Ria Marion can’t remember how old she was when she entered foster care, but one thing is for sure: she was very young.
She was either three or four years old when she moved into the first of many foster homes, along with one of her younger sisters.
“My mom was 16 when she had me, and she was 14 when she had my brother,” she Marion of her birth mother, who is a member of the Nipissing first nation band and who she has remained in contact with over the years.
“She tried to take care of us, but in the end she just couldn’t. She struggled with alcohol and drugs. Sometimes she would just take off.”
Over 50 per cent of children in foster care in B.C. are aboriginal, even though aboriginal children make up only 8 per cent of the province’s under-18 population.
‘Colossal failure of public policy’ says report of aboriginal child welfare mismanagement
On Nov. 6, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, released a report criticizing the provincial government for spending $66 million dollars in the last decade on aboriginal child welfare programs that did not directly benefit children and youth. Those funds were spent partially to hire consultants yet the foster care program remains inadequately resourced on the front lines.
“I had this one social worker for a year and I saw her once in that year,” said Marion. “And it’s not anything that she did, but she just had so many cases she had to look after.
“When I was in this one particular home, they used to hit us. I think it was the worst foster home I was in,” she added. “There just needs to be more vigilance on the part of the government to checking out the foster homes and the people who are in them.”
Marion thinks the government needs to hire additional social workers and conduct more thorough investigations into the families selected to become foster parents.
Foster kids ‘aging out’ of system before they are ready to become independent
Last month, the Vancouver Foundation released a report that said a majority of B.C. residents think the age of government financial support for foster children should be raised to 21 years of age, from 19.
Marion was in her second semester at Langara when she turned 19 and aged out of the system.
“You get a cheque from the government that’s good for one month’s worth of rent and then you’re sent on your way to do your own thing, and live your own life,” she said. “You’re no longer a ward of the government. You don’t have a guardian anymore. You have to take care of yourself.”
“And I know everyone has to go through that but at least they’ve still got a support system, hopefully a family in place that’s going to help them,” said Marion, but that for foster kids it’s harder.
“I’m a parent,” said Margo Nelson, “but if my daughter’s not ready to be emancipated at 19 I’m certainly not going to kick her out of the house.”
Nelson is an instructor in the social work program at Langara. She is researching the difficulties aboriginal foster children encounter when trying to remain connected to their culture and communities.
She also agrees that the age of support for children in care should be raised.
“If the government is the parent of these children — and it is — and they’re not ready to become independent, then we’re not being good parents,” said Nelson of the province’s responsibility to its wards.
“Children are resilient,” she added, “but they shouldn’t have to be.”
“For me it wasn’t so bad,” said Marion of when she turned 19. “But my sisters had it worse.
“Because I’d done well in high school I was able to go to post-secondary school, and my band funds that. So if you apply and you’re going to a post-secondary institution they pay for your tuition and give you book money and rent.
“So in that sense, I was lucky. But my sisters didn’t go on to post-secondary school and so they didn’t have that option.
“I’m one of the luckier ones,” said Marion, “because there was more available to me in terms of going to school and funding. But for so many other foster children that’s not available.”
In the following video, Ria Marion talks about the challenges of growing up as a foster child and how she feels about her aboriginal identity.
Reported by Jana Minor