Family Court, Halifax

A Nova Scotia couple said they were forced out of their home in Springhill when their landlord decided to move back into the house. The couple said less than a week later after moving to a temporary shelter in Millbrook, their children were apprehended into the care of Child Protective Services (CPS), where they remain.

Shirley (the Halifax Examiner is not using the family’s real names] and her husband have nine children, ages three to 18. Shirley is First Nations and her husband is Black. Their children identify as First Nations, African Canadian, and both.

Shirley recently told the Halifax Examiner about an ordeal that involves her children being separated from one another, allegations of her children experiencing neglect and abuse while in care, and a lack of accountability on the part of CPS as well as systematic prejudice and discrimination.

Eviction and apprehension

“Had it not been for the landlord, I don’t believe the kids would have ever been brought into care,” Shirley said

She said that she and her husband didn’t see the house when they first moved to Springhill because there weren’t a lot of housing options for larger families.

“And needless to say, it was a big mistake,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish the racial issues and everything that we had happened to us [in that community and from the landlord] on anybody.”

“I’m not saying all white people are bad … That’s not the case,” she said. “However, it seems like when you’re not like everybody else, you’re a target. Period.”

After moving into the house four years ago, Shirley said that the landlord neglected many needed repairs that they reported. She said the landlord did one inspection of the home in the four years they lived there and never fixed anything that needed repairs. She said the landlord’s wife told her that he had a heart attack and was unable to do the repairs as a result.

Shirley said that the lack of repairs led to a plumbing issue that caused a flood in the basement during COVID restrictions this past spring.

“And when the ban lifted, we actually got a dumpster and cleared the basement out because you can imagine a family of nine children, two adults, plus we had my daughter’s emotional support animal. … So, you know, was the house clean? Immaculate? No, of course not,” she said. “We had all just been locked in together for months.”

“It made a huge mess in the basement, and (the landlord) had a complete fit over it.”

Shirley said the landlord used derogatory language, such as “you people and animals” towards her husband and their children. She said he blamed the children for causing extensive damage and that he used that to try to get them evicted.

Shirley said they went to the Tenancy Board about the issue and they were given a little more time. But soon after, the landlord reported them to CPS to try to speed up the eviction since a provincial eviction ban was still in place at the time.

“He stated himself that he was going to call because it’s a very small community. Everybody knows everybody. So, he knew people who worked [at CPS].” She said he also falsified claims about the children living amongst mold.

“So we were contacted by Child Protective Services. We were told that we had 24 hours to get out or they would be apprehending my children, so we left and ended up going to a shelter.”

Seven children in care

After living in the shelter for less than a week, on June 3, seven of Shirley and her husband’s nine children were apprehended into the care of CPS, where they remain.

Shirley’s seven youngest children were taken into care, separated, and placed in homes across the province. Additionally, she said, since going into care in early June, several of her children have been moved around several times.

She describes one of her children as “a two-spirited 13-year-old who goes by ‘he’ … biologically born a female … (who is) currently under the care of the Ministry.” But because he also suffers from mental health issues, Shirley said Child Protection Services didn’t want to take him and so he now lives with his parents, Shirley’s mother, and one of Shirley’s oldest children.

The six youngest children are all girls. They range in age from three to 11.

Though three of the six children, including two who are together, are currently in homes Shirley feels comfortable with, she said that wasn’t always the case.

“The two children that (are) together were absolutely … they looked horrible. They were sleepless. They looked like lost little souls. None of my children were put in culturally appropriate homes. It was absolutely horrible.”

Shirley said that in a previous foster home, her six-year-old had been sent to her room and ignored by their foster parents when she would cry for her mother and father.

The youngest daughter

Shirley said her youngest child, who is three years old, has been abused and suffered a black eye, burn marks, and a chipped tooth while in care. Shirley shared a photo of her daughter with the Halifax Examiner; the photo clearly shows the girl with bruising on her right cheek.

“She had to be moved to an emergency respite home, and then she had to be moved to another home and then to another placement,” she said. “You can imagine how confusing and disruptive this is for a three-year-old child.”

Shirley said that despite the injuries, there were no incident reports filed, and she still doesn’t know what happened.

“I have no idea. I’m not allowed to know, they won’t update me. They won’t tell me if there were any other children living in the home,” she said.

“All they did was remove her from that home and throw [her into] another home.”

“My youngest two are three and four years old, they can’t speak for themselves. … Where’s the accountability for these people? My kids weren’t abused in my care. But you take my kids from me and they end up abused. How does that make sense?”

Shirley said her 10-year-old daughter’s biological father is from Kenya, in Africa. That daughter identifies as predominately of African descent.

Shirley said that after moving into a white foster family’s home in Amherst, the 10-year-old was moved to Yarmouth with her four-year-old sister in “what was supposed to be” a culturally appropriate home.

As time passed, Shirley said, “The [foster parent] no longer wanted my 10-year old, but wanted to keep my four-year-old, so they shipped my daughter back to the original place [where] she was in Amherst.”

