Ingrid Palmer sat in the car with a garbage bag containing all her belongings. Tears streamed down her face as she was driven off to another place that she would never call home.

“You get told that you’re moving, you get a garbage bag, you pack your stuff in the garbage bag,” she said. “They tell you where you’re going, and they bring you there. That’s it. That’s it.”

Palmer was in the child protection system for nine years. By age 14, she had been in three different foster homes in Pickering and Toronto. She said she experienced racism in all three.

“When you first get there, everything always seems really nice, really pleasant.” But that doesn’t last, she said.

“After being there for a while, you get to find out how people’s personalities are,” said Palmer. “I didn’t really find foster homes to be loving, or foster parents to be loving.”

In her last foster home, before deciding to move into a group home, Palmer, who is Black, was placed with a white family. Within two weeks, she was kicked out.

“I hadn’t done anything. They just didn’t like me because I was Black,” she said. “They didn’t think it was a big deal that they were getting rid of me.”

Palmer’s story is all too common. As public awareness of anti-Black racism in Canada has increased, a growing chorus of critics say that discrimination is at the heart of Ontario’s child welfare system, from the decision to remove a Black child from their family, to the way they are treated in foster care.

“I hadn’t done anything. They just didn’t like me because I was Black. They didn’t think it was a big deal that they were getting rid of me.”

— Ingrid Palmer, on her experience as a foster child

In Ontario, some 9,300 children and youth were in care every month, on average, in 2019, according to the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.

Black children are significantly over-represented in foster care, although exact figures are not available because many agencies have not recorded racial data, experts say. However, data provided by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, which does track this information, showed that in 2015, African-Canadians accounted for 40.8 per cent of the children in care, even though they make up 8.5 per cent of the city’s population. The proportion of Black children taken into foster care was 2.2 times higher in 2016 than the percentage of Black children in the province, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Bias in the system

In 2015, the province launched One Vision One Voice, an initiative to reform the child welfare system that is being led by Black community groups and administered through OACAS. Over the past five years, the project has created a blueprint for provincial agencies to follow in trying to eliminate anti-Black bias. This year marks the third stage of the project, which includes publishing a toolkit to guide agencies as they adopt the “equity practices” identified by One Vision One Voice.

But reform has been a long time coming and experts agree that anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism has been ‘baked into’ the system from Day One.

“The system is not broken. The system was designed in this way,” said Keishia Facey, the project manager for One Vision One Voice. “It was designed on the attempted genocide of Indigenous families; it was designed on the enslavement of people of African descent. … So, we understand that is part of the structure.”

In a classic example of systemic racism, the criteria for removing a child from their family reflect the values and assumptions of the white majority, critics say.

“What constitutes child maltreatment or child abuse has always been informed by the dominant society,” said Alicia Boatswain-Kyte, an assistant professor of social work at McGill University. “One of the reasons why this is harmful for certain communities is that, in that definition, it doesn’t take into consideration some of the barriers and obstacles that certain communities face.”

Poverty. Lack of resources. The emotional toll of daily discrimination. Factors such as these weigh heavily on Black families, but child-welfare officials don’t often take them in account when evaluating a child’s circumstances, some say.

“We know to be poor is not a crime, so if we’re looking at the criteria (for removing a child), is poverty enough for children to be brought into care, or is it more about providing the resources and the support to those families to keep children out of care?” said Facey.

Service providers who work with children have a legal obligation to report suspected neglect or abuse, explained Julian Hasford, the lead researcher for Black Community Action Network of Peel (BCAN). But discrimination is woven into the referral process, which includes teachers and doctors, and neighbours and others who come into contact with children who may report concerns to child-welfare agencies, triggering an official evaluation, critics say.

What constitutes child maltreatment or child abuse has always been informed by the dominant society.

— Keishia Facey, project manager for One Vision One Voice.

For example, teachers often contact child welfare for matters relating to poverty instead of actual abuse and neglect, such as a child coming to school in dirty clothes because their family doesn’t have a washing machine, according to the 2016 report by One Vision One Voice. 

It’s a vicious circle for many families: historic and present-day discrimination leads to high levels of poverty among Black households — and this poverty in turn puts them at a higher risk of losing their children to the foster-care system, the OHRC report found in 2018.

For example, in Toronto, where Black children are heavily over-represented in the foster care system, 40 per cent of African-Canadians under 15 lived below the poverty line in 2014, compared to 29 per cent of all children in the same age category, One Vision One Voice noted in its 2016 report. 

There are a number of “reasons and obstacles” that mean many Black people are “parenting in hardship that is not similar to other parents,” said Boatswain-Kyte. Living in poor neighbourhoods, combined with negative stereotypes, results in the over-surveillance of Black children and families, One Vision One Voice reported in 2016.

A referral can be triggered by “something as small as a Black child bringing a patty to lunch and the teacher or the lunchroom attendant feels that this child is perhaps being starved, so CAS gets flagged,” said Sophia Brown Ramsay, the executive director of BCAN. “A white child wouldn’t get a call because they brought a pizza pocket, but a Black child would get a call for bringing patties.”

There are “biases in how people assess risk, and they’re more likely to refer Black families to the child welfare system,” Hasford said.

