For two decades, Cindy Scheffen has struggled to care for a nephew, a cousin’s child and her own son.
Just one week old when she got him, her nephew is now 17; her cousin’s child, who’s 16, was nine when she got him.
Both have alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders including Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
“One is very hard to handle, and the other just forgets everything,” said Scheffen.
“It’s been a struggle.”
When her nephew was in daycare, Scheffen was holding down two jobs.
“I was just struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
But once Scheffen had her own son, she just couldn’t survive anymore.
“I had to go on social assistance,” she said.
Scheffen has tried to get kinship funding, to help her care for her nephew and second cousin.
But she didn’t qualify.
To get kinship funding, the children must be in the custody of child and family services, Scheffen was told.
“So, because I went to court (to get custody of them) I didn’t qualify for funding,” she said.
At wit’s end, Scheffen told child and family services she would sign the children over, in order to get funding.
“But they said if I did that, then the children wouldn’t be given back to me.
“So it doesn’t matter which way you do it, you won’t get help.”
There are “tons of problems” with kinship care in the territory, said Grandparents Rights Association of the Yukon spokesperson Eleanor Millard.
“Most of the provinces are more flexible and at least have some sort of program that offers a small amount (of kinship funding), but we don’t have anything for extended family unless they become foster homes,” she said.
Scheffen tried to become a foster home, but her application was refused because she was getting respite through Social Services. Every weekend, her special-needs nephew and second cousin are sent into care so Scheffen can get a break.
“They are always asking First Nations to be foster parents; I don’t drink or do drugs and I was refused,” she said.
For the past two years, Scheffen was also caring for a toddler.
But when he turned four, she had to give him back to his mom, because “of lack of support.
“And he’s not in a stable home,” she said.
“It’s so sad.”
Social Services was paying for the toddler’s daycare, but once Scheffen started working again, the funding was cut.
“So every time I try and get ahead they just make it difficult for me,” she said.
Finances are the biggest issue, said Millard. “Especially when kids get older, recreation, transportation and clothes cost a lot more.”
Millard sees grandparents growing more and more exhausted.
“They are having a hard enough time just living, let alone having one to five kids running around,” she said.
It’s physically, financially and emotionally difficult, “because usually the reason they’re caring for their grandchildren is because their own children are having problems,” said Millard.
These caregivers should get support without being forced to become formal foster homes, she added.
Many grandparents are caring for their children’s offspring unofficially, and to be forced to take their children to court to gain official custody could easily tear a family apart, she said.
“It pits the family against itself, because they’d have to prove that their grandchildren are in need of protection, and that means attacking their own children,” said Millard.
A recent, 17-page report on kinship care in the Yukon surveyed 59 households where extended family are caring for 130 children who are not theirs by birth.
Of those, only eight are official foster families, and two of them have expressed strong objections to being part of the foster-care system.
“They report that social workers who know very little about the Yukon have too much say in what happens to their children without taking the family into consideration — they don’t feel the children belong to them anymore if they are in foster care,” said NDP Social Services critic John Edzerza in the house last week.
Official foster homes get regular visits from social workers and this can be seen as invasive, added Millard.
“Grandparents do not want to take their children to court just so they can receive foster parent benefits,” said Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell in the house.
The situation is being reviewed, said Social Services Minister Glenn Hart, who has met with “several members of the local society for grandparents.”
“I had a long discussion with them,” he said.
“Four years ago, (government) told me they were working on kinship funding,” said Scheffen.
“But I haven’t seen any.”
Scheffen doesn’t take in children for the money.
“I never got a darn penny to raise them — I do it because I love them,” she said.
And Scheffen believes First Nation children should stay with their First Nation families.
Foster care isn’t much different from residential schools, she said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised when these kids get older they’ll see they’re doing the same thing to these kids now, as they did when they took kids and put them in residential school — it’s no different,” said Scheffen.
“You’re still removing the children from the homes and putting them in white homes.
“And there are families out there that don’t drink — native families that have applied to be foster homes — and you refuse them over little things.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org