Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Kristi Pinderi, BSW4 Student
I learned that Cheam Peak, which rises grandiosely over the Seabird Island served by the MCFD office where I was placed for my practicum, symbolizes the importance of the Sto:lo women in oral histories, and traditions. A woman was married to a man from another First Nation, in what is known today as the State of Washington. She gave birth to three boys. When the boys grew up, she gave birth to three girls. As she became worried about her people, she said “I would better go back to my people, I would stand and guard Fraser Valley, so no harm comes to my people, and to the fishes that feed them.” To honour her wish, The Creator made her a mountain, the Cheam Peak, so she could stand there in eternity guarding her people. If you take a close look, you can notice three smaller peaks, around the 2,100 metre-high Cheam Peak, and those are – according to the story – her three children. They say she holds the smallest one in her hand.
I see the Cheam Peak from the living room of a small house on the reserve. We have come here to interview the mom – reported for leaving her preteen kids alone for a few hours, while at work. She speaks to us passionately about her struggles to be able to keep her low-paying job, to be able to find enough money to support her kid’s extracurricular activities, but especially to be able to still find qualitative time to be there for them while they grow. And she cries, overwhelmed by the lack of support, she cries because she is still young, yet the burden of the histories of several generations of her ancestors, combined with the interlocked nature of colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other systemic forces are too heavy to hold back. She cries, scared to her core by the prospect of “failing her kids,” as she puts it.
And while I write my notes, I cry with her, inside me, without being able to show it. I cry for the heroic nature of her whole being, a heroic woman who reminds me of my heroic mother. I hear her cry, and I see the imposing beauty of Cheam Peak. “Your children will be proud of you,” I manage to say to her, holding back my trembling voice. I learned to recognize those powerful examples of resilience and to hold them dear as shining promise of a just future.
I learned that removing kids from their neglectful or often abusive families remains the only thing to do when parents are unwilling, or unable to take care of their kids. Yet, sometimes, the removal of the kids is – sadly and ironically at the same time – the easiest thing to do. Sometimes, it is done because workers would exhaust their options fast enough to get panicked. Sometimes we are left without options because many of the people we try to help are faced with what Bourdieu (as cited by Dewey et al., 2018) defines as the invisible violence, a constant lack of resources, and symbolic violence that comes with the ideological naturalization of social inequalities. Then, any removal of their kids is like a slow violence happening in intimate spheres (Kenny et al., 2021). But because of the systemic nature of it, this is not a violence of the present. As Springer’s asserts (2012, as cited in Kenny et al., 2021, p. 1915), “we bear witness to violence, what we are seeing is not a ‘thing’, but a moment with a past, present and future.”
Sometimes the work we do in child welfare is unable to disrupt the root causes of the Intergenerational problems that Indigenous people face. The “Web of Being,” for instance, a conceptual framework based on the work of de Leeuw and Greenwood (2013, as cited in Atwool, 2021) recognises the multiple social determinants affecting family functioning among First Nations and influencing health inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. Those factors are layered into three dimensions: Proximal determinants (social support, family violence, etc.), intermediate determinants (poverty, community infrastructure, etc.) and distal determinants (colonialism, social and cultural exclusion, racism, degree of self-determination). How can we address the root cause if everything that we can do will not be able to go beyond that first layer?!
I learned that in BC we are missing the opportunity to engage with people we serve in more complex, profound, macro and meaningful ways, to be able to bring more sustainable results. We already have some options for where to start. In USA, New Zealand, UK, and even Canada, different programs have been implemented since the 1970s to deal with complex issues faced by families whose kids are in risk of being taken into care. Those programs (e.g., Intensive Family Preservation program in USA, Intensive Family Intervention program in New Zealand, Think Family Pathfinders in UK, or Manitoba Home Visiting Program) aim to offer supportive measures to families struggling with complex issues, and to enable the families – through the work of a team that is constantly around them – to access specialist services for issues like family violence, addiction or mental health (Atwool, 2021).
