The University of Saskatchewan has partnered with a Saskatoon-based Aboriginal organization to seek solutions and draw a link to child welfare and gang violence in the province.
U of S Native Studies Métis researcher Dr. Caroline Tait has joined forces with Str8 Up, an innovative program run through the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, which helps people leave the gang life.
“Our child welfare system is broken, and we need to fix it,” said Tait, who is also former vice-chair of the federally funded Aboriginal Women’s Health and Healing Research Group, a national network of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women researchers interested in Indigenous community-based health and wellness.
“We need to begin by ensuring that our child welfare system is ethical, that the system does not cause even more harm to vulnerable children and families,” she added.
Tait, who is Métis, recently completed her documentary, “Child Welfare: The State as Parent,” as part of an “ethical toolkit” project funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
“We were looking at the way in which government policy impacted vulnerable people,” Tait explained.
Emil Brandon is one of those people, a survivor of the system.
“Our kids are dying and we need to do something to keep them out of gangs,” said Brandon, who is one of the 65 ex-gang members in the Str8 Up Program. “Those aren’t the government’s kids – those are our kids.”
Brandon said more government resources are needed for organizations like Str8 Up.
He is not alone.
“To this day we don’t have funding,” said Stan Tu’Inukuafe, former gang outreach coordinator for Str8 Up.
Tu’Inukuafe recently left the organization due to lack of funding. Str8 Up is dependent on donor support and fundraising initiatives. This year it needs $150,000 to keep operating. More government money needs to be put into gang prevention initiatives, rather than into the corrections system said Tu’Inukuafe.
“Instead of building more jails we should be building more treatment centres,” Tu’Inukuafe said. “If you want change, prevention is key.”
Tu’Inukuafe said virtually all gang members have addiction issues and most have been in and out of foster care.
“When do we break the cycle?” he asked.
Tu’Inukuafe said he has heard of cases where as many as 20 children had been placed in one foster home. He said Aboriginal children and teens are being ignored by a system that was built to protect them, adding that he is not surprising that kids in this system turn to gangs for the support they can’t find in over-filled foster homes.
“We know that when a child hits the age of 13, they become incredibly vulnerable because if they don’t have a strong identity with their foster family they are going to seek out validation and support elsewhere,” she said, pointing to the reasons most youth join gangs.
Tait said her research linking the flawed child welfare system and its correlation with gang involvement will be collected and provided to Aboriginal communities to build initiatives and potentially help to create policy reform.
“There’s a gap in the system that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Addressing this issue is not about harsher punishments and enforcement. It takes building connections with families and with communities, and addressing issues of poverty, racism and social exclusion,” she explains.
Tait said her research proves that child welfare reform is desperately needed. However, for change to be affective, initiatives must be created and implemented by Aboriginal people.
“It [collected research] will be put in the hands of Indigenous leaders and they are going to be the one’s to make that step,” she said.