as it has historically been vulnerable to violent and sexual abusers, further tearing families apart. Canada’s National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released its final report this week, concluding that the disproportionate number of missing or murdered indigenous women over the last several decades is “genocide.”
Katrine Conroy, minister of children and family development in British Columbia, says correcting overrepresentation of indigenous children in foster care – the extent of which she says she was unaware of until becoming minister – has been a top priority since the beginning of her mandate. “I recognize that it’s just not acceptable. This has been going on for too long, and there’s systemwide assumptions and practices that have really failed indigenous kids and families.”
It’s a complex challenge, and removals are only a last resort, she says. The number of apprehensions of indigenous children at birth in British Columbia has gone down by 51 percent in the past decade (from 2008 to 2018), according to the ministry. But she recognizes mistrust toward her office has mounted over decades.
‘We see what you are doing’
Indeed, those on the ground say mainstream prejudices are rife. And few have a better view than doulas like Feona Lim, who coaches white, Asian, and indigenous mothers in Greater Vancouver.
She says she works at the same hospitals and often even with the same staff but sees vastly different attitudes depending on who her client is. “Basically the tone right away it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re having a baby! Congratulations ! That must be so exciting’ to ‘When’s the last time you had a drink?’”
She’s part of a burgeoning movement of doulas who are reclaiming traditional birth practices. On a recent evening at the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association in Surrey in Greater Vancouver, coordinator Corina Bye starts a meeting among doulas. They call themselves the Indigenous Birth Keepers, and they begin with a smudging ceremony using burning sage, tobacco, sweet grass, and cedar and a prayer.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Corina Bye, program coordinator and doula with the Indigenous Birth Keepers group, chats about her work in Surrey, British Columbia.
They form part of a network at the Friendship Centre aimed at improving the lives of indigenous families, whether that’s with mothers seeking pre- or postnatal care or by connecting young families to elders for advice. The “wraparound” services, as they are called, are intended to re-create the family supports traditionally found in villages. “We’re just like aunties,” says Ms. Turner of the doulas.
But they are also present on the front lines where separation often happens. “We literally stand,” says Ms. Turner.
Bearing witness is a central part of the work of the Red Willow Womyn’s Society. When an apprehension is anticipated, Ms. Dawn’s telephone rings. Their growing network will make a call to action on social media, placing phone calls and emails to officials and elected leaders, to send the message, she says: “‘We see what you are doing.’ Being called out by your community is an indigenous practice.”
They interrupted four apprehensions last year, says Ms. Dawn.
In some ways, family separation has become more acute. Collette Norris, an elder and Mr. Norris’s cousin, says she struggled with alcoholism while her children were growing up. But her family stepped in to help and keep the kids safe. “They looked after them,” she says. “That’s how it worked. We just loved the kids.”
In today’s climate, she is sure her children would have been taken from her; her granddaughter’s children were taken from her while she was struggling with addiction, and her newborn was removed even after she had recovered. They have since been reunited.
Words of value
Minister Conroy says that her ministry has increased funding in the budget for foster parents, including relatives taking in family, so that children can stay within their communities. That follows legislation that was introduced last year in British Columbia intended to reduce the number of indigenous children in foster care and calls to action nationally from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first five of which specifically were about child welfare.
But Ms. Dawn says that none of this has been enough, and social workers are not experienced enough with indigenous traumas – and solutions.
The Red Willow Womyn’s Society is now building up prevention work in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association in the regional hub, Duncan. In one case, a foster parent housed a mother with her baby instead of separating the two before they moved into temporary housing that is part of a pilot project that provides wraparound services. A key feature is peer support by other indigenous women who have fought to reunite their families. “It’s more about how we walk with you. And we call it companion care,” says Ms. Dawn. “It’s returning to and honoring that everybody has the right to dignity and respect.”
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Joe Norris speaks about his mistreatment in a residential school and how his grandfather taught him traditional ways and their indigenous language, in Duncan, British Columbia.
The elders like Mr. Norris play a crucial role in the healing process, she says.
If Mr. Norris’s pillow stands as a sign of the damage wrought upon him, a blanket he has from a residential school is a sign of the power of healing. “When I came out of residential school, my grandfather said that the church, the Catholic Church and government, literally buried our values. And that it’s entirely up to us to dig it up and look at it,” he says. “And there’s holes in our values. So we have patches.”
On those patches are written these words: family values, trust, respect, integrity, love, forgiveness, and responsibility.