“She never had any hair products. … She still doesn’t,” said Shirley. “Her hair looks like a straw. Her skin is ashy. She is depressed. She is not being properly maintained. … I can’t even explain to you how frustrating it is.”

Frustrations with the Department of Community Services

Shirley said that the importance of cultural awareness for the children is noted in their case files, but none is provided.

“It’s their right, and it’s my right as an Indigenous person to have my children placed in culturally appropriate homes,” she said.

With Indigenous children being overrepresented in Canada’s child welfare system, Shirley drew direct comparisons to the former residential school system.

“You have children who are, you know, obviously minorities. And then. … you think back in the 60s … they come in with white RCMP members, they rip your children away from you and they send them into culturally inappropriate homes,” she said.

“I don’t personally go to church. Come to find out, my one daughter, the foster mother is apparently planning to take her to church on Sunday. That’s not my belief. As an Indigenous person of Nova Scotia, my belief is not in the church. People are free to believe whatever they want to believe, and that is perfectly fine. However, when it comes to my children, that’s my choice and my children’s choice to make.”

“Nobody at that office is either of Aboriginal descent or African Canadian descent. They’re stating, ‘Well, we’re going to make sure that your children are in culturally appropriate homes, that they’re not losing their language, they’re not losing their history, they’re not losing their teachings,’ and that’s a complete lie.”

“A lot of our history was hidden and not spoke about, not taught. … These are things that we’re trying to revive and teach our children so that we can keep our culture alive and they’re not allowing it.”

Shirley said issues faced by racial-minority children in care are not limited to just First Nations.

A photo taken at the former Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
A photo taken at the former Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.

“How many Black children have you seen fail because they were put into care in the foster system for a lot of the times, ludicrous reasons? Reasons that could have been helped at home instead of them being shoved off into foster care, which leaves the parents devastated.”

Shirley said that despite receiving a psychiatric assessment, and the fact that the children were not abused in her and her husband’s care, their visits with the children must be supervised by CPS.

“Which I don’t understand, because in our case, there’s no alcohol abuse, there’s no drug abuse. There’s no indication of domestic violence, physical violence, emotional violence, anything like that,” she said. “So there’s no reason they should even be supervised. But according to Child Protective Services, it’s mandatory.”

Shirley, whose mother and father come from homes of 13 and 15 children respectively, said that there are cultural differences that work against them. She uses her daughter of Kenyan descent as an example.

“I have a 10-year-old who will often help with her sisters. I don’t ask her to. I don’t make her to. However, she enjoys helping, and it’s culturally appropriate, you know, taking care of your younger siblings, helping out. Not taking on the role of a parent, but if I have to do something, ‘OK, can you go in and entertain your sisters for a minute?’ Apparently, that’s considered neglect.”

The Halifax Examiner reached out to the Department of Community Services to learn about the process and standards for culturally appropriate care for children. Lisa Jarrett, a spokesperson for the department, responded with this statement:

Ensuring the safety and well-being of children in care is our priority. Children from Indigenous and African Nova Scotian communities need services that are grounded in their culture. That’s why it’s important to maintain and support a child’s culture while they are in our care.

Social workers work directly with families to understand and explore the family’s existing connections to community, traditions and practices. We have culturally specific prevention and early intervention parenting, child and youth programming for African Nova Scotian and for off-reserve Mi’kmaq children, youth and families. We work closely with First Nations’ communities and Mi’kmaw Family and Children’s Services to better address the needs of Mi’kmaq children and their families.

The Children and Family Services Act states that child welfare services must be provided in a way that respects and preserves the cultural, racial and linguistic heritage of children and their families. When children enter the care of the province, detailed plans are developed that include recognition and support for each child’s culture.

If a child is unable to be placed in a home that is culturally responsive, the social worker, with the family, explores how the child’s connection to their culture can best be supported. Each social worker develops a case plan with the youth, as age appropriate, and the family, that includes culturally responsive service provision and connection to family and community. These plans are reviewed with family involved on an ongoing basis, but at minimum every 90 days, and revised as necessary.

While the number of foster parents in Nova Scotia is increasing, we still need more. African Nova Scotian applicants for Adoption or Foster Care are now prioritized. There has also been a focus on adoption/foster care recruitment and pre-assessment for families of African descent. DCS has also created and hired an Executive Director and Manager, Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations.

PC MLA Karla MacFarlane is the minister responsible for Community Services, L’nu (First Nations) Affairs, and the Advisory Council on the Status of Women Act.

Shirley said she does understand the need for her children to be housed until she and her husband are able to secure permanent housing.

“They never had any reports of my children being hurt, they never had any reports of my children being hungry or neglected or abused — any of that,” she said. “It was specifically because our home got a little chaotic during COVID.”

“Either way, racism is still very much alive and it’s alive in the government, it’s communities, you name it, it’s there. They can say that they’re trying to do all this reconciliation and all this shit, but that’s bullshit.”

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Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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