A B.C. mother says she feels validated following a landmark human rights ruling.
“I feel like my story has been heard, I feel listened to, I feel believed,” she said.
The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of the Afro-Indigenous mother whose four children were removed from her care by the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS).
The woman, referred to as RR to protect her identity, has now been awarded $150,000 “for the significant and devastating impacts the discrimination had on her” according to Community Assistance Legal Society (CALS).
RR is a single mother and an intergenerational survivor of residential schools with disabilities stemming from trauma. She is also a leader in her community and a passionate advocate for justice, according to CALS.
She said the decision left her with mixed feelings.
“We had three years that we lost that we’re never going to get back,” RR told Global News. “My kids are still going through the trauma of being in the foster care system.”
In 2016, the VACFSS, a delegated agency of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, took RR’s four children from her care and for almost three years they retained custody over them and regulated RR’s access to them, CALS said.
She barely saw them for seven months.
RR said it started with she and her 13-year-old daughter having some conflicts. She said her daughter would tell the supportive living staff her mother was hitting her, but that was not true.
RR said she knows they were going through a challenging time as a family but she felt discriminated against by VACFSS staff.
“Just the fact that they would take a breastfeeding baby away from a mother for no real reason,” RR said. “The fact that they just come in and take my kids and not even listen to what I have to say or to listen to my supports or people that I was working with on a daily basis.
“That made me feel powerless. It made me question myself as a mother, it made me question my identity.”
The Tribunal found that VACFSS’s decisions to retain custody and restrict RR’s access to her children were informed by stereotypes about her as an Indigenous mother with past mental health issues, the ruling reads.
It also found that VACFSS did not have reasonable grounds to continue keeping the children in its custody and that none of the discriminatory conduct could be justified as reasonably necessary to protect RR’s children.
“This case exposes the systemic forces of discrimination impacting Indigenous mothers” Aleem Bharmal, KC, who acted as co-counsel to RR, said in a release. “The decision is a victory for RR as an individual, but the precedent it sets will reverberate across the country.
“Though it was an individual complaint brought by one brave and strong Indigenous mother, it sheds light on a system that is stacked against Indigenous families and communities.
“My hope is that today’s decision helps drive change to child protection laws, services, and practices across Canada so that no other Indigenous parent is forced to endure the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination experienced by our client.”
Kate Feeney, director of litigation at West Coast LEAF, said this decision echoes decades of reports about anti-Indigenous racism in B.C.’s family policing system and the inadequate provision of culturally appropriate and preventative child welfare services for Indigenous families and communities.
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“This is a landmark human rights decision because it draws a clear line between RR’s individual experiences of discrimination and the systemic realities that have resulted in the vast overrepresentation of Indigenous families in the family policing system,” she said.
West Coast LEAF intervened in this human rights complaint to assist the Tribunal in understanding the historical and current context of Indigenous families in B.C.’s family policing system.
According to the organization, Indigenous children make up approximately two-thirds of children in care in B.C., despite representing less than 10 per cent of the province’s child population.
Rosyn Chambers, a child welfare lawyer who was not involved in the case, said the child welfare system is evolving and is better than it was five years ago for Indigenous families, but that there remains a long way to go.
“Lawyers like myself have been fighting for this for a long time. Indigenous parents are treated differently than non-indigenous parents,” she said.
“We’ve been fighting for identifying that for a very long time. The decision actually confirms that. It’s a significant victory for all Indigenous parents, and we’re hoping there will be change.”
Chambers said the province needs to look at more cultural sensitivity training to ensure social workers aren’t falling prey to bias and stereotypes.
And she said the ministry needs to put resources into ensuring policies and procedures are consistently implemented.
In RR’s case, she said policies appear to have been applied subjectively and punitively, blocking her from having access to her children.
“It takes the government seconds, minutes to take the children away, it can take years to get the children back, and that’s not the way it should be,” she added.
“The government also needs to work with the families to reunify the families. Reunification should be the most important part of it.”
In October, the B.C. government said it plans to make some historic changes to the province’s child-welfare laws by laying a path to upholding Indigenous jurisdiction.The changes will remove barriers for Indigenous people exercising jurisdiction over child and family services, the province explained.
B.C. is the first province in Canada to expressly recognize this inherent right within provincial legislation.
The changes will pave the way for Indigenous communities to provide their own child and family services and to keep Indigenous children safely connected to their cultures and communities.
The compensation ordered by the Tribunal is the second-highest award ever made in British Columbia. The Tribunal found that the unprecedented and systemic nature of the discrimination warranted an award at the highest end of human rights damages.
In a statement posted on its website, VACFSS said it “regrets that solutions could not be found outside the Tribunal process and recognizes the pain the complainant (identified in the ruling as R.R.) went through, and the challenges her children faced due to their circumstances and history, leading to VACFSS’ involvement.
“As Canada’s first Indigenous-led fully-delegated urban child protection agency, VACFSS has provided services to children and families since 1992 that are consistent with Indigenous values, prioritizing processes that empower families to find a resolution focused on sustaining, collaborating, and rebuilding relationships in very complex situations of child safety.”
The statement also said it is “reviewing the Tribunal’s decision in detail, but note that the focus of the decision was on the rights of the mother, while from VACFSS’ perspective, parental rights must be balanced with the well-being of children and our responsibility to care for and honour each child as a ‘sacred bundle’.”.