When Clara wakes up on the morning of her 19th birthday this December, she will be one of the roughly 700 young adults to leave the foster care system in B.C. this year.
She spent her life in foster care and used to be terrified of the idea of being on her own.
“I was super scared. Honest to God, I was so worried and terrified of aging out. It just scared me, being alone.”
Clara had good reason to be anxious. When young people turn 19, their caregivers stop getting money from the province to take care of them, and the young adults are often forced to leave their foster homes and find their own way in the world.
Former foster children often lack a high school diploma, employment and housing. They are also more prone to mental health issues, homelessness and substance abuse, according to a report from the representative for children and youth in B.C.
Confidence and self-esteem
Clara’s situation is somewhat unique, and her story could hold lessons that might help other aboriginal foster kids in B.C.[pullquote align=right]I started to realize that it’s part of my blood[/pullquote]She was a six-week-old baby old from the Shuswap First Nation when she entered foster care. She says her foster parents raised her as “one of their own.” Even though they are non-aboriginal, they knew that Clara needed to accept her aboriginal heritage to succeed.
“I didn’t really like being native because my biological mom was native,” said Clara, whose rejection of her aboriginal heritage affected her confidence and self-esteem.
“Hearing all those stereotypes about aboriginal people just really made me not want to be aboriginal.”
Her foster mother led her to the Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness program (CRUW). The initiative is run by the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, and provides classes on a variety of life skills to at-risk youth, including aboriginal foster children between the ages of 12 and 15.
The program re-introduces participants to aboriginal culture.
“I started to realize that it’s part of my blood,” said Clara of her new-found identity. “I have to accept it and I have to start to learn more about it.”
Now, when asked if she is aboriginal she immediately answers: “Yeah, and proud of it.”
Clara on embracing her aboriginal identity (1’34”)
Identity and confidence are crucial for aboriginal foster children transitioning out of care, said Anna McKenzie, a program coordinator at CRUW.
“If you go out in the world and you’re feeling insecure and confused about who you are it’s going to impact your success,” McKenzie said.
A question of identity
Clara is one of the 8,169 children in care in the province, 52 per cent of whom are aboriginal, a Ministry of Children and Family Development report noted.
Youth in foster care in B.C. in 2014
Cheam First Nation member Ernie Crey is a long-time aboriginal child welfare advocate. He says there are several reasons for the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in care.
“The community and families struggle with poverty, ill health, mental health and addiction issues that impact child care,” Crey said. “They’re often removed because their families are poor and struggling.”
A 2013 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted that 40 per cent of Canada’s aboriginal children live in poverty. According to the report, aboriginal children fall short in key areas such as family income, educational attainment, infant mortality and homelessness.
Crey says identity issues are especially pronounced in aboriginal children when they are transitioning out of care.
“If raised in a non-aboriginal home they often don’t develop an understanding of their culture of origin,” he said. “They often find they have nothing in common with their people.”
Programs such as CRUW act as a cultural surrogate, providing exposure and sensitization to aboriginal ways.
“They learn to feel and understand that it’s OK to be aboriginal, even celebrated,” Crey said.
Not making the connection to culture can be devastating.
Power and guidance
Audrey Siegl, from the Musqueam First Nation, spent three years in foster care. She is 41 now, but the lack of cultural exposure while in foster care still resonates more than 20 years later.
“That connection to your culture is invaluable, because that’s where we find our grounding, our power, that’s where we find our guidance,” said Siegl, who ran for city council in Vancouver’s last civic election.
Siegl wrestled with abandonment issues after leaving care. One day she belonged somewhere and the next she did not. She tried coping through conventional therapy, but ultimately found healing through her culture.
Audrey Siegl on how identity helped her heal (1’31”)
“I didn’t need to sit and talk for hours on end, for years on end. I needed my culture, I needed my ancestors, I needed that connection, and now that I have it, I know I’m unstoppable,” she said.
Clara has overcome hardships since her first breath.
She developed pneumonia and asthma after birth, and lived in two foster homes before finally settling with her current family.
“They actually took care of me. They didn’t care whether I was sick or not,” she said.[pullquote align=right]I do a lot more of my culture that really makes me feel grounded[/pullquote]But having loving foster parents didn’t mean life was easy. She found out about being taken in to care when she was six. Her big sister, who lived in the same home, told her. The two girls never got along and today that relationship continues to challenge her.
“My sister, she doesn’t make me happy and she’s still in my life. It’s complicated and stresses me out,” said Clara, who remains estranged from her biological mother.
Sports and photography have helped Clara find positive outlets for her frustrations, but CRUW has done much more than that.
“I do a lot more of my culture that really makes me feel grounded,” she said. “I do all these cultural things when I’m in a negative space.”
A hopeful transition
Clara is aware of the pitfalls that come with transitioning out of care, but she is confident she’ll succeed. Her foster family has agreed to let her continue living with them. She’s also enrolled in college thanks to the mentorship she got at CRUW.
“I started to work with youth, I just really liked it. I got to come back as a mentor,” she said. “That motivated me to do better in school…and study to be an aboriginal youth worker.”
Instead of approaching her 19th birthday with dread, Clara looks forward to life as an independent aboriginal woman.
“I think I’m prepared to transition out without social workers help. I’m kind of nervous and a little scared. But I’m super excited that I won’t have to deal with social workers and the government.”
Editor’s note: The publication is protecting the identity of ‘Clara’, which is not her real name.