Breaking the cycle: How 2 Indigenous parents kept their kids out of foster care

Breaking the cycle: How 2 Indigenous parents kept their kids out of foster care

One was a child of a Sixties Scoop survivor who never had a stable home. One was the grandson of a residential school survivor who spent most of his childhood in care. Both were taken from their families at age two. Both fell into despair. And both were determined to not let it happen to their kids.

Alice

When Alice McKay gave birth to her first child 10 years ago, the experience of becoming a mother changed her life forever.

When she first looked upon her son's face, she decided she would gather the inner strength to give him the best life possible.

"He [Dolan] was just the greatest thing to ever happen to me. He was my saviour," McKay said. "Because of him, I'd never be alone again."

McKay was used to navigating through life feeling alone, having been taken from her mother at age 2.

Her mother had been adopted by a white family in the U.S. during the Sixties Scoop, where McKay said she experienced physical and sexual abuse.

By the time McKay's mother had children of her own, she was struggling with alcoholism and involved with abusive, alcoholic men, said McKay. Social workers took her children and the cycle carried on.

"For the first while, it was a lot of back and forth between being with my mom and being in care. In 1991, I became a permanent ward [of the Province of Manitoba].… I spent my entire childhood being raised by white people. In nearly every home, I experienced one form of abuse or another."

After aging out of care at 19, McKay said she lived a roller-coaster-style "wild life," following in the footsteps of her mother, taking up drinking and partying.

That all changed when she learned she was pregnant. She was determined to break the generational cycle of struggling to keep children.

"Ten years later, with the addition of three more kids, my kids are still my everything. They've never been in care and I never want them to experience what I was forced to," she said.

Generous support from friends and help from parenting organizations made the difference, said McKay, adding it was difficult to pull herself together, but worth every effort to stay healthy.

"Parenting is hard work [already] when you've had it modelled for you your whole life. Parenting when you've never been taught or shown how to effectively parent your children … that's something else altogether."

Damian

Damian Abrahams, 31, was taken from his mother by the B.C. provincial government, also when he was two. The Edmonton resident remembers being in care for 70 per cent of his childhood.

His grandmother was a residential school survivor and the effects of the trauma she experienced there trickled down to his mother and then to him, said Abrahams.

There were attempts by the province to return Abrahams to his mother's care, but he said he's unsure how much effort was made by the province's children's ministry to help her find the supports she needed.

Abrahams got involved with drugs and alcohol at a young age and ended up homeless at 19.

But soon after, he took control of his life and put himself through treatment at an Indigenous healing lodge.

He wanted to make sure that the cycle of family dysfunction, addictions and the sorrow of losing children to the system was broken — even before he had children of his own.

He took an Indigenous parenting program, a family life improvement program and a personal development program.

"On top of all that, I attended ceremony and paid attention to the teachings of the elders," said Abrahams. "My healing journey started and it was like a reset button was pushed for me."

The single father said he's proud to be raising a strong, culturally connected eight-year-old daughter, Khailia, and even more proud that she has never been in foster care.

"Life today is a daily struggle, but it's the good kind of struggle — normal struggles, instead of struggling with addiction or being on the street."

He's now a social worker who works with troubled youth in Edmonton, and he believes more Indigenous social workers need to be recruited to help address the overwhelming representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.

"Non-Indigenous workers don't have the eyes to see what it's truly like to be an Indigenous family. Non-Indigenous workers don't understand our world no matter how much Aboriginal training they get. At the very least, there needs to be an Indigenous interpreter liaison working in each CFS office to act as a translator between the two worlds," said Abrahams.

Education is key

McKay is also working to help better the future of Indigenous families. She is studying to get an education degree at the University of Winnipeg.

"Education will break cycles," she said.

McKay tries to stay optimistic, but the realities of breaking intergenerational trauma is overwhelming and complicated, she said.

Not that it can't be done, because she overcame the hurdles to get there, as well as Abrahams.

"I wish I could say it's a simple solution, but it's not. We have generations and generations of Indigenous people who are still reeling from the effects of colonialism."