“His grandfather told him that residential school had buried the blanket of values and traditions and that his work would be to bring that back,” says Ms. Dawn.
“We’ve been building community through this work and engaging at a community level. And so we’ve been able to birth what we’re calling social protection, because there’s enough of us now in all four directions … and people are done. We don’t want to do this anymore.”
It’s one of the last things a parent wants to encounter—a social worker at the door with allegations of child abuse. What may come as a surprise to many is that such allegations can be based on little more than a “gut feeling.”
Those mandated to report potential child abuse are apparently encouraged to base their suspicions on signs that appear to have only a vague connection to child abuse and even may be based on the accuser’s feelings.
Authorities have operated under the mantra that the child’s health and safety, not preserving the family, “shall be the paramount concern,” as enshrined in the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act spearheaded by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Yet in reality, Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies are investigating parents and often removing their children for questionable reasons—just to be on the safe side—resulting in drastic measures that have decimated families.
In fiscal 2018, more than 5,500 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect were reported in Philadelphia—about one for every 63 children in the city (pdf). The local Department of Human Services (DHS) placed more than 2,700 children in the foster care system that year—one in 125 children in the city. That’s the highest rate among America’s 10 largest cities, about triple that of New York City, even when adjusted for poverty (pdf), according to the nonprofit National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR).
However, only about 1,000 neglect/abuse reports that year were substantiated, meaning adjudicated in court or backed by evidence that “outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate,” according to the state law.
In some cases, the allegations were actually determined to be unfounded, but the children were still taken away, according to Philadelphia Councilman David Oh.
The question is, why?
Oh, one of three Republicans on the 17-member City Council, saw up close how the DHS system works last summer when his 8-year-old son was hurt at judo practice.
Oh is a black belt in several martial arts and has been passing on the heritage to his four children. During one judo throw, the boy landed incorrectly and, despite the flood pads, broke his clavicle, Oh said.
At the hospital, a social worker told the parents to leave the room so that she could talk to the boy alone. From what Oh later gathered from his son, the woman didn’t inquire at all about what happened, but instead said, “You don’t like judo, do you?” The boy replied, “sometimes.”
The social worker then informed Oh that she would report him to the DHS, because his son didn’t want to learn judo and that an adult man shouldn’t be teaching judo to a child. “Is it cultural bias?” Oh said he asked her. “I mean, what if it was football or soccer, wrestling, or break dancing, or riding a bicycle?”
She said that she reports every instance where a child gets hurt in an activity done with an adult man, Oh said.
Oh explained the situation to the attending doctor, who agreed there was no need to report the case to the DHS, but when he talked to the social worker again, she said she’d reported it already.
Indeed, another social worker later came to Oh’s house to investigate what was reported as “abusive discipline.”
“If you get a complaint that this Asian man is forcing his son to learn judo so he can beat up on him, you will come out to my house with the idea, ‘Let me check and see if he’s really teaching judo or if he’s really just using it as an excuse to get his jollies by beating up his son,” Oh said in a phone interview. “And that’s the problem. There is only evidence that that is not the case … That’s a false report.”
Oh spoke to the hospital’s vice president and the supervisor of its social workers. He said he thought that perhaps the woman reporting his case had a “bad day” or was insufficiently trained, and he wanted to make sure others wouldn’t be put in a similar situation.
Yet, the officials told him the social worker did exactly what she was supposed to do.
“Any time she has a gut feeling that something is not right, she should report it to DHS,” Oh said he was told.
As a lawyer and a legislator, Oh knew that’s not how things work in the legal realm.
“There is absolutely no standard in this world that [allows you to] use your gut feelings,” he said. “So I said, ‘That cannot possibly be the law. You’re basically saying that people can use their subjective opinions about other people because of the way they look, they dress, their race, their ethnicity, their religion, to [report] people.’”
He was then told, “It’s in the better interest of children that we use a better-safe-than-sorry standard. So if you have any suspicion or gut feeling that something might be wrong, even though you can’t identify what it is, just report it to the DHS.”
“Because in their opinion, they’re just reporting and then DHS will pick it from there,” he said.
Oh has a different opinion.
“That’s very much like, ‘The more fire alarms you pull and the more fire engines that go out to false alarms, the safer the city is from fires.’” he said. “You’re wasting a lot of resources, you’re not focusing your resources where they should be. You are encouraging prejudice.”
He went on to speak to DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa.
