“Family is everything,” says Sonja Paine.
Paine, with support from government’s Extended Family Program (EFP), has been the primary caregiver to her grandchild for almost 10 years and a strong advocate on behalf of Indigenous families who are involved in the child welfare system.
October is Foster Family Month in B.C., recognizing British Columbians who step in to care for children and youth who, for many different reasons, are unable to live with their parents. This includes honouring family members like grandparents, uncles and aunts who are taking care of relatives.
Growing up, Paine’s own Indigenous heritage was kept from her. Culture wasn’t discussed in the non-Indigenous foster or group homes where she spent her teenage years.
As an adult with two young children, Paine decided to return to school. It was there she was able to explore and learn about her culture. This healing journey set her on a path to championing the rights of Indigenous children and families.
“When my daughter became unable to care for her child, I stepped up,” Paine says. “I attended every meeting that was called between my daughter and social workers. I held everyone accountable. I made sure my grandchild didn’t enter the foster care system. I took her into my care. Every day I continue to work towards seeing my daughter be reunited with her child.”
Paine is now looking to put her grandchild into extracurricular activities to help develop her blooming talents in arts and music. She wants to give her grandchild every opportunity to succeed in a loving and stable environment where she is connected to her roots — the experiences Paine never had growing up.
Not only is this granny striving to raise “a kind and inquisitive child,” she’s working to change the child welfare system. Paine believes education is the key. She explains that many Indigenous families don’t know their rights or what supports are available to help them.
Her advocacy work started spontaneously after she helped her daughter's friend stay with her child. “The young woman was quite scared of meeting with social workers. I asked if I could come along and ended up doing most of the talking. I wanted to make sure the social workers understood the situation and when they did, they realized the family could stay safely together. I’m not sure the young woman was empowered enough to stand up for herself and be listened to.”
She has since empowered countless families by providing advice, encouraging self-determination and giving a voice to those who need it.
Paine is also helping social workers recognize the barriers and cultural differences Indigenous families face, along with ways to build better relationships.
“We’re all just human beings who deserve to be listened to and respected. We can work together in a positive way right from the start with genuine care and openness,” she says. “It has been a difficult and bumpy road, but things are changing for the better. I’m being heard and understood.”
Today, Paine is working through the process of becoming a foster parent — something she knew she wanted to do after taking in her son’s friend years ago. She encourages other families, especially Indigenous families, to consider fostering, family caregiving or using the supports offered through the EFP.
Like any parent, Paine wants to see her daughter live “happily ever after” with her child. For now, her goal is to teach her grandchild to be proud of her Indigenous culture and heritage and to be unafraid to speak up in defence of herself or others.
- Through the EFP, relatives can be supported to provide care for children and youth to keep them in their communities and connected to important relationships and cultural heritage and practices.
- In April 2019, the B.C. government increased the amount of financial assistance provided to various caregiver types, nearly doubling the rate paid to EFP caregivers, and bringing it on par with the increased rates paid to foster parents: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2019PREM0023-000294
Indigenous Caregivers of BC: http://fostercaregiversbc.ca
Call the fostering line: 1 800 663-9999