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'I just want to know what happened'

Indigenous children are dying in Canada’s foster care system

Indigenous children are dying in Canada’s foster care system

The deaths of three First Nations children living in foster care in Ontario is shining a spotlight on the alarming over-representation of Indigenous children under government custody.

“Sometimes I think she’s still alive.”

The teenage girls, Kanina Sue Turtle and Amy Owen from Poplar Hill First Nation, and Courtney Scott from Fort Albany First Nation, had been living in group homes, in one case thousands of kilometers away from their homes, when they died.

“Sometimes I think she’s still alive,” said Barbara Suggashi, whose daughter Kanina Sue Turtle died in October, in a Sioux Lookout foster home where she was staying.

When she lived at home in Poplar Hill First Nation, a community of 500 in Northern Ontario, the 15-year-old enjoyed baking and going out with her friends. But she had been back and forth between her community and various group homes for seven years.

Six months after her death, Kanina’s family is still waiting for the official autopsy results.

“I just want to know what happened,” Suggashie told VICE News in an interview. The last time she spoke with her daughter, Kanina said she wanted to come home.

“First Nations children continue to pay the price.

“They said it’s a suicide, but she wasn’t like that when she was here. She was happy and laughing.”

In a sharply worded press release this week, Ontario’s provincial advocate for children and youth, Irwin Elman, held the government accountable, saying “the unimaginable burden the province places on First Nations children and, in turn, their communities reinforce, rather than heal, the ongoing legacies of the Indian Residential School system. First Nations children continue to pay the price.”

While Indigenous children make up 7 percent of all children 14 years old and under in Canada, they represent 48 per cent of those in foster care, according to the latest Statscan study based on a 2011 data. The number varies wildly across the country: in Saskatchewan, 87 percent of children in foster care are Indigenous, even though they make up 27 percent of all children in the province.  In Ontario, where Indigenous children represent 3 percent of the child population, 25 percent are in state care.

Elman says the Ontario child and welfare system is profoundly inadequate when it comes to managing Indigenous children.

Across Canada, there are three times more Indigenous children in provincial care than there were at the height of the residential school era. Over 60 percent of these children have been removed from their families because of neglect.

The last time Owen spoke with his daughter, she said she wanted to come home.

Neglect stands for a range of factors from lack of access to appropriate health care to poverty, which can mean not having enough money to buy groceries, elements that are often outside of their parents’ hands.

Last month, after she was sent to stay at a group home 2,000 kilometres away from her family in Poplar Hill, 13-year-old Amy Owen took her own life.

“She would secretly call us,” Jeffrey Owen told the Toronto Star, “At the agency she was at, they forbade her to talk to us.”

The last time Owen spoke with his daughter, she said she wanted to come home.

Owen told APTN, “She started crying over the phone. I started crying with her and said ‘my girl don’t worry. Pretty soon you’ll be home with us. Just try to be strong.’”

Weeks later, she was found in her room at the Prescott group home where she had been staying and had taken her own life.

Courtney Scott from Fort Albany First Nations, was living at a group home in Orleans, On. when a fire broke out in the afternoon on April 21. The 16-year-old was the only resident unable to make it out safely, and died inside.

“Some will die as a result of the instability and chaos they experience living in the system.”

Owen, Scott and Turtle were all members of Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s 49 Northern Ontario First Nation communities.

Following the deaths of these young girls, NAN has called for the provincial government to make the inquests for all youth who die in group home settings mandatory.

“We are dismayed to learn that an inquest in these cases is not mandatory under the Coroners Act.,” said Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum in a press release from NAN.

“We are calling for the Office of the Chief Coroner to exercise discretion and call an inquest as quickly as possible to fully address the issues behind these tragedies.”

Children who are placed within the Child welfare system are often taken away from their families and and have no control over where they are placed, which can mean they end up hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from their homes.

Elman says that while some children may benefit from the system, others will not, “and some will die as a result of the instability and chaos they experience living in the system.”

“It is unfathomable that we live in a province where we must say that, at a minimum, we need to take steps to ensure children survive our attempts to protect them.”

Cover: Photo of Amy Owen and Courtney Scott via Facebook

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