Through An Aboriginal Lens

Youth Justice

The impact of Canada’s genocidal actions has been monumental for Indigenous youth. They have experienced the legacy of unimaginable suffering and chaos imposed upon their parents and grandparents by the residential school system, which has affected generations of Indigenous families, communities, and societies to this day. It is well known that Indigenous youth in Canada experience the highest rates of incarceration, poverty, addiction, violence, and placement in foster care, with the lowest rates of high school and university education.

Indigenous youth under the age of 25 make up nearly half of the total Aboriginal population in Canada (47.8%). In British Columbia this population group represents 45.9% of the total Aboriginal population. The younger Indigenous population is growing, which brings a critical dynamic to the already complex issue of child welfare and youth justice. Individuals with FASD are overrepresented in the criminal justice and child welfare systems due to concurrent cognitive, physiological and environmental risk factors. Recent studies show that youth who suffer from FASD often experience co-existing substance abuse, including alcohol and drug addictions, and other life harms. Studies also show that secondary characteristics of FASD are often an underlying factor in many of the charges these youth incur.

Criminal Justice System

Evidence suggests that individuals with FASD are at high risk of coming into repeated contact with the criminal justice system both as victims and offenders. The intergenerational trauma of residential schools, alcohol abuse, and FASD are connected, as shown in a study mentioned in the recently released final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Residential school survivors have been left with the kinds of personal struggles that can lead to conflict with the law. Substance abuse, which has plagued many survivors and their children, is a factor in the over-incarceration of Indigenous youth. Currently Indigenous youth make up 6% of the Canadian population, but they represent 26% of all youth admitted to the correctional system. The numbers are much higher in British Columbia, where 52% of all youth in custody are Indigenous.

It is well known that perpetrators of crime face special challenges if they have FASD, but as with all disabilities, individuals with FASD are at high risk of being victims of crime as well. Many are vulnerable to being taken advantage of, especially by family members and friends who may not have their best interest at heart. In addition, some victims with FASD may not realize that certain behaviours of others are wrong (e.g., sexual advances, touching). These victims may not fully understand what it means to be a victim of crime or that testifying against the accused is paramount for their own safety. Insufficient comprehension of the court process further complicates matters for victims with FASD.

Child Welfare System

Child welfare for Indigenous people has a long history stemming from the government’s policy of assimilation, which climaxed during the Sixties Scoop of the 1960s to 1980s when child apprehension was unrestrained. Sadly, the disproportionate rates of child apprehension for Indigenous youth in Canada continue to this day. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, Indigenous children represented 48% of kids under the age of 14 who were in foster care. Even more telling is that while only 0.3% of all non- Indigenous children under the age of 14 are in foster care that number jumps to 4% for Indigenous children under the age of 14 in foster care.

These rates are confirmed by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth, in a report where she ascertained an Indigenous child is 4.5 times more likely to be reported for investigation, 6.1 times more likely to be investigated, 8.2 times more likely to be determined to require protection, 7.4 times more likely to be entered into care, and 13.4 times more likely to remain in care than non-Aboriginal children. According to another study, the number of children in care with an FASD assessment in British Columbia in 2011 ranged from a low estimate of 301 to a high estimate of 1,032 out of a total 9,136 children in care. A child in care is 13 times more likely to have an FASD condition than a child not in care.

It has been shown that children with FASD are more likely to be permanent wards of child welfare agencies. Long term placements tended to breakdown in adolescence. Those youth who reconnected with biological family found they couldn’t count on them to be supportive or stable. Even children who had relationships with their families and who returned to their families of origin were often not supported due to family instability. This instability is often magnified as the result of parents not being able to work through their own trauma because of the stigma and shame they face when a child is diagnosed with FASD. The residential school legacy has “affected the Survivors’ partners, their children, their grandchildren, their extended families, and their communities,” says the report from the TRC. Many children who returned home from the residential schools found alcohol abuse in their families. Parents who developed problems with alcohol may have been trying to cope with the pain of having their children taken from them.

The impact of stigmatization is not unfounded. The Vancouver Foundation Transition Survey report states that British Columbians see parents as the main reason kids end up in foster care or in group homes. British Columbians are far less likely to view broader social factors such as racism, poverty, homelessness and a lack of access to social services as the reasons why youth end up in the foster care system.

Moving Forward

The link between an FASD diagnosis, children in care, and involvement in the justice system (whether as a child or those who later become involved in the justice system as adults) clearly needs to be addressed through support and specialized interventions for parents and families of youth who have FASD. Often parents have barriers, perhaps even substance abuse, in which case kids are most vulnerable to being removed from care. The situation is overwhelming for mothers, who in many cases are single parents, because they take the brunt of the blame. By stabilizing the families of youth with FASD we will ensure youth are protected and the cycle of constant placement breakdown stops. We know that a secure, safe environment is conducive to rehabilitation and healing.

The good news is that Through an Aboriginal Lens provides Aboriginal specific programming, which includes incorporation of traditional values together with the latest information and intervention methods on FASD, enabling Indigenous youth to thrive and move forward on the continuum of self-sustainability and social development.