Growing up in the foster care system, “home” for Sandra Noel was always changing.
She bounced from one family to another — eight homes over a nine-year span — after entering care in Yellowknife at age 10. Noel, born in Inuvik, remembers the good parts while in care: a trip to Disneyland and being able to meet with other foster kids dealing with a lot of the same difficulties, for example.
Then there was the abuse. The numerous court visits.
Noel knows what it’s like to fall through the cracks; to be affected by a system she calls “broken.”
That’s why she led a march on Monday demanding reform within the territory’s child services system.
“I think it starts with the biological families and getting them the supports and resources they need to help them get their children back. From there, everything falls into place. There’ll be less of a need for foster parents; less social workers needed,” Noel told NNSL Media.
Noel was joined by some 25 friends and supporters who marched down Franklin Avenue from the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool. Led by the city’s Municipal Enforcement Division (MED), participants — including Mayor Rebecca Alty — the demonstrators made their way to City Hall, where the march ended.
Among the changes Noel wants to see, she’s pushing for more of a focus on the root causes that lead children in foster care, so that government intervention isn’t necessary. By addressing those issues — being proactive and preventative — she said more families will be able to stay intact.
Noel’s sentiments were shared by her friend, Jolene McDonald, who participated in Monday’s march.
“I really think that the focus should be on families first. I’d like to see a system that puts families of origin first by empowering families, not creating more distance. We need to bring families together so that children don’t have to go into foster care in the first place and if they are in care, to make sure that they still have that connection to family and culture,” said McDonald.
Citing recent statistics, McDonald noted that Indigenous children are about 12 times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-Indigenous kids.
“That’s wrong,” she said.
Yellowknife’s Georgina Franki, originally from Behchoko, opened the march with a prayer in the Tlicho language.
As a new grandmother, she felt it was important to support Noel’s cause.
“I want to make sure that children are protected, especially in our Aboriginal communities in the NWT. I think we’re overlooked,” said Franki.
“The whole territory needs to get involved, to work together and to have unity so that these children are best protected emotionally, physically and spiritually,” she continued. “This is a beginning.”
Addressing supporters at Somba K'e Civic Plaza following the demonstration, Noel called for better training and support for foster parents; strengthened resources for birth families; increased communication among children, parents, government and social workers; and more transparency from Child and Family Services.
‘The time for change is now,” said Noel.
No progress since late last year: online tracker
In her calls to action, Noel echoed many of the concerns outlined months ago by frustrated foster parents and adoptive caregivers who lamented an ongoing lack of support and accountability from the government. A highly critical 27-page letter was sent to newly-appointed Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom. It included numerous, wide-ranging recommendations that demanded bolstered supports for foster caregivers and increased department transparency.
The letter to Thom followed a blistering 2018 report from Canada’s auditor general, which found many aspects of the territory’s child welfare system had worsened.
Amid increased scrutiny and the outcry from foster families, Thom told NNSL Media that the department was committed to turning concerns into “immediate action.” The minister later met with the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT’s board to hear their concerns.
The letter to Thom was sent after the Department of Health and Social Services touted the completion of 23 out of 70 “action items” outlined in its Quality Improvement Plan for child and family services. As of Monday, the department’s online progress tracker showed the same figures as appeared in December — 23 items have been met, while 47 are still “on track” for completion, according to the government website.
A spokesperson for the department told NNSL Media they are preparing a statement regarding the current status and progress of the plan.