The goal of First Nations groups to retake control of caring for Indigenous children in need has taken a major step forward in Southwestern Ontario.
Mnaasged Child and Family Services, based out of Muncey and operating from London to Windsor, has secured an alternative care licence from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, allowing them to provide foster care services.
The announcement, made on Indigenous Peoples Day, is part of a multi-year plan by the child wellbeing agency to achieve full designation as a children’s aid society by 2024.
“This is a really significant milestone both for our organizational development and for the children that we serve,” says Mike George, executive director. “We expect that the alternative care program will provide additional opportunities for members of our communities to volunteer as potential foster parents… in order to increase the likelihood and possibility of our children starting out in a good way.”
The relationship between child services and Indigenous communities has been a long and damaging one. While residential schools are often seen as the main offender, since their closure child removal practices have continued to break apart families and rob Indigenous children of their culture.
“Child welfare has not been very kind to Indigenous people and children for over a century. The history before that as well has not done our families or our children any great service,” says Melissa Patriquin, director of services.
“We have hundreds of years of trauma and grief to undo and we wanted to make sure we were doing this in the best possible way. We want to make sure that what we’re giving our children is the very best that we can and that it’s grounded in their cultural identity and their teachings and their traditions,” she says. “We’re not just a place for Indigenous children to be safe, we’re also a place for Indigenous children to heal and to grow.”
George says the foster care program will “address the systemic barriers to services and supports experienced by children and families,” and “ensure First Nations families receive the highest level of service that is trauma-informed, evidence based and inclusive of their identities, cultures and customs.”
Values, beliefs and traditions from the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabek, and Lunaapeew peoples will be emphasized, representing Mnaasged’s partners in Aamjiwnaang, Kettle & Stony Point, Munsee Delaware, Eelūnaapéewi Lahkéewiit, Caldwell, and Oneida Nation of the Thames.
“What’s special about our program is the HEART and SPIRIT,” says Kyleigh Alexander, alternative care supervisor, referencing two main steps of the placement process. This includes training developed specifically for First Nations children and foster families.
“It equips them with the history of Indigenous children and child welfare disruptions to families, so it brings the culture piece with the creation story. That provides education, whether or not the families are Indigenous they are going to be knowledgeable because with knowledge comes understanding and we want a safe and understanding home for these children,” says Alexander.
Child Services was also in attendance for the announcement and expressed their support for the First Nations led approach. “We acknowledge the colonial and systemic racist history in child welfare in Ontario and in particular how it’s led to the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the care of children’s aid societies,” says Chris Stevens, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of London and Middlesex.
“Although across Ontario children’s aid societies have pledged and worked in recent years to address those issues, it’s fair to say that most mainstream agencies can’t do it with the wisdom and traditions that First Nations themselves can,” says Stevens.
Mnaasged is currently searching for potential foster parents and hopes to begin placing children in homes by the fall. Anybody, single or in a relationship, can apply to be a caregiver and can find out more by getting in touch with the agency.
“When we think about Indigenous knowledge we’re talking about a holistic way of understanding the world,” says Nicholas Delaney, Mnaasged’s Indigenous Knowledge Coordinator.
“When we look around our community today, yes there is tragedy, there is trauma, there is sadness. But on the whole our communities are still there. We still know the value and meaning of family, we know the meaning of community. And for the most part that’s what Indigenous knowledge is all about.”
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent