Study links trauma from residential schools to overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in care

New research conducted at the University of British Columbia is shedding light on the relationship between residential schools and the modern day child welfare system.

Brittany Barker, a postdoctoral fellow with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said the impact of intergenerational trauma from the residential school systems is well understood among Indigenous communities, and the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in care has been previously documented.

But Barker, who completed her doctoral work at UBC in April, said her research shows for the first time an empirical association between having been in the residential school system, and subsequent generations being at higher risk for being in the child welfare system.

“The crux of the argument is that the family exposure to the residential school system is driving the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in care,” she said.

Barker, who had previously investigated the child welfare system, said the findings are “probably the most powerful, important study I’ve ever done.”

The findings have been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Legacy of residential schools

Barker’s data was collected between 2011 and 2016 from 675 people in Vancouver under the age of 35 who use drugs, around 40 per cent of whom self-identified as Indigenous.

The research found that two thirds of participants who self-identified as being Indigenous had at least a grandparent and/or a parent that attended a residential school.

Those who had a parent or both a parent and a grandparent who had been in a residential school had more than two times the odds of having been personally placed into care compared to Indigenous participants who had no immediate family exposure to the residential school system.

For more than 100 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families to attend residential schools, most of which were run by churches and funded by the federal government. There were more than 130 residential schools in operation between the 1870s and 1996.

The Spanish residential school for girls operated from 1868 -1962 in Spanish, Ontario. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

Barker also conducted a secondary analysis which compared Indigenous participants who reported no immediate family exposure to residential schools to the non-Indigenous part of the cohort, and found there was no significant difference difference in the likelihood of being in the child welfare system.

“Being [of] Indigenous ancestry had over two times the odds of having been in care. But it was actually residential school exposure, that family exposure to the residential school system, that was driving that difference between groups,” she said.

More research needed: author

“You would expect that there would be a significant difference between Indigenous young people and non-Indigenous young people. […] If you can account for family exposure to the residential school system, which we did in this paper, then there’s no longer that difference.”

Barker said more research needs to be done across different areas in Canada, and that the research should be replicated with a high sample size of Indigenous youth. But she said the numbers could actually be higher, as some Indigenous people don’t know they had family members in residential schools, because of the stigma associated with the institutions.

Barker said she believes that in order to address intergenerational trauma, more resources need to be given to support potentially vulnerable parents.

The crux of the argument is that the family exposure to the residential school system is driving the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in care

“If you look at the number one reason that Indigenous youth are taken into the child welfare system, it’s for charges of neglect. And if you break down neglect, it’s parental substance abuse, it’s exposure to intimate partner violence, it’s housing instability, it’s food insecurity, it’s poverty – a lot of it is markers of poverty and then the remnants of the trauma of the residential school system,” she said.

In 2008, the federal government formally apologized for the residential school system and other policies of assimilation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report said the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide” against Indigenous people in Canada.



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