In a recent decision, the BC Human Rights Tribunal held that an Indigenous mother was discriminated against in her interactions with a child protection agency that retained custody of her children and strictly restricted her access to them for nearly three years. The mother was awarded $150,000 as compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect. This is the second highest award under this category in the tribunal’s history.
Governments in what’s now called Canada have interfered with the relationships between Indigenous caregivers and their children for generations. First, governments, police, and churches forcibly removed children from their homes and families and brought them to residential schools. Then there were the Sixties and Millennium Scoops. Indigenous children in care continue being overrepresented and underserved.
Indigenous families have also been resisting these colonial efforts at assimilation for generations. The Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (“VACFSS”) was meant to be one means of combating the the colonial and racist problems with child “protection.” The purpose of VACFSS was to apply a restorative child welfare model. However, it remains bound by provincial child welfare legislation.
Over 21 days spread out in 2020 and 2021, the BC Human Rights Tribunal Member Devyn Cousineau heard a complaint from an Afro-Indigenous mother, “RR,” that the VACFSS discriminated against her on the basis of her Indigeneity, race, ancestry, colour, and mental disability, in violation of section 8 of the BC Human Rights Code. In a decision issued on November 22, 2022, the Tribunal held that VACFSS discriminated against the complainant mother.
The Tribunal described RR as follows:
RR is a racialized Afro-Indigenous woman. She is the single mother of five children, one who passed away too soon and three who have complex needs. She has a low income and insecure housing. She is an inter-generational survivor of residential schools with disabilities stemming from trauma. She is resourceful, affectionate, a leader in her community, connected to her culture, and loves her children.
According to the Tribunal, VACFSS apprehended RR’s fourchildren for nearly three years and strictly regulated her access to them in a discriminatory way. It held as follows:
For the reasons that follow, I find that VACFSS discriminated against RR. VACFSS’s decisions to retain custody and restrict RR’s access to her children were informed by stereotypes about her as an Indigenous mother with mental health issues, including trauma, and her conflict with the child welfare system. Because of RR’s Indigeneity and trauma, she had a heightened need to be empowered and included in decisions respecting her children and to have complete, ongoing, and accurate information about their wellbeing. Instead, VACFSS responded to her with escalating assertions of power and control, reducing and suspending her access to the children, limiting her communication with their caregivers, and ultimately prolonging their time in care. I find that VACFSS did not have reasonable grounds to continue custody and that none of these adverse impacts can be justified as reasonably necessary to protect RR’s children.
In issuing its decision, the Tribunal made several important findings. Of note, it found that the VACFSS did not have reasonable grounds to believe RR’s children were in need of protection. The Tribunal held as follows about the VACFSS:
Its focus on RR’s trauma, mental health, and relationship with the child welfare system was not related to the actual impact of these characteristics on her children. Rather, it rested on stereotype and assumptions about RR as a parent, and conflict with RR that was connected to her Indigeneity and required accommodation.
According to the Tribunal, VACFSS’s records and evidence in the hearing demonstrated “numerous comments about RR that were derogatory and judgmental.
Further, the Tribunal held that the VACFSS failed to adequately respond to RR’s needs as an Indigenous mother. RR had a negative experience in her interactions with VACFSS because of her Indigeneity and trauma and these impacts led to conflicts with VACFSS. RR did not understand or accept the child protection concerns that VACFSS had and lost trust that VACFSS was working toward returning her children to her in good faith, so resisted. The Tribunal recognized that in these circumstances, Indigenous families sometimes respond by retreating and giving up. RR instead chose resistance. And this resistance “required a human rights response.” Instead, VACFSS “wrongly conflated RR’s resistance with her ability to safely parent her children.” The Tribunal recognized that this pattern was not new and was reflective of the way the state-sanctioned system treated parents in the context of residential schools. It’s a continuing discriminatory trend in the child protection system.
Lastly, the Tribunal Held that VACFSS’s were not reasonable or justified.
In deciding to award RR $150,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect, the Tribunal stated as follows:
Throughout this time, RR was excluded from key parts of her children’s young lives, including their education. She did not see any report cards, she did not get them dressed for picture day, or see a class photo. She was alienated from their school, whose administrators were told at various points to phone the police if she was seen at the school. She was given little information about their lives, which stoked her worst fears. She learned about many significant things that happened to her children, including the level of violence and dysregulation they were experiencing in the Hollyburn residence, for the first time in this hearing.
The Tribunal also reminded child protection agencies of the great responsibility that comes with their power:
As I have explained, the power that VACFSS exercises as a child protection agency is almost unparalleled in Canadian society: the power to take a person’s children based on an allegation. With such power comes a grave responsibility to exercise its duties free of discrimination. As this case demonstrates, the consequences for failing in that responsibility could not be more severe – for the parent and for the child. In my view, the extraordinary power that VACFSS exercises within its mandate is a factor which weighs in favour of a higher
Some of RR’s feelings were described by the tribunal as follows:
RR was pushed to the brink of hope: “It’s hard to even have hope when you don’t have your children with you. It’s hard to even want to live anymore when you don’t have your kids”. She felt labelled as “another single mother drunk Indian that’s basically disposable” and who would “end up giving up for her kids”. She described the feeling of “so many different fresh workers coming on and they all have an opinion about me”. By the end of the period in the complaint, she says:
I was emotionally, mentally, and physically and emotionally, just exhausted. Like I felt like I was under water and VACFSS is sitting here on a rowboat, and sitting here watching me drown and not even helping me and I’m swimming and trying to catch a breath and trying to breathe. And I’m not getting any help, or … support. I felt like I was drowning.
The injury to dignity award was the second highest ever awarded at the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The Tribunal decided it should be high because the complaint was unprecedented, and it exposed systemic forces of discrimination and their profound impacts on an Indigenous mother.
The Tribunal also ordered VACFSS pay RR $5,000 as costs for improper conduct because it disclosed critical documents late and its former counsel briefed a witness on the evidence of other witnesses who testified before them.