He offered to jointly develop with her more “objective guidelines” for people who are required by state law to report child abuse, which is virtually everybody who comes into contact with children on the job.
“What I got back from the DHS commissioner is, ‘No. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to. If they have a gut feeling, they should report it, and then we’ll investigate it.’”
Oh disagreed. “I found that to be in violation of the law,” he said.
Child abuse and neglect are handled differently by different states, although there are many commonalities. In Pennsylvania, mandated reporters are supposed to notify DHS when they have a “reasonable cause to suspect” that abuse or neglect occurred.
“Reasonable cause” is a standard of proof featured in multiple legal settings. It has been used, for example, by a police officer to stop and briefly detain a person. It is usually described as having a cause that would lead a reasonable person presented with the same circumstances to the same conclusion.
But the state appears to endorse including more subjective feelings in the determination.
“All you need is reasonable cause to suspect. Information to support your concern may include the circumstances, your observations, your familiarity with the people and the situation, and your feelings and beliefs,” states a slide in a three-hour online training course by the University of Pittsburgh that has been approved by the state for mandated reporters of child abuse.
Another slide calls on participants to “Think about your feelings and personal biases and consider how they influence your conclusions and actions.”
While that may sound like discouraging the use of personal feelings and biases, the training doesn’t explicitly do so and seems at best confusing on this matter.
The training also presents lists of signs that may indicate a child is being abused. Many of the indicators are commonsense, such as bruises that resemble a fist, hand, or a belt buckle, and a child’s fear of going home.
Many, however, seem to have only a vague connection with abuse, such as being withdrawn, having low self-esteem, poor school performance, being “fearful of trying new things,” or seeking attention. Being “often hungry” or having clothes that are too large are listed among signs of neglect.
Poverty and “little parenting experience” are listed among “risk factors” for parents.
The training acknowledges that the indices it lists may not be results of abuse, but it discourages the clearing-up of any confusion or misunderstandings before making a report.
In a short quiz, the training says, “if unsure whether abuse is occurring for a child, the first thing you should do is: a. Wait and gather more information; b. Speak with other professionals about your concerns; c. Report the suspicion immediately to [the state’s CPS reporting line]; d. Speak with the caretakers of the child.”
Reporting immediately was the correct answer.
This appears to be what happened to Oh.
‘Not at Fault Parent’
The allegation against Oh was eventually determined to be unfounded. But as he delved deeper into the issues of CPS, he found that many parents’ children had been taken away even in cases when the allegations against them were determined to be unfounded.
“How that works out is a thing called ‘not at fault parent,’” Oh said. “Someone knocks at your door at eight o’clock at night and they tell you they’re from DHS and they’re investigating an anonymous phone call that your husband is being abusive to your children. And upon several visits to you, they determine that those allegations against your fiance are unfounded, but, for the safety of your children and to be sure, they remove your children from your home.”
“The allegation, anonymous … was determined unfounded, yet your children are removed from your home and years later, they remain removed. And in the course of that removal, they become depressed, they do poorly in school, they talk about running away, then they’re placed in a reformatory school, even though they haven’t run away. … They’re recommended to get medication for their depression, for acting out. They are punished.”
More than a quarter of the children in the CPS system remain there for more than two years. The average time spent in the system is over 20 months.
Research has persistently showed that children coming out of the foster care system have substantially worse life outcomes than children in general, whether in education, employment, income, housing, health, substance abuse, or criminality. Moreover, children in the CPS system are most at risk of falling victim to sex trafficking. Not only do a number of these children end up being abused by their foster parents or government workers, but they are also systematically targeted for grooming by traffickers.
In fact, in marginal cases of neglect and abuse, where both keeping the family together and removing the child was a plausible option, the children that stayed with the parents did better than those removed, according to a 2007 study that mainly pertained to children aged 10-15 (pdf).
The CPS system, however, has incentives to involve itself in the lives of families as much as possible with an emphasis on taking children away.
Close to half of the about $11 billion in annual CPS funding is federal. The largest chunk of it (56 percent in 2017) is awarded under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, according to the ChildTrends research nonprofit (pdf).
Title IV-E funding can generally only be used to pay for foster care payments and CPS administrative costs tied to removed children under a certain poverty threshold, said Kristina Rosinsky, ChildTrends’ child welfare research scientist, in a phone call.
If children aren’t removed from poor families, the money flow ebbs.
CPS agencies can claim the funding for administrative costs even prior to removal, but only if the child “is at serious risk of removal from the home,” according to the federal Administration for Children and Families. That means the CPS agencies have an incentive to put a child on a pathway to foster care as soon as possible, in order to secure the funding.
