An Inuvik-born woman is joining the board of a national organization dedicated to the wellbeing of youth in Canada's child welfare systems.
Sandra Noel entered foster care as a 10-year-old after moving to Yellowknife, and spent almost a decade moving between different foster families.
A little over 10 years later, Noel is joining the board of Youth in Care Canada as the Northwest Territories' representative.
She took up the position on November 1. Only individuals who have been in the child welfare system themselves are eligible to sit on the organization's board, she said.
Noel hopes to become a voice for the NWT's children in care, adding she herself felt 'voiceless' at times while growing up.
Child and Family Services in the territory is under renewed scrutiny following the publication of a report by the Office of the Auditor General which suggested some child protection services had deteriorated since a critical 2014 audit.
Meanwhile, the federal government last week pledged legislation to move Indigenous child welfare out of the domain of provinces and territories, handing that responsibility directly to Indigenous governments.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Noel described her experiences in the territory's foster care system, the changes she would like to see, and how she hopes to make a difference.
Listen to Sandra Noel on the Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News podcast for December 4, 2018.
This interview was recorded on December 3, 2018.
Ollie Williams: Tell us more about what Youth in Care Canada does.
Sandra Noel: Youth in Care Canada exists to voice the opinions and concerns of youth in and from care, and wants to see all young people in and from care receive high-quality care that meets their needs.
You've just decided to be become a part of this organization as the director for the NWT. What made you decide that was what you wanted to do?
One day I just saw an ad on Facebook asking for members to join the board, and I guess they didn't have one for the NWT. So I thought, 'Why not?' I'll apply and see what happens with that.
And one of the most important things is you can't join the board unless you have some sort of lived experience of life in care. Is that right?
Tell us about your experience.
I went into foster care at 10 years of age until I was 19. There were good and bad moments. Looking back, I'm grateful for receiving all the support I did in care. I got to travel and I got taken care of well, like medically and stuff. It was hard but it made me who I am today. So I'm grateful.
You're joining this board at a time when it's a really hot topic in general: how youth in care across Canada are treated and cared for, but particularly in the Northwest Territories. As you know, we've had the recent Auditor General's report that was quite critical of Child and Family Services and the way that some youth are treated. Have you had a chance to read that report?
Not fully. But I read articles and that's something I definitely want to get to reading and learn more about.
Based on what you have read, what did you think?
It's not surprising, really. From the time I was in care, there are still issues to be worked on and stuff, especially with social workers. For me, when I got into care, my mom was having issues and I'm not sure that she received the support she needed to try to get me back. You know, it seemed like she was left on her own to fix her own problems. I don't think they really did much to help her overcome her struggles. So that's another part that hits close to home – I want to make sure not just the youth are getting help, but the families are getting help as well.
I wonder, has your opinion of your experience changed as you've got older? You know, do you look back differently now on what it meant to be in care in a foster home compared to how you felt at the time?
Yes, definitely. Growing up in care I was angry. I was acting out and stuff. But now I'm older and I can look back and be grateful for the care I received from being in social services, as much as it sucked being taken away from my family. I was one of the lucky ones, I guess.
And you particularly had someone who really made an impact on you as a foster parent to you. And as someone who took you in, in your late teens.
Yes, She was a single woman and she still fosters today. And I'm just really grateful for her and everything that she's done for me over the years. I still keep in contact with her and she's a really awesome woman, and I really applaud her for still, you know, taking care of kids in care.
What makes her stand out?
Just that she never gave up on me. I put her through the wringer and she never once wanted to give me up or say, 'No, I can't handle her, take her away or put her somewhere else.' She stuck by me through my teens, in one of the hardest times my life, so I am so grateful for her.
When you say 'put through the wringer,' people will have all kinds in their mind as to what that means...
I was running away from home, I was doing drugs. I was skipping school. Just acting out, you know, like looking for attention from someone that I probably couldn't actually get it from. But I'm just grateful that she was there for me.
Do you feel like the one of the reasons you got to that point was the fact you were in a system where you were moved around a lot? I wonder what kind of effect that has, when you're moving from home to home.
It was confusing. I had low self esteem, I still struggle with that sometimes. But I know throughout that time in care there were always people that cared for me, even though I felt like there wasn't, you know, and it was hard to see sometimes – but I look back and I'm like, yeah, I was loved and cared for, even though I wasn't acting very lovable.
I wanted to talk a bit more about social workers and interacting with them because, of course, that's a tough job and they have high caseload. They have a lot of different situations they have to step into. What were your impressions of your interactions with social workers when you were a teenager? What did you think of them at the time?
There was one social worker that stands out for me, and I still talk to her today. She's not a social worker anymore, but she was one of the best for me, and I'm grateful for her as well and her friendship today.
What did she do?
She always encouraged me, listened, cared for me, made sure I was OK. Just wanted the best for me. I don't even know what, behind the scenes, what they did, you know? On a day to day basis for kids in care. And I'm grateful, ultimately.
You mentioned that you wish your mom had maybe had some more support to help her get you back. Are you in touch?
Oh, yes. Yes, I am.
And are things good?
Yes, they are.
That's great to hear. I wondered what else, aside from that support for your mom, you feel the NWT could improve on to help children who were in your position in future.
Like, my mom... I feel that she didn't receive enough support to get me back. She was really struggling in her life and she did straighten things out. But by the time that she wanted to get me back, at the time I was like – and I read this in my records – I said, 'No, sorry mom, why are you trying to act like you care?'
Now, I was a teenager, in my late teens. And so I regret that now. But I know that it was coming from love and ultimately it was my decision and I could say no, so I said no, at that time.
It's really interesting to hear the way you started out by saying that you're looking through your records and you see that. So do you remember that? Or do you just read that in the records?
You know, a lot of my childhood is fuzzy and that's one of the reasons I'm reading my records, to get answers and clarity, and a timeline I guess – because things are jumbled in my brain of when things happened, the order or whatever.
It must be in some ways a remarkable experience to go through old records and read your childhood back to yourself.
There are things from even before I was apprehended, from when I was probably six or seven, where I guess they were keeping an eye on my family and I didn't even know that. I didn't know they were in contact with my mom, or family, or whatever. So it's interesting to read.
How easy was it to get these records?
It was not easy. I applied for them over a year ago, and it took them about a year to tell me: 'Oh, we're working on it and you'll start receiving them soon.' I am still receiving them, slowly. Which is good, because if you drop a whole bomb on someone like that – 'Oh, here's all your records from nine years' – you know, that would be overwhelming.
It is hard, some days, to read them but it's my choice, it's what I wanted to do, so I'm taking it in stride.
And you reached out to us and said, 'Hey, I'm a part of this board, I just signed up, I'm a director, I want to come talk about this.' Which is a big step, to come in here and to talk about this. What do you hope to achieve as part of that board?
I want to raise awareness for Youth in Care Canada and for youth in care in the NWT, and there is some fundraising I want to look into doing.
I want to try to be a voice for the voiceless, ultimately, because growing up in care I felt voiceless, you know? I can relate to that. So it's time that I use my voice for myself and others in care.