After a referral, child welfare workers assess whether the child meets the criteria for being taken into care, using a tool called the “Eligibility Spectrum.” But the way the eligibility spectrum is framed leaves a lot of room for interpretation, he said, adding that is where systemic bias can affect decision-making.

“We’ve been socialized our whole lives to be thinking about Black people in a certain way,” said Boatswain-Kyte. “When you then intervene in a professional setting, these biases influence how you view this Black family that’s in front of you.”

(There are) biases in how people assess risk, and they’re more likely to refer Black families to the child welfare system.

— Julian Hasford, lead researcher for Black Community Action Network of Peel

BCAN has raised the alarm about a lack of cultural understanding among child welfare workers. Similarly, in its 2016 report, One Vision One Voice reported that African-Canadian community members and advocates were concerned about the lack of exposure of the white staff in child welfare agencies to other cultures. They said some case workers’ decisions were influenced by conscious and unconscious biases.

They also raised concerns that, when assessing a situation, caseworkers were more likely to take a number of factors into account to understand problems within white families. However, for racialized groups, they often saw the families’ culture as the problem, the participants said.

“You will have Black families and Black parents who could do the same thing as a white family … but the consequences connected to their Blackness meant that they will be … scrutinized much more heavily and much more harshly, based on stereotyping and discrimination,” said Facey.

In One Vision One Voice’s 2016 report, participants suggested establishing an independent office to investigate claims of unfair treatment by case workers called in to assess a child’s circumstances.

“You don’t want to take away that safety barrier, but you want to make sure that folks are not using their unconscious bias to make these types of decisions that are going to affect Black families in a negative way,” said Ramsay.

Cultural misunderstanding

A lack of cultural understanding is an important issue once a child is in foster care, as well. In its report, the human rights commission found many foster parents were not providing culturally appropriate services for Black children.

Many foster parents don’t even know how to deal with basic concerns such as hair and skincare for Black children, Palmer said.

“Our hair is … different. It requires a certain kind of treatment to keep it healthy,” said Palmer. “They would bring me to white salons who had no idea about Black hair, so they would just be experimenting.”

Too often, the odds are stacked against Black children who are placed in foster care, as they face racism along with the trauma of being torn from their families.

In 2016, OHRC discovered at least 20 per cent of race-based data was missing in CAS’s service decisions and 22 out of the province’s 38 CAS agencies did not collect race-based data on children who were referred to their in-care services.

According to the OHRC 2018 report, without adequate data, it is difficult to determine whether systemic racial discrimination is a factor in the racial disproportionalities within child welfare.

“The stress resulting from the discrimination that they experience, the stress resulting from the negative experiences in being placed in child welfare, follows them to the point of adulthood,” said Philip Baiden, assistant professor and social worker at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“I experienced the exact same thing before I went into care, in care – it’s just that it looked different,” said Palmer. “Abuse was there, denial of rights was there, coercion was there, punishment was there, not listening to you was there, not providing for your needs was there. There was nothing different, it just looked different. It just came in different packages, but it was all the exact same. When you’re Black, you get the least.”

Blueprint for change

“One Vision One Voice is a culturally appropriate approach to delivering child welfare services … It provides children’s aid society staff and caregivers with practice guidelines and tools to help better meet the needs of Black and African-Canadian children, youth and families,” said Jennifer Rushby, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.

According to Facey, in the first phase of One Vision One Voice, the program focused on creating the research report by consulting with Black communities across the province.

In the second phase, after further consultations, the organization came up with recommendations for 11 race equity practices to be adopted by children’s aid agencies to address the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care.

In its third and final phase, the program has rolled out a toolkit to help the agencies implement the equity practices, and will evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the practices.

By the end of that phase, they hope to see child-welfare agencies adopt more culturally appropriate services for Black children, youth and their families across Ontario.

According to Facey, the OACAS supports member agencies through the development of frameworks to provide culturally appropriate services to Black children, youth and families. Through advocacy and policy reform, they encourage the government to be aware of the ways in which the existing standards and structures continue to harm Black families.

While Irwin Elman, the former Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, has a high regard for the people behind One Vision One Voice, he is skeptical that change from within the system will work: “There’s very strong Black-focused, anti-Black racism advocates who are running One Vision One Voice, but (the) money sits in the system whose DNA and bones of the system (are) racist,” said Elman. “It’s not gonna change anything.”

Just as many Black Lives Matter activists argue it is time to defund the police, Elman said it is time to consider defunding the child welfare system.

“The government needs to have the courage to say, ‘We’re going to blow up this institution and start over,’” he said. “The same system that is used to bring children into care is (in) play when they are in care.”

“The government needs to have the courage to say, ‘We’re going to blow up this institution and start over.’ The same system that is used to bring children into care is (in) play when they are in care.”

— Irwin Elman, former Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth

Rushby, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, said in an email statement that the government is committed to addressing the overrepresentation of Black and African-Canadian children and youth in care by “addressing the systemic issues that lead to these disparities.”

“In the long term, as part of child welfare redesign, our goal is to shift financial investments from within the child welfare system to prevention-focused initiatives that better serve overrepresented communities,” they said. 

But in the meanwhile, Palmer said, Black children are still being told, in many different ways, that they don’t count; they are still being given garbage bags to carry their belongings.

“You’re telling kids, subliminally, the message that they’re garbage and that their stuff is garbage and that they’re not worth a few bucks to have something decent.”