While it’s likely that individual CPS investigators and caseworkers aren’t directly motivated by federal funding, the result seems to be the same.
“The person who removes three kids in a week, well, that person’s applauded. The person who prevents three children from being removed in a week, well that person’s called lazy,” said former Texas CPS Investigation Worker Carlos Morales, author of “Legally Kidnapped: The Case Against Child Protective Services,” in a 2013 YouTube video.
Pennsylvania’s DHS draws just 22 percent of its funding from the federal government, but, based on Oh’s account, seems to have the same issues raised with other CPS agencies.
The financial incentives are about to change in October, when the Family First Prevention Services Act comes into effect. Republicans in the House of Representatives slipped it into the 2018 budget bill to allow CPS agencies to use the Title IV-E funding on certain services that help prevent a child’s removal from its family and help families stay together. The services need to be “evidence-based,” Rosinsky said, and the agencies are now waiting to see which services the federal government will approve as such.
Another potential cause of problems in the CPS system is the substantial power of its employees. While the system differs from state to state, a social worker generally only needs to write an affidavit alleging abuse or neglect, with no further evidence, to obtain a removal order from a family court judge.
The workers can hardly be expected “to exercise self-restraint” when they’re sent on what they believe is a “mission to rescue innocent children from the scum of the earth—knowing that there will be no penalty for removal and hell to pay if she leaves the child home and something goes wrong,” said Richard Wexler, NCCPR executive director, in a 2008 document (pdf).
“The people who work for child protective services (CPS) agencies are not evil. But even the best of us would have trouble coping with nearly unlimited power and no accountability.”
Morales, too, indicated how elusive accountability was in his profession.
“You can always blame any kind of inaccuracies or terrible atrocities that occur on someone else,” he said.
Attempts at Change
Oh held a council hearing on issues with the DHS in February with more than 50 mothers, relatives, and experts signing up to make a statement.
“There were so many women testifying, it took so long that the stenographer got tired and had to stop,” he said.
Since then, even more parents and relatives have reached out to his office with complaints against the DHS.
On May 16, he put to a votea resolutionto set up a “Special Committee” to “investigate child separation in Philadelphia’s child welfare system” designed to recommend how to ensure compliance with the law, protect children, protect “due process rights of families,” and “prevent the unnecessary break-up of families.”
The resolution was defeated 7-10.
“City Council already has an existing task-force that meets regularly … and working to address the reduction of out of home placement for our City’s youth. Also, there are two standing committees with jurisdiction over these subject matters,” said Anne Kelly King, chief of staff for Councilman Mark Squilla, explaining in an email why he voted against Oh’s resolution.
But Oh said the task force is dealing with juvenile detention facilities—a separate issue. It’s true that the council has committees that oversee DHS, but the problems with the agency have been known for years, Oh said. The regular oversight apparently wasn’t enough to resolve them.
As some in the audience loudly objected to the outcome of the May 16 vote, Council President Darrell Clarke stepped down from his seat to make a statement: “We need to come up with some conclusion on this and we need to do it in a relatively expedited manner. … We will be reaching out among all the members so we can deal with this issue, so we can have some conclusion to this very, very emotional issue.”
The outreach and a conversation on the topic were to come the following week, he said.
But there was no outreach and no conversation, Oh said.
“I am not personally aware of any conversations on the topic,” King said. “But it is possible that task force members have been actively discussing the topic.”
A spokeswoman for Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who co-sponsored Oh’s resolution, deferred questions to him. All other council members didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The city’s DHS didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Pennsylvania’s DHS spokeswoman, Erin James, said in an emailed statement that “Children are only to be removed from their home when it is determined that their safety cannot be ensured in that environment, and a dependency judge must make the final determination, after finding that the county made reasonable efforts to keep the child(ren) in the home without jeopardizing the child(ren)’s safety.”
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated the number of child abuse reports in Philadelphia in the fiscal year 2018. The correct number is 5,522. The Epoch Times regrets the error.
I’m not an amazing mom for accepting my transgender son
Tammy PlunkettJun 5, 2019
When I told friends and family that our 11-year-old was transitioning, I was inundated with praise for supporting him. But that’s because I was hiding my grief, anger and sadness.
Mother and son holding hands while walking. Only their backs are shown.
