Research hopes to turn funding into help for community

Jason Brown is thrilled he can finally start laying the brickwork for a project that’s been a long time coming.

The Faculty of Education professor received last year’s largest Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grant at Western, getting roughly $435,000 over five years to study the experiences of Aboriginal foster parents who care for children with alcohol-related disabilities under the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

“We have such a horrible history in Canada of Native kids being taken away from their communities. The whole idea with this (project) is to keep kids close to their communities and their families,” Brown said.

Previously, Brown looked into data on why kids come into care; this project comes at the end of a sequence of others dealing with foster parents and their needs and challenges. He started to talk about issues with Native kids and care, and to Aboriginal foster parents who talked about disability issues.

Aboriginal children are overrepresented in foster care, and Aboriginal foster parents lack adequate representation and a voice in the system.

“Without strong voices of Aboriginal foster parents, there is a great danger of assimilating Aboriginal children via foster care,” Brown’s SSHRC summary reads.

The summary also notes Aboriginal children in foster care are 10 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children in care to have a disability under FASD. They are more likely to come into foster care at a younger age, stay in the system longer and experience more placement breakdowns.

“We want to work with communