Tracy Beynon is a child protection intake worker who grew up in Prince Rupert. She knows that sometimes just greeting a family member in the traditional Sm’algyax (Tsimshian) language — “Ndaayu wila waan”— can be a simple way to show respect, and ease some of the tensions when she first enters a home to follow up on a child-welfare report.
The Nisga'a mother of two biological daughters, two step-daughters, five grandchildren, and another one on the way, has worked as a social worker in her hometown for 10 years. She returned to school while raising her daughters and working full time. Firsthand knowledge of the difficulties in her community, her mother's childhood experience of being sent away, and her love of children, motivated her desire to become a social worker.
“I always do it for the children. I want to be sure the children are safe and I give families the respect they deserve. Nobody wants to be told that they need to be doing things differently, especially when it comes to parenting,” she says.
She admits that it’s still scary to enter someone’s house and begin the difficult conversations. But her Indigenous heritage (her mother was Nisga’a and her father was Irish), her personal history in the community and her large extended family make the job easier.
“I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I have knowledge and experience of the cultural practices in this area. I recognize the barriers and I know so many families here. I know who might be able to lend support or take the kids temporarily. We work with the families to develop a safety plan, a family plan and other supports,” says Tracy.
While Tracy works for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, she also works in collaboration with Northwest Inter-Nation Family and Community Service Society, a Delegated Aboriginal Agency (DAA), in Prince Rupert. The DAA received its C6 delegation Oct. 11, 2017, which means they respond to all manner of family concerns on-reserve, including child protection.
Tracy shares a chance encounter with a client she had worked with years before: “This person said to me, ‘Tracy, just to let you know, I hated you and blamed you for everything that happened with my kids; but, if it wasn’t for you helping me, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Thank you for the help you gave me.’”
Tracy says she listened to this person’s painful stories and connected them with counselling and parenting courses.
Being an Indigenous member of a community that she was born and raised in, as well as a ministry social worker, means that Tracy walks a dual role, especially since she has received child-protection reports on extended family members and close friends. When that happens, the child-protection work gets completed by another team member, she says. Sometimes she still gets referred to as “The Welfare,” as in “The Welfare’s here,” when she shows up on a doorstep. She carries her own intergenerational memories about why that historical reference has stuck.
Tracy’s own mother was sent away as a young child, at four years old, to a hospital in Alert Bay, after contracting tuberculosis. Her mother spent seven years in Alert Bay, away from her family. At age 11, she returned to her home in Gingolx, a Nisga’a village in the Nass River Valley, only to learn that her father had died and her mother, Tracy’s grandmother, had remarried. When her mother was first admitted into the hospital, she spoke Nisga’a. By the time she left Alert Bay, she could only speak English.
Her mother’s experience means that Tracy “gets it.” She understands how the pain of the past can intertwine into the complex family situations she encounters in her work. A deep understanding of that calls for only one response on her part: “Compassion and no judgment. If you’ve experienced some of the same things they have, you come with a better understanding.”
She says she’s happy with the changes she’s beginning to see in the ministry, working on the understanding that families must be included in decision making that affects them.
Tracy says, “One of the hardest parts of my job is the public perception of the ministry, and knowing that I can’t respond. There are laws that protect people’s private information, and, no matter what someone says, even knowing they don’t have the full story, social workers can’t tell our side.”