The province of Alberta is the legal guardian of some 9000 children. What are we doing to them?
“Look at this!” says Grace Oyelusi as she leans forward, unscrews the lid to a glass jar and spills a black plastic toggle onto her extended palm. “One of my foster kids gave me this. How cool is that?” The child, she explains, had been in her care before the court ordered him to live with his uncle. Since Oyelusi was at work the day of the decision, she didn’t get to say goodbye. Life can be that abrupt in the child welfare system. Before walking away, the boy pulled the toggle off his jacket, turned to his foster father and said: “Please give that to Miss Grace.”
“Miss Grace” is a 50-something Nigerian-born library assistant with a hearty laugh, a penchant for bright clothing and an enthusiasm for taking on new challenges, such as more than 50 foster kids in seven years. At her kitchen table, she displays their gifts—drawings, a handmade wooden box and a metal square with a runner painted on the front. Its creator was a boy from Sudan who would race around the block at 4:00 a.m. Today, she says with pride, he’s a competitive athlete.
She and her husband, Joseph, invite me to their home on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a Calgary classic—beige stucco, four bedrooms, a two-car garage in front. Their youngest daughter, a teen, is on her way out. Their two foster kids are out with one of their older daughters. Their two boys are grown and living away from home.
With Grace working full time, it is Joseph, now retired from a warehouse job, who enrolled their two foster children in school, who takes them to their doctor and dentist appointments. Because the siblings were apprehended—taken from their biological parents—while at day camp, they came only with knapsacks, so the Oyelusis shopped for them that evening: clothes, PJs, toothbrushes.
Alberta has the highest rate of kids in care in the world: 111 foster children per 10, 000 residents.
“The children walked in the door, what did you do then?” I ask.
“First I gave them some dinner,” Grace says. “Then I found out they liked dancing so I put on some music, and said, ‘OK, I need to learn some moves’. ” The message to the kids: “There are some things your parents need to do before you can go back.”
It’s an awkward fact of life that some 9,000 children call the Alberta government their legal parent. Under our Child & Youth Enhancement Act, kids under 18 must be taken out of unsafe situations. But where to put them? Where possible, the government prefers a family environment, so it seeks foster parents. The government runs its own foster care program, and contracts agencies across the province as well. Of Alberta’s 9,000 wards, 4,650 are foster children, 2,300 are in kinship care (where someone known to the child steps in and receives income support), 376 are in permanency placements (where kids are about to be adopted or receive permanent guardians), 671 are in group homes, 415 are in residential centres and 592 are in independent living (usually those close to the age of 18), placement related to their health needs, secure services, a youth justice facility or in a Protection of Sexually Exploited Children facility.
In all, Alberta spends $156-million annually on foster parents, their workers and campaigns to recruit them.
And Alberta is unique when it comes to foster care. According to a 2004 international study of child welfare by June Thorburn of East Anglia University in England, Alberta’s kids tend to enter government care relatively late in life, and most are apprehended by the government as opposed to given up by parents. Out of all the jurisdictions surveyed, Alberta had the highest rate of kids in care: 111 per 10,000 residents, compared to Japan at 17 or Australia at 49.
There are never enough homes for all of these children, especially for those with complicated needs. Last year, the Alberta government commissioned market research on foster parents; it’s a document so secret, apparently, that a government official is only permitted by higher-ups to read parts over the phone. “The key insights,” she reads: “Foster parents feel philosophically committed and personally responsible to the whole of society. They truly love children and have an ability to connect with and understand children. Children fill a gap in their life. They do not expect it to be easy. They value the long-term rewards; they do not see themselves as heroes.”
Campaigns to recruit more foster parents in Alberta are ongoing. The latest government effort is “A Child’s Hope,” a brochure and website produced by Edmonton’s Incite Communications. Before that, Scout Communications of Calgary developed a website and ad campaign. I call Scout partner Lois Lockwood to find out more, and ask if she knows any foster parents. She doesn’t. Neither do I. Nor do most people. There are 2,280 foster homes in the province. With a trend to two parents in the workforce, few Albertans need the added income of about $30–$50 a day per child or the hassle of parenting a child from a troubled background.
