Robinah Kakembo has seen first-hand the problems that can arise when African immigrant and refugee families in Nova Scotia come into contact with the province's foster care system.
Kakembo and her husband, Patrick, have been foster parents for the past 17 years. They take in black and African children.
Their last foster child left their home about two years ago when she turned 18. In all, they have looked after seven children on a long-term basis until they could move on to different places, be adopted or move out on their own.
Kakembo said she believes that every effort should be made to place black foster children with black families if a black family is available. She said that is because the challenges that those children face are different from what other children experience.
"Given all the baggage that a lot of the families have to go through with their children when you remove a child from that environment and take them to a specifically white, predominantly white, environment, those children are lost," Kakembo said.
Need for more black foster families
The Department of Community Services says it needs more foster parents. It is specifically trying to increase the pool of African-Nova Scotian families to serve the needs of black children in care.
There are currently 684 children in foster care in Nova Scotia in 663 homes. A breakdown of the number of black foster children and black foster families in Nova Scotia was not available.
"Our act states that we are responsible to place children in same-race placements," said Winnie Grant, the department's provincial recruitment and pre-assessment social worker for African, black and Caribbean communities.
"In doing so, when we have a pool of families, then we can address the needs of the child."
Meeting with the community
The department will meet with members of the black community on June 26 in Dartmouth to hear their views on the placement needs of black foster children. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the Henry G. Bauld Centre, across from the Black Cultural Centre.
"We also want to hear from community in terms of why community are not coming forward to become foster parents," Grant said.
Kakembo is also chair of the African Diaspora Association of the Maritimes, a Halifax-based organization that helps African immigrants and refugees integrate into Canadian society by connecting them with services and resources and training.
Children from war zones
She said that when many African families land on Canadian soil they arrive not knowing whether they will be accepted or if they will have trouble with integration, education and getting necessities, like food.
"A lot of the children coming here, especially from war-torn zones … they have faced the traumatic challenges of war, they have faced displacement, they have faced even living in a refugee camp," Kakembo said.
"You bring that child from a refugee camp and bring them into the Canadian environment and expect their parents to know the dos and don'ts in the Canadian cultural society, it becomes a challenge. We as African people or black people, we raise our children very differently and when you put the children in an environment that they don't know, they are totally lost."
To expect a newly arrived immigrant or refugee to know the Canadian culture and how to raise children in the Canadian context "is just wrong because you don't just learn it out of osmosis," she said.
Parenting training needed
Kakembo is advocating for mandatory training for newly arrived immigrant and refugee parents on how to raise their children in the Canadian context because these children come in with a totally different cultural lens.
"What we call discipline back home is totally different from what they call discipline here," she said.
Becoming a foster parent came as a natural step for Kakembo. Her mother and sisters were foster mothers.
"And also, something I don't say a lot of, I was a foster child myself," she said.
Back in her native Uganda, Kakembo was taken in by a relative at age 14 after her mother died. "So I feel this is really a way for me to give back to community or to society," she said.