By: Darryl Hol + G.P. Mendoza
Eleanor Stephenson remembers a time when she only saw her granddaughters two or three times a year. Chantal and Nora, now 12 and 9, were living in foster care because their parents couldn’t care for them.
Her family’s situation is all too common in the small Cheam First Nation – located about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver – where nearly every extended family has been affected by the child welfare system.
That’s why she started the Roots and Ties program four years ago. It’s an event that welcomes Cheam children living in foster care back to the community to visit their families.
“I feel that if there was no Roots and Ties, a lot of the children wouldn’t know their grandparents, even their parents sometimes,” says Stephenson.
Held on the third Sunday of every month, foster parents are invited to bring children in their care to the community hall for a meal, birthday cake, and cultural activity. Everyone is welcome, including parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents, and social workers.
It’s the Cheam community’s response to the high number of Aboriginal children who continue to enter the child welfare system. Aboriginal children make up 52 percent of children in care, while representing just eight per cent of children in British Columbia.
While there are other programs offered throughout the province aimed at keeping foster children connected to their families and culture, Roots and Ties is the only one that happens regularly every month and that has so effectively bridged the gap that often exists between foster parents and members of the community.
“What happens here is we get the foster parents that come and sit with the families and they know them now,” says June Quipp, a Cheam councillor and co-founder of Roots and Ties.
But the future of the program was put into jeopardy last December when the band learned that the $20,000 annual funding it had received from the Ministry of Children and Family Development would not be renewed.
“I know we were all pretty sad … the families were quite upset and even the foster parents were quite upset because they look forward to bringing the children,” says Quipp.
Her eleventh-hour plea secured more funding until the end of the fiscal year, but she is unsure if the program will continue beyond March.
‘I wanted to get myself better’
At the most recent Roots and Ties event, Stephenson’s son Myron Douglas sits at one end of a long table. Chantal sits on his right, Nora on his left. As they share roasted chicken Douglas looks every bit the proud father. He treasures the time he gets to spend with his daughters, and knows other parents aren’t so lucky.
“Some kids don’t even get to see their parents when they get put in care and when they do get to see them, it’s 10 to 15 years down the line and by then they don’t even know them,” he says.
It’s painful for him to remember the day that his children were taken into foster care. At the time, he was addicted to heroin. “I wanted to get myself better right away, as fast as I could, but by then I was all buggered right up,” he says. After a few years in care, Chantal and Nora moved in with Stephenson, where they continue to live today.
The opportunity to see his daughters more often gave him the courage to return to Cheam after 15 years away. Now he is working hard to get his life back on track. But most of all, he is loving being a dad again.
“My relationship with [Chantal and Nora] now?” He thinks for a moment, before his eyes light up and he continues, “They don’t want to leave me now… they’ve got me here now and they don’t want me to leave.”
Building a sense of pride
Once lunch is over and the month’s birthdays are celebrated with a big cake, one of the elders announces that it’s time for the craft. Kids grab wet strips of cedar, which have been soaking in a bucket of water.
As they weave the strips into tiny baskets, Donna Kondra rushes from child to child, offering words of encouragement. Kondra is Cree/Metis and was a foster child herself. She’s now a foster parent and has taken a number of Aboriginal children into her care, including Chantal and Nora. She knows first-hand the importance of keeping them connected with culture.
“There wasn’t that glow fifty years ago when my mother was growing up,” she says. “To be able to implant these roots of pride in your children, whether they’re your birth children or otherwise, it’s so important.”
As for young Chantal, she’s picked up a bit of the Halq’emeylem language and learned about lots of stories from her ancestors thanks to Roots and Ties. “I feel really connected now that they’ve started this program,” she says.
Looking at the kids comparing their finished cedar baskets, a big smile breaks across Kondra’s face. “These children have blossomed. They have incredible confidence and growth and love for who they are.”
The next stage
Eleanor Stephenson looks like a proud mother as she watches the children say their good-byes and file out of the hall, each clutching a freshly woven cedar basket. She hopes they will all be back again next month, but knows that depends on what the government decides about funding.
A spokesperson for the Ministry says “they would need to re-apply for funding” for the program, but organizers say they’ve already done that and have been told that a decision will be made soon.
Stephenson has high hopes for the future of Roots and Ties. “We’re hoping it will run for quite a while and then we want to move it into another stage where parents get their kids back in their homes.”
For her own son, that possibility is what drives his recovery. “Once I’m recovered, then maybe one day I’ll take [Chantal and Nora] before they’re out of high school,” says Douglas somewhat hopefully, before a determined look crosses his face and he continues, “But one day I’ll have ‘em.”