The Development of Indigenous Children in Foster Care

History Dec 13, 2021

by Bianca Teodora Hutanu

In Canada, Indigenous children constitute over half of the children in foster care, while they only represent 7.7% of the country’s child population, according to Census 2016 (Indigenous Services Canada, 2021). The trauma that these communities faced from generation to generation (intergenerational trauma) stems from their mistreatment at residential schools since they first opened in the 1870s, and the “sixties scoop” which saw drastic increases of Indigenous children being misappropriated into foster care till this day (Restoule, 2013, p.4). While the last residential school closed in 1996, First Nation community members with the help of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) continue to uncover the unmarked graves of countless children at various residential school sites in different provinces (Restoule, 2013, p.4; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p.11). These schools were managed by Catholic churches and funded by the federal government, with the intent of assimilating this population into the dominant “European” culture. Indigenous children in these residential schools were forced to deny their language, culture, spirituality, and traditional knowledge out of the fear of being physically and emotionally abused (Blackstock, 2009, pp.29-30). The abusive nature of residential schools impeded the proper development of Indigenous children in foster care.

Children today still face the aftermath from colonization and attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples, this developing into intergenerational trauma (Blackstock, 2009). This contributed to the elevated numbers of Indigenous children in foster care, which can lead to them being disconnected to their culture. As culture plays a major role in healing, art therapy can be implemented as an effective way of healing for these children because it can empower them by staying in touch with their traditions and helping them regain their cultural heritage (Muirhead and de Leeuw, 2012). To provide context for why art therapy can be an effective therapy tool for Indigenous children in foster care, this article will explore the impact of residential schools on Indigenous children, as well as how the trauma of their experiences has negatively impacted the generation of Indigenous youth.  The positive effects of healing methods that incorporate Indigenous practices (like the reintegration of Indigenous art making through art therapy) for children in foster care will then be examined.

American History – Jeffrey Gibson, 2015 (Hudson, NY)

To begin, it is important to acknowledge that the land now known as Canada is populated by diverse groups of Indigenous peoples that have lived there for thousands of years (Blackstock, 2009, p.28). Despite having distinct linguistic, cultural, and political systems, depending on their ecological setting, Indigenous peoples share some common beliefs like interdependence of all living, and sense of community. This is reflected in their way of parenting and educating children. Traditionally, the entire community, especially Elders participate in raising children and contributing to their healthy development. However, colonial authorities considered Indigenous ways of parenting inadequate compared to European parenting practices (Blackstock, 2009, p.29). Colonizers passed the Indian Act, to not only impose their ways of thinking, but also to assimilate “Indians” (Blackstock, 2009). The Act dictated that children between 5-15 years of age would be forcefully removed from their families and taken to residential schools (Blackstock, 2009). This negatively impacted the development of these children. As the transactional model of development suggests, “the development of a child is [...] a product of the continuous dynamic interactions between the child and the experience provided by his or her family and social context” (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000, p. 10, as cited in Davies, 2010b, p.4) Removed from their primary care givers and placed in the alien and abusive environment of residential schools, the institutionalisation of these children robbed them of their proper transactional development.

Additionally, the lack of funding for residential schools greatly impacted the health of Indigenous children. The Residential schools were poorly constructed establishments built with the cheapest materials, leading to unsanitary conditions that promoted the proliferation of diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox (Blackstock, 2009, p.29). Clergy members also physically, sexually, and emotionally abused Indigenous children, as they forced them to give up anything that made them “Indian.” This led to lasting trauma. Recent neurobiological research suggests that abuse and neglect cause trauma to a child due to their ongoing feelings of anxiety and helplessness. (Davies, 2010a, pp.51-52) Compared to a child that had proper care, children with pasts of chronic abuse have higher concentrations of stress hormones. As such they are hypersensitive to nonverbal cues that could indicate potential violence, a tendency which can interfere with other brain activities (Davies, 2010a). According to The Psychobiology of Maltreatment in Childhood, these early exposures to stressors lead to neurochemical changes that promote “stereotyped and maladaptive responses to future stressors and may interfere with normal development” (Watts-English, 2006, as cited from Davies, 2010a, pp.49-50).

