Views / Opinion

Jasmine Kabatay: Tamara Malcolm's fight against child services shows a system in tatters

If a child has to go on social media, or run away, to be heard, what kind of system is this?

Tamara Malcolm is fighting to get her children back from Manitoba's child welfare system.

Tamara Malcolm / GoFundMe

Tamara Malcolm is fighting to get her children back from Manitoba's child welfare system.

Growing up I was always aware of the disadvantages Indigenous children face in care.

Throughout my childhood, my parents would take in foster children, sometimes for a year, sometimes for three weeks. When I asked why they did it, they would say, “We have the space,” or simply: they were asked.

Doing the asking was Weechi-it-te-win Family Services, an organization that dubs itself an Anishinaabe alternative to child welfare, serving the Treaty 3 area in northwestern Ontario.

The children that stayed with us would often be from my reserve. They didn’t have to leave their community, were still close to their families, and stayed in a home that knew their culture and traditions.

It’s not ideal for children to be taken at all, but if the organization and workers at least understand the culture, history, and unique struggles of Indigenous Peoples, there could be more trust.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I follow the story of Tamara Malcolm.

Malcolm has been fighting for 10 years to get her children back after, she says, they were apprehended by Winnipeg’s Child and Family Services. In October she started a GoFundMe to cover legal fees and hire a lawyer.

Malcolm has been vocal about her story on Twitter. But since she’s started her public battle, she says she could face fines or jail time for sharing information about her children online. Over the holidays, Malcolm said she had to agree not to tweet in order to have a visit with her children.

Since then, her 15-year-old son has taken to his own Twitter account to recount his experiences, saying in one tweet: “And to be absolute honest, I do NOT feel safe or loved or happy in the hands of CFS. I just want this decade long tribulation to end.”

Malcolm’s oldest son Lee, who has aged out of the system, spoke to Maclean’s about running away from foster care to go be with his mother because he “just wanted to be held” by her.

If a child has to go on social media — or run away — to be heard, what kind of system is this?

Malcolm and her story aren’t unique. A report from Statistics Canada in 2016 found First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth made up 52 per cent of foster children younger than 14 in Canada, despite representing only eight per cent of that age group.

Later this month Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott will hold an emergency meeting to discuss child welfare with First Nations leaders and advocacy groups.

It’s going to take a lot to change the current, abysmal, state of affairs. But listening to the families affected and the communities around them is a start.

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