It was late in the evening of our close friend’s son’s wedding reception outdoors on a large farm. Our two older kids were inside the tent on the dance floor with the bride and groom, and our younger two were at the fire pit making s’mores.
My husband and I stood a few feet away reconnecting with some friends we hadn’t seen in a few years.
“You guys are so amazing for accepting your child as he is,” a friend of a friend whispered over the rim of her drink.
“I don’t see that there was any choice,” I replied. “We love him. We would never want to hurt him.” That was one of the canned responses I’d developed over the previous few months, although most often I went with a simple thank you.
A second friend came in for a hug and looked me in the eye, “You truly are a great mom. So brave. Really.”
“He’s the brave one,” I replied. “But thank you.”
I looked over to my son. He was laughing and wiping melted marshmallow on his friend’s arm. A friend he’d known his whole life. Not missing a beat, everyone around us accepted him as if nothing had really changed.
When our family came out to the world about our 11-year-old child transitioning from female to male, my husband and I were inundated with praise. Still today, two years after the fact, we have random strangers, like the registrar helping with his legal name change, tell us we are remarkable parents.
Of course, we could never live with ourselves if our child felt unloved and unaccepted. But there is more beneath the surface to the Rockstar Parent persona. There is a secret that most parents of transgender children are purposefully hiding from their kids, the world, and a few of them are even hiding from themselves.
If I have learned anything on this LGBTQ journey it’s that not everything fits nicely into a box. There is so much more than the black and white, male and female, gay and straight dichotomy. There are more than two ways of responding to our child coming out besides waving the rainbow flag or sending our kids to a conversion therapy camp. While it appeared on the outside that I was accepting my child the ‘right way’, there was a whole lot of grey area going on behind the scenes.
Why tell the truth
Transgender kids and teens, like all children, fair much better in life with loving support from their parents. Trans kids face a world in which they are often misunderstood. From the neighbourhood bully to the president of the United States, they have to listen to messages that say they don’t matter and shouldn’t exist. Having a safe and soft place to land in the loving arms of an understanding family is a saving grace for these children. They need someone to dry their tears, someone to give them hope that it gets better, and someone who stands up for their rights. Those parents happen to be human. They have tears and fears of their own that they don’t show their child. The parents need support too.
A bolstered parent has more emotional resources to care for their child. When we treat parents as whole individuals and acknowledge their feelings and challenges, they have more reserves to face the obstacles ahead of them.
I don’t expect the clerk at the registration desk to hold my hand and ask me how I’m doing with my child’s transition, and I also don’t expect my closest friends to ask me if I’m overwhelmed when my child is in the room. I am sharing this secret so that people who are close, or become close, to the parents of a transgender child know they need a friend they can be vulnerable with, someone who allows them to put down the “ultra-accepting mom” mask for a few minutes and be authentic.
In August of 2016, I found a purple journal on my pillow as I was changing out of my work clothes and about to make dinner. The note inside read, in part: “I want to take testosterone. I am transgender.”
My face tingled and flushed as the words leaped off the page. They made as much sense to me as if my child had told me she was from Jupiter. I reread it a few times, took several deep breaths, and then hid the journal under my pillow.
I did not rush over to my son and give him a hug for being brave enough to write that letter. I did not run out to the store the next day and buy boys clothes. I certainly didn’t rush to write a Facebook post about it, either.
Our first trip to the boy’s section of the clothing store was four months later, in December of that year, and I didn’t click “Share” on that carefully orchestrated Facebook post until the following April.
When I think back to my reaction to learning I had a son instead of a daughter, it’s clear to me now that I went through all the stages of grief. I am not proud that my first reaction wasn’t to shake pompoms and cheer for the whole world to see. But I want other parents of trans kids to know they are not alone in unpacking their grief within their own proverbial closets.
The author, Tammy Plunkett, holding the Transgender Pride flag. Photo: Courtesy of Phil Crozier.
My grieving process
Nothing happened in a linear, check-it-off-the-list type of way. I have since learned there is nothing linear about grief, and grieving is very different for different people.
Transgender kids know their gender and the AAP says doctors should offer care accordinglyMy grieving process went from denial to bargaining, and then acceptance mixed with anger, followed by deep sadness and finally unconditional acceptance. My initial reaction was to dismiss the journal entry as confusion. My child just needed a therapist. In my mind, she wasn’t really transgender because she never complained about wearing dresses, was never interested in sports, and never outright said, “I am a boy.” I told myself this was clearly just a phase because it was cool and everyone was doing it—even though we knew no one else who was.