I learned to know what triggers me, and how my biases can affect the way how I would experience the world around me, and my work. But I learned to find healthy ways to deal with it and to – whenever possible – to turn my biases into new opportunities. Once I thought that the way that one colleague was writing a memo after a received call was misogynist. What I told him was (more or less) this: I am still a student and I am probably wrong, but I am just not feeling good with the way you are writing down that paragraph! It came to me as a shock for being able to say that, but that made us talk. I learned his biases, and I learned mine. Confronting our biases renewed an opportunity for both of us to see the things from different angles, and eventually to leave in that memo a more comprehensive record of what the caller had said, containing potentially crucial information for the future if that will be needed.
I learned from a Squamish Elder how some Coast Salish People once saw a mountain approaching the shores. The best warriors from bands all over the valley gathered with their chiefs. While coming closer to them, the mountain had some burning points, releasing a black smoke. The chiefs decided to send few warriors, then suddenly some white pale figures appeared wearing black dresses that made them look like ghosts. They couldn’t be ghosts though, as they were able to hold your hand, and talk to you! Then, they released from that “burning mountain” (as the ship appeared to people), three barrels, one with what we now know are forks and spoons, one with some weird-smelling food, and a final barrel with some liquid. They invited everyone, children included, to drink it. The effect was unseen before, as the liquid could disconnect your body from your mind, and soul.
This traumatic historic expose to alcohol should inform our actions and education process when we try to understand ways to work with Indigenous people. But that shouldn’t prevent any social workers from exploring safe ways of how to use harm reduction strategies. I learned to appreciate the concept of ‘child-centered harm reduction,’ as a safe tool especially for asking questions like this one: “How can harm reduction services be delivered on a low threshold basis in the context of child protection standards and in line with the principle of the best interests of the child?” (Barret et al., 2022, p. 3). Or this one: “What can we learn from family-based interventions addressing intergenerational drug use?” or: “Under what circumstances is it ethical for a child to be removed from the custody of a drug using parent, and how does practice compare across countries?” (Barret et al., 2022, p. 3).
Finally, I learned to be good to myself. “My grandma,” – a Squamish Elder told to me and to an audience of dozens of social workers and students – “used to say that the most efficient medications in this life are the laugh and the cry.” It feels good to know that when you cry! To me, it was also an invitation to spend more time with my humorous partner who can’t wait to playfully tease me. “Hey Mr. Social Worker,” he is asking me now while I am still writing, “how much time do you still need to finish writing your thoughts about saving the world?”
The perfect timing. 😊
Atwool, N. (2021). Intensive intervention with families experiencing multiple and complex challenges: An alternative to child removal in a bi‐and multi‐cultural context? Child & Family Social Work, 26(4), 550-558.
Barret, D., Stoicescu, C., Thumath, M., Maynard, E., Turner, R., Shirley-Beavan, S., Kurceviz, E., Peterson, F., Hasselgard-Rowe, J., Giacomello, C., Wahlin, E., & Lines, E. (2022). Child-centred harm reduction. International Journal of Drug Policy, 109, 103857. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2022.103857
Dewey, S., Orchard, T., & Brown, K. (2018). Shared Precarities and Maternal Subjectivities: Navigating Motherhood and Child Custody Loss Among North American Women in Street‐Based Sex Work. Ethos, 46(1), 27-48. DOI: 10.1111/etho.12196
Skinner, W., & Herie, M. (Eds) (2014). Biopsychosocial Plus: A practical approach to addiction and recovery. Fundamentals of addiction: A guide to counsellors. CAMH Publications.
Kenny, K. S., Krüsi, A., Barrington, C., Ranville, F., Green, S. L., Bingham, B. & Shannon, K. (2021). Health consequences of child removal among Indigenous and non‐Indigenous sex workers: examining trajectories, mechanisms and resiliencies. Sociology of health & illness, 43(8), 1903-1920. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.13364
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