It’s been 28 years since Michael and Suzanne Paquette took in a First Nations foster child for the first time.
Since then, the couple — who call themselves “white Canadians” — have fostered more than 15 children from First Nations communities in Ontario. While the Paquettes’ foster children go on bike rides with Michael and read bedtime stories with Suzanne, the couple admits there is one thing they can never, fully share with the children in their home: the First Nations’ culture.
“There is definitely a loss there for a child that is not grounded in their own culture completely,” says Michael, who advocates on behalf of foster families as chairman of the League of Ontario Foster Families.
“You can expose them to all of the stuff that you get to and you can make sure they understand that this is their culture and you can teach them all those things, but … you can’t be that culture.”
While experts agree that matching every foster child with a parent of the same cultural background would be ideal, they know that’s impossible. Foster children in Canada are ethnoculturally diverse, but the supply of foster parents is not, according to a report published in October by the Child Welfare League of Canada. In fact, 84 per cent of Ontario’s foster parent population is made up of European-Canadians. In contrast, Aboriginals make up 40 per cent of foster children in Canada, but only four per cent of Ontario’s foster parent population.
“It’s difficult,” says Michael Paquette. “The resources simply aren’t there.”
Foster children who wind up in the care of families from different cultures may face “severely traumatizing” experiences, says Aaminah Ega. Ega is a liaison officer for CASFriends Child and Family Services, an Ottawa-based non-profit group that provides support services to Muslim families under the supervision of the Children’s Aid Society. As part of her work for CASFriends, Ega helps the agency place foster children in the care of foster families of the same culture.
Although Ega’s work focuses on Muslim foster children, she says “cultural matching” should be a priority when placing any child.
“You really don’t want kids to go through the trauma that can come from being thrown into a totally new culture,” says Ega. “Losing your culture is like losing your identity.”
Some families fostering children of different cultures do try to immerse these children in their native cultures. Suzanne Paquette says she enrolled in an Ojibwe language courses while fostering First Nations children in Fort Frances, Ont. The Paquettes have also participated in native cultural activities such as powwows and feasts alongside their foster children. But the couple admits they are limited in what they can teach their foster children about First Nations’ culture.
Promoting diversity among foster parents lies in understanding the barriers that prevent members of diverse cultural communities from volunteering to be foster parents, according to experts like Debbie Hoffman, a service director of the CAS’s Ottawa division. Some culture groups might find the assessments of foster parents too intrusive, for example. She admits those assessments include some “difficult questions.”
For example, a question about the sexual compatibility of prospective foster parents might seem too intrusive for members of conservative cultures, says Ega. Sex is a taboo subject in many Arab and Somali communities. Fear of the constant checks by social workers might also inhibit members of Muslim community from volunteering to be foster parents.
“I think for Muslims, privacy is a very important thing,” Ega said. “Also, if there’s a file on you, I think a fear that most people have is the idea that their personal life is ‘out there’. ”
Mumtaz Akhtar, an Ottawa man who has fostered eight Muslim children since 2000, agrees the assessment process is overly intrusive. Akhtar says his desire to provide “an Islamic environment” for Muslim foster children outweighed his discomfort with the process. “Because I was so keen on becoming a foster parent, I co-operated,” he said.
But not all members of conservative cultural communities will be as willing as he was to undergo intrusive questioning to become a foster parent, Akhtar warns. “They have to relax the requirements to become foster parents.”
Many foster parents and child welfare workers say the financial requirements for becoming a foster parent are designed to fit families that are typically European Canadian.
Ega says many members of minority cultural communities tend to have smaller houses and more children. Many Somali-Canadians cannot become foster parents because their houses are deemed “too crowded,” she says. Families are not allowed to become foster parents if they cannot provide foster children with their own rooms, explains Ega.
Some cultural communities are smaller and tight-knit, raising the prospect of uncomfortable social situations, such as foster parents and their children coming into regular, unwanted contact with the child’s birth parents, Ega says.
“You don’t have much privacy as a foster parent because you’ll be moving in the same circles as the birth parent.”
Efforts are underway to break down barriers to cultural diversity, Hoffman says. For example, the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa is using tools such as cultural advisory committees and partnerships with cultural organizations. As an example, Hoffman points to the agency’s partnership with Muslim Family Services of Ottawa, a social service agency that primarily caters to Ottawa’s Muslim community.
The CAS also has a liaison committee that meets every six weeks to develop recommendations on serving diverse communities.
The agency is working with groups such as CASFriends to organize foster parent recruitment events and improve diversity efforts. Hoffman says Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa tries to modify the foster care assessment process to make it more “culturally appropriate.” The question about sexual compatibility, for example, has been removed from the foster parent questionnaire.
Provincially, the Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Services has released a “diversity tool kit” that has guidelines on how residential services, including foster care providers, can embrace and promote diversity. However, a spokesperson from the ministry says the tool kit is for “informational purposes only,” so residential care agencies can choose not to use it.
Increasing cultural diversity among foster parents a priority should be a priority for the province, says John Dunn, the former executive director of the Foster Care Council of Canada, a non-profit group that once lobbied for changes to child welfare policy.
“The government should be doing more public advertising and research to show that there is a need for cultural diversity in foster care,” he said. “I think that’s absolutely critical.”
Dunn says that in the 10 years he has spent advocating on behalf of children, he has never seen any legislation that addresses the issue of cultural diversity among foster parents. He says the government should collect more data on the cultural makeup of foster children and parents.
According to a spokesperson, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services is reviewing the feedback on the Child and Family Services Act. There is no scheduled date for the release of an updated version, and some child welfare experts express doubt over whether an updated act will reflect the recommendations the ministry heard during the review.
Monique Taylor, the NDP Children and Youth Services critic, says the provincial government should educate the public on the lack of cultural diversity among foster parents and develop campaigns to recruit culturally diverse foster parents. She calls the lack of cultural diversity among foster parents is a “critical issue.”
“There definitely needs to be a lot more work in … recruiting diverse parents,” she says. “I think it’s something we really need to be ringing the alarm bells about.”