Once it became apparent that ignoring the situation wasn’t going to make it go away, I threw myself into bargaining mode. By nature, I am a strategizer. If there is a problem, I work it until I find the fix. My first step was to hit the internet to read everything I could about the topic.
At one point I’d convinced myself that the rise in people identifying as transgender had to be environmental because humans can’t evolve that fast. I wondered if removing all the plastics in our house would help. Maybe estrogen mimicking agents caused the disruption.
I shared none of this with my child. I shielded everyone from all my far-fetched mental schemes. However, my lowest bargaining point was asking my child, “Why don’t you just be a lesbian? Then you don’t have to worry about which bathroom to use and take hormones for the rest of your life and have surgery.”
A sliver of acceptance made its way into my heart when I saw how happy my child was dressed as a man for Halloween, and again when we bought boy clothes over the Christmas holidays. We made it official on his return to school from the break that they were to use male pronouns and the masculine spelling of his gender-neutral birth name. But secretly, on some level, my husband and I still hoped he’d change his mind.
We struggled with using the new male pronouns, and I recoiled every time I was corrected. The anger phase began to seep into my thoughts—thoughts I dared not share with anyone.
My anger and fear mingled into one sleep disturbing mess. I would lie awake at night feeling that I had already lost my daughter, and fearing for the life of my new son. The rate of suicide attempts in female-to-male transgender adolescents is 50.8 percent.
But there was more to my mental rage. I was a fierce feminist, and this was a slap in the face to everything I fought for daily. Part of me thought he was taking the easy way out by crossing the aisle and joining the enemy camp to enjoy the privilege of being a man instead of standing up for the rights of women.
Anger eventually dissipated and turned to sadness. The memories that would pop-up on Facebook showing me pictures of the daughter I once had tore me to shreds. I missed the long blond curls she used to wear. I missed shopping at the girly teen stores. I realized there would be no father-daughter dance at her wedding. There wouldn’t be a wedding dress or a prom dress to shop for. I wouldn’t get to watch her give birth. I had invested eleven years of hopes and dreams for my child’s future. I had to grieve the loss of the future I had imagined.
By this time, we were out and proud to all our friends and family. I had received hundreds of messages from people praising us for being amazing, accepting parents. Not only did I have to hide my sadness from my son, but I felt like I had to hide it from the rest of the world.
In a universal twist of fate, my mother suddenly and unexpectedly died of anaphylactic shock in May of 2017 and the horrible silver lining was that I could finally grieve openly with no one knowing which tears were for my mother and which were for my daughter.
Time eventually did its magic and the sting of grief began to fade away. Our son requested that he change his name from his birth name a full year after we had switched to using male pronouns. We sat down together with a baby name book and settled on something that suited him. But just as I had with my first round of grieving, I took my time making the change over to his new name. A few months later, he took on the responsibility and asked the school to change his name.
It was a year and a half after he’d come out to us as transgender, at a school award ceremony where our son was playing with his band and was nominated for an award in music, when I heard all his classmates in the crowd chanting his new name. “Mitchell, Mitchell, Mitchell!” That was the exact moment I realized that I adored and accepted my son utterly and completely in my heart as much as I showed others on the outside.
It is very rare for the tiny twinge of sadness to flicker in my chest now. It returns in very specific moments—like when I see pictures of my child as a cheery toddler who didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
I am not alone
Today, I run a support group in our small city for parents of children who identify as LGBTQ. I can assure you that I have witnessed this grieving in many other parents in varying degrees. Not everyone takes as long as I did to make it to acceptance. Some only spend a few days or weeks letting go of what they had envisioned for their child.
One mother shared with our group that she mourns how close she had been with her son as a child and how there is a distance now as they find their new normal. Another mother shared that she feared not having a biological grandchild and paid to have ovum preserved before her young adult child started testosterone. Both these mothers longed to have these conversations in a safe place where they knew they wouldn’t be judged for living in the gray area between rejection and acceptance. These are not clear-cut grieving processes and they are certainly not topics we discuss with strangers patting us on the back for being super parents.
There have been days throughout this whole process where I wished I had superpowers to make things easier. At the same time, the parents of transgender kids that I have met have been extraordinarily strong people. However, it is important for all of us to acknowledge the hero’s journey they have trodden and the immense emotions they’ve had to confront and might still be confronting. Supporting these phenomenal parents will, in turn, support these brave children who are teaching all of us how to be true to ourselves.