Yet getting people to sign on as foster parents is key to the whole system. Some 66 per cent of kids are with unrelated foster parents—parents such as Grace and Joseph Oyelusi, who emigrated from Nigeria to Winnipeg in 1974. They came to Calgary when they heard it was warmer. “I guess they forgot to tell us about Victoria,” Grace laughs. When I meet her, she gives me a list she calls “issues in fostering.” At the top: allegations of abuse (false or true against foster parents) as well a poor image in the media and community.
“I want to do it with happiness, but I understand the risks,” she says. Yes, kids do die in care; some are killed or injured by their foster parents, others commit suicide. Because the government won’t allow foster kids to speak to media, or be identified in the media as foster children, we often only glimpse problems from court documents.
For child welfare in Alberta, 2009 was quite a bad year. Alberta’s director of child welfare, Richard Ouellet, was found in contempt of court for failing to obey a court order to return a foster child to his foster parents. A 24-year-old was charged with manslaughter for killing a 4-year-old in her care. A baby was seriously hurt in foster care in Strathmore.
These types of problems are often dealt with not by systemic changes but by procedural ones. Jean Lafrance, a University of Calgary professor and the former Alberta Children’s Advocate (responsible for ensuring that Alberta’s children have a voice), says that kids hurt in care create even more procedures for foster parents. These include personal references, at least 31 preparatory courses, yearly evaluations, medical checks, police checks and a home safety check. “Added regulations discourage foster parents,” Lafrance says. Added regulations for case workers “[also] discourage relationship-building with the child’s biological family,” he argues.
“Front-line workers say ‘We want healthy relationships with our clients, but all these things get in the way.’ They’re loaded down with paperwork, [which is] created to avoid some sort of tragedy.” The government, he says, is misguided. “There’s always this hope that ‘we’ll get it right this time, we’ll add another procedure’. ”
Lafrance writes in a not-yet-published paper: “The majority of child apprehensions are not a result of physical or sexual abuse. In fact, most apprehensions are the result of a parent’s struggle with poverty, addictions, mental health issues or family violence.”
“Foster kids are little spirits that are hurting in some way and just need someone to care for them.”
Dwayne and Nancy Clayden of Airdrie are face to face with addiction’s outcomes. These foster parents are seven-year veterans who specialize in babies, and they’ve cared for drug-addicted infants. I manage to catch Dwayne at home on his day off. The couple have four children of their own (14 to 21 years old), work in the medical field and, as Mormons, want to act on their social values. The Claydens are Alberta’s reigning Foster Parents of the Year, so named by the Alberta Foster Parents Association. It’s not hard to see why.
Clayden is positive: “Most of the time [fostering] has been outstanding; the kids are little spirits that are hurting in some way and need someone to care for them,” he says. In all, the Claydens have fostered about 37 kids. “There was one baby we picked up at the hospital, we knew it was bad, and had to bring her back to the hospital for treatment every day—she died after a month and a half,” says Clayden. The effect on his own children? “I think they’re going to be excellent parents,” he says. “They know how to care for kids, they’ve held a baby on crack having a seizure, they know the dangers of drug use while pregnant.”
Clayden says the hardest part of fostering is seeing the kids leave. One infant went to live with her grandmother after a year; twin baby girls went to live with a relative after a year, too. When he sits on his couch, he sees the wall with all of his foster kids’ photos. These days, the Clayden home is unnaturally quiet. They just handed over a baby they’d fostered every day of her 17-month life. “We’d anticipated she’d be going back, but when the day came and we physically handed her over, I just crumpled to the floor and cried,” he says. However, they just heard she’ll be coming back to them for the weekend, so they aren’t taking any more foster kids in case the little girl still needs a home.
It seems that stories about foster care run along two predictablescripts: foster parents are either selfless, or they’re embattled in court (sometimes both). The Oyelusis and Claydens and many other families bear the former out. Sadly, the latter script is as well known to many Albertans.
But there’s another key issue. Eight per cent of Alberta’s 827,000 children are Aboriginal, and yet they comprise 56 per cent of the kids in government care. There’s been a move to promote kinship care, to provide financial assistance to families to keep Aboriginal kids within their culture.
Bernadette Iahtail works with the not-for-profit Circle of Hope in Edmonton. Her mission is “an Aboriginal home by 2025 for every child.” She is Swampi Cree and was apprehended from her home on James Bay, Ontario, as a young child. She lived with dozens of foster families until she ran away as a teen. “I always say I was adaptable, not adoptable,” she laughs. Now a registered social worker, Iahtail is 51 years old, self-describes as resilient and demonstrates a can-do attitude. When she saw a man she liked at a pool, she sent a friend over, “Go find out if he’s married.” He wasn’t, and now he has been Iahtail’s husband for eight years.
She knows all too well the child welfare syndrome: feeling very, very alone, feeling you don’t matter. Iahtail wants to help kids but doesn’t want the scrutiny that is levelled at foster parents. She says kinship care comes with fewer rules—but also less money and less support from workers. This creates stress, such as in the case of the 24-year-old Albertan accused of manslaughter in 2009 who was saddled with five young relatives under kinship care rules. “She didn’t have the support,” Iahtail says. The legacy for Aboriginal kids in Alberta is particularly rough, and hearkens to similar themes: addiction, poverty, young mothers without support.
Experts are critical of the government: “We need to support the family and address the root causes of poverty.”
From the Piikani reserve, near Brocket, 30 km west of Lethbridge, Peter Strikes with a Gun speaks to me by phone and tells me he has a bit of time before the kids arrive home from school. He is 67, a former reserve chief and volunteer addictions counsellor, fluent speaker of Blackfoot, drummer, gospel singer and foster father. He lives with Jeannie Provost, his second wife, two grandkids, one adopted son and two foster children, both Aboriginal.
Strikes with a Gun is sympathetic to children dealing with loss. His mother died of cancer when he was 8. His wife saw her mother die of tuberculosis when she was young, too. He attended a residential school and watched alcohol take down member after member on the reserve. After landing in jail, he was placed in an addictions centre in Calgary at age 25 and stuck with the program. He tells me he has celebrated his 30th year of sobriety.
He is concerned about kids living with parents with addictions. “The parents really don’t know the risks; a person under the influence or taking alcohol and drugs… a lot of things can happen, a house can burn down, [a parent] might never come home. Sometime the [child’s] apprehension sets the parents free. They can start helping themselves deal with drinking.”
Strikes with a Gun and his wife have fostered 22 kids over 19 years. “We like having children around. The intent of our fostering is to try to maintain their roots, [to help kids] understand their family trees. When children are removed there’s a lot of cultural shock.” But there aren’t enough people like him, people who can provide Aboriginal homes.
The U of C’s Lafrance is deeply critical of the government for the number of Aboriginal kids taken from their home. “Aboriginal kids don’t do well in foster care. We need to support the family, address the root causes of poverty.” He makes an argument sure to appeal to a fiscal Albertan: “Taking a kid out of a home is a million-dollar decision. The courts are involved, social workers are involved; 32 people are involved in the life of that child. Why not use the money to support the family at home?”
Back to that jacket toggle. When is a little bit of black plastic a lot more than a little bit of black plastic? What does it represent?
A desperate struggle for connection?
The struggle to hang on in some form or another?
Foster kids know many homes. Fewer than 3 per cent are adopted. Sometimes they’re in emergency care until a permanent placement can be found. Or they go into respite care to give the foster parents a break.
A study commissioned by the government found that foster parents were most satisfied with their case workers, but least satisfied with the rate of pay or “maintenance fees” (only 56 per cent satisfied) and skill fees given for additional training (only 54 per cent satisfied). But the biggest problem was the lack of a break from fostering, known as respite care (only 45 per cent felt it was adequate). Foster parents often must find their own respite care, and kids must go to other approved foster parents. They have to pay out of pocket for respite care: the government offers a subsidy of $2.60 per day.
The lack of time off from fostering scares many people away, says Grace Oyelusi. It’s the reason she’s had so many kids over the years.
She was introduced to fostering by a woman at her Pentecostal church. Like many, she and her husband thought about it over the years. At first she thought the free courses would be good training, and took days off work to attend them. Joseph went at her wife’s insistence. “She’s the boss,” says Joseph, eliciting a poke from his wife. “I have a lot of respect for Grace. I thought ‘If she thinks it’s a good idea, then I’ll go to the training.’ It’s really changed our lives, especially the way we look at people with mental disabilities.”
When it came time to take in their first child, it wasn’t an easy case. The boy brought over by Child Services had fetal alcohol syndrome and he ran frantically all over the house. She and Joseph decided against taking him.
But then Grace pondered the situation. Maybe their house wasn’t the best place to see him. “I said to Joseph, ‘Why don’t we try again?’ ” They took him to the park, swimming, to the mall. Things went better and the boy was with them for five years. He was well supported with a teacher’s aide and a social worker. In the end, his adoptive father died, leaving the Oyelusis as the trustees for a small estate. Their daughter now takes care of him outside the home as part of AISH’s supportive roommate program.
The Oyelusis have had their challenges. One foster child stole from a local store; he was angry because his sister was adopted and he wasn’t. “She was very cute, very beautiful, but cuteness doesn’t make problems go away,” Grace says. The school doesn’t want one of their current foster kids at lunch, owing to behaviour problems. Joseph is unsure if he can pick her up every day; she might need another family.
Besides working at the library, Grace serves as a recruiter and supporter for foster parents. She works as a mentor and also co-parents kids at risk. She has some wisdom after all the years and the 57 kids that have been through the home: “No matter how bad things were at home, they always want to go home.”
Other foster parents admit they’ve thought “After everything I’ve done for them, they want to go home?” Of course they want to go home. Besides, foster parents are not in charge.
“You need to remember the government is their parent,” says Oyelusi. “I document everything to send to the government. One boy told me he couldn’t hear out of one ear. I wrote that down and faxed it over. What if the police ask him to stop and he doesn’t? I want it documented.”
It’s not for everyone. Jeannie is a foster mother no more. She fostered in Ontario for years before coming to Alberta in the late 1990s. Because her husband holds elected office she’s asked her last name not be used. Her fostering ended about 10 years ago on the shores of a 2-year-old’s breakdown. This foster child’s mother was drug-addicted, Jeannie says, and had given up parental rights; the father was in jail on sexual abuse charges. “I believe the little girl was abused,” she says. “After years as a foster mother, you get to know the signs.”
Jeannie and her husband were considering adopting the child, when the court ordered visits to the father in Bowden prison, hours away from their Alberta town. When the car came to get her—with a male driver—the little girl was shrieking and crying “No bad daddy, no bad daddy!” Jeannie said she had to peel the toddler from her arms. “I called Child Welfare and told them I disagreed, and was told to keep my opinions to myself. I said, ‘Then come get her, I’m done with fostering.’ ”
She now has a large, empty, four-bedroom house. “A friend told me she was thinking of fostering, and I said ‘Run, run like the wind.’ ”
But some don’t. The Oyelusis remember a landlord who let them clean his daughter’s home in exchange for rent, who gave them furniture. The Victorian Order of Nurses helped Grace when she was overwhelmed with her first-born. “So many people were good to us when we came to Canada, we want to give back,” she says.
Dwayne Clayden thinks child welfare workers try their best. “It’s easy to be critical and say ‘This isn’t working,’ but what solution are you going to come up with?”
And that boy who gave Grace Oyelusi a piece of his jacket? She’s never seen him again. Their connection ends with clinking in a glass jar.
Janice Paskey teaches journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary and is the mother of two boys.