Residential schools that have negatively impacted Indigenous children can further impact the quality of their parenting and interactions with their future generations. Further studies show that the maltreatment that Indigenous parents faced in residential schools as a child “may negatively influence the quality of parental interaction with children, and contribute to unresolved or prolonged grief, depression, substance abuse, and other behavioral health issues” (Brave Heart et al. 2011, p.284). As such, it is very important to address the trauma that parents have faced to avoid further disseminating intergenerational trauma which can cause difficulties with interpersonal communication, trust, relationship building and parenting (Chase, 2011, Brave Heart et al. 2011, p.287). Addressing the trauma caused by residential schools could help parents improve their parenting skills and reduce the perpetuation of behavioral health risks for children (Brave Heart et al. 2011). However, with the lack of funding in the reserves and health care services, it can be difficult for Indigenous people who need therapy or other kinds of treatment to access the help they need.

As the child’s brain matures over the years, the transactions within their environment and especially their care giver impacts their brain development, especially up to ages 3–4 when the brain shows a greater deal of plasticity and is more reactive to influences from their surroundings than in later development (Davies, 2010a, p.43). As positive influences can be optimal for children, negative factors have a greater impact due to the plasticity of the young brain which makes it more vulnerable to neglectful caregiving, abuse and trauma (Davies, 2010a). Therefore, parents with trauma who would otherwise transfer some of that trauma to their childrenneed healing for healthier caregiving practices. Through studies, Indigenous scholars, clinicians, and prevention specialists recognise the validity of incorporating traditional Indigenous culture and customs when developing interventions for recovery through healing approaches (Brave Heart, 2011, p. 287).

Furthermore, programs like the one implemented by the institute of Winnipeg Holistic Expressive Arts Therapy (WHEAT) may provide a potential solution by allowing Indigenous peoples to have culturally appropriate therapy services that can use family-centred approaches depending on their needs (Jamal, 2020, paras. 3). Art is an important part of the First Nation’s culture and could also benefit children in foster care as an effective way of healing. It can represent a positive and significant outcome in the struggle against colonial oppression(Pirrel, 2021,paras. 2). Art can empower children in foster care, by encouraging them to stay in touch with their traditions and keeping engaged with other children, which can further support them though regaining their cultural heritage. Additionally, it could also have a positive impact on their cognitive development. As studies from the Michigan State University show, art engages with children’s senses and supports their social-emotional and multisensory skills (Rymanowicz, 2015). Using materials such as crayons or chalk could help them develop their fine motor muscles, and as they practice drawing how they feel , drawings can help children conceptualize their ideas and further develop their critical thinking as well (Rymanowicz, 2015).

As children in art therapy are actively engaging with the professional and other children, this will help them understand their feelings and it can be a great way to relief their traumas and constant stress by expressing their emotions (Muirhead and de Leeuw, 2012, p.5). There are other artistic activities that are more culturally engaging, such as the creation of functional items decorated with beads, like clothing or even the making of items with a spiritual significance, like totem poles or masks, depending on their communities (Muirhead and de Leeuw, 2012, p.5). Art therapy can also be practiced through singing and story telling, both of which are significant parts of the First Nations culture (Muirhead and de Leeuw, 2012). This can help them face the difficulty of accessing the health care system, which is not as culturally sensitive, through a more holistic approach of healing that incorporates indigenous traditions, especially since culture is a big part of their identity (Muirhead and de Leeuw, 2012, p.6).

An important step to reconciliation, especially between professionals like non-Indigenous Social Workers, Art therapists or other professionals and Indigenous children in foster care, would be to acknowledge the ongoing oppression and offer more culturally appropriate services without imposing Euro-Western values upon these children (Blackstock, 2009). It is important to be mindful that Indigenous culture is very diverse, and practices may vary between different communities, so actively listening to children and being aware of their practices is important. Therefore, for a better awareness, Indigenous professionals are necessary in engaging with Indigenous communities to promote strength and resilience. Art therapy sessions for indigenous children should create a safe space for them to practice a culturally appropriate activity that they can share as they engage with their environment, if the children are ready to share their experiences and emotions. Engaging with others can bring different communities together and leave the room open for discussion to further share various healing practices.

Although the proper development of Indigenous children was impeded by the maltreatment that they endured in residential schools; as that trauma is passed down intergenerationally, children today still face consequences from the attempted assimilation done by the colonizers. It is imperative to not let these past mistakes reoccur, especially since the number of Indigenous children in foster care is rising and many of them can be misappropriated into care:“overall, Status Indian children were 15 times more likely to be placed in child welfare care than non-Aboriginal children” (Blackstock, 2009, p.30). Therefore, culturally appropriate programs, such as art as a form of healing should be implemented by and for Indigenous communities. Being aware of the oppression that is continuously being perpetuated is important, to take active steps towards accommodating Indigenous children that are already in foster care without it impeding on their development. Spreading awareness within professionals working at child welfare programs and working with Indigenous peoples will further impede misappropriation into care.


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