Alleged sexual abuse case raises red flags about lack of Indigenous foster homes

A child protection case involving a family of seven children from Eel Ground First Nation is raising alarm bells about the challenge of finding foster homes in Indigenous communities.

Seven children were placed in the temporary custody of their mother after a nine-year-old girl accused her father, known only as "PW," of repeatedly sexually abusing her.

The mother, known only as "HH," is a recovering drug addict who lost her bid for custody in 2017, court records show. She is the biological mother of all but one of the children.

Child protection officials have been involved with the family for nearly a decade. Most of the complaints "involved alleged domestic violence either involving the spouses or the father and the children."

But with seven children, ranging in age from three to 13, there were few alternatives.

"There would be no way of keeping them together in one foster home," Justice Fred Ferguson wrote in his September decision.

'Significant dysfunction'

The judge's ruling paints a bleak picture for the seven children.

"When one considers the mental, emotional and physical health of the children it is clear that significant dysfunction has been part of the world these children have grown up in over the past many years," the judge wrote.

In 2017, three months after PW was awarded custody of the children, he pleaded guilty to assaulting their mother.

A 911 call recorded him threatening to rape and "beat the [expletive]" out of her. He received a six-month conditional sentence for the crime.

This past June, a teaching assistant at the children's school received a report from a student, who heard the nine-year-old girl, known only as "A," had been sexually abused by her father, the judge wrote.

"The essence of the complaint was that one of A's brothers was attempting to procure a video camera for A so she could catch her father abusing her sexually," Ferguson wrote.

When social workers interviewed the children's mother, she corroborated the allegation, the ruling says.

"I guess he had sex with her … and bothered her," the mother is quoted as saying.

"She went on to add that A told her he did it when he was drunk and on one occasion he gave her a pill, she became groggy and woke up with no clothes on her body," Ferguson wrote.

Alleged abuse began when girl was 5

In an interview with social workers, A said her father would come to her basement bedroom after her siblings were asleep and lead her up to his room.

"She added that he would take her clothes off during these incidents and put her on his bed where he used his hand to sexually touch her on her privates: 'between the legs,'" Ferguson wrote in his decision.

A told social workers the abuse happened more than five times, according to the judge's ruling.

"She went on to say it began when she was five years old because she remembered it happened after her birthday."

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Even after the children were taken from PW's custody, he continued to have supervised visits with them, including A. Two aboriginal family support workers attended each visit.

A eventually decided she didn't want to visit her father.

"I don't want to see my dad ever — I don't want to talk about it," the girl told social workers.

No charges laid

The allegations were reported to the RCMP. Investigators "recommended criminal charges of sexual assault and sexual interference against the father in relation to A."

In New Brunswick, Crown prosecutors have the final say on whether charges are laid. The Public Prosecutions Service screens charges to figure out whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.

"To this date a decision has not been made whether Public Prosecutions will launch a prosecution," the judge wrote.

"One of the investigators testified that there has been no request by the local Crown Prosecutor's Office for further investigation on the file."

A spokesperson for the RCMP referred questions about the case to the province's Public Prosecutions Service, which also declined to answer questions.

PW's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Foster home shortage 'concerning' but not 'critical'

Matthew Howard/CBC

Placing a family of seven children into foster care would be "very challenging," according to Oona Keagan, CEO of the newly-formed Mi'kmaq Child and Family Services New Brunswick Inc.

"The more children that are involved, the more difficult it is to have somebody put up their hand and say, 'Yes, I will commit,"' Keagan said.

While Keagan wouldn't comment specifically on the Eel Ground case, she said a lack of foster homes is "concerning" but not critical.

That's because the new agency has two full-time staff members who are actively trying to recruit Indigenous foster families, with a focus on placing children with family members when possible.

"At the moment, I believe that through our proactive recruitment of foster home placements that we are adequately meeting the need," Keagan said.

The agency, formed on Jan. 1, merged child and family services from seven Mi'kmaq communities including Eel Ground.

That has freed up more resources to focus on things like prevention.

The merger was recommended by Bernard Richard nearly a decade ago, following a review of the First Nations child welfare system.

The review was prompted by the death of 13-year-old Mona Sock from Elsipogtog First Nation. She took her own life after being placed in a foster home with a convicted sex offender, who went on to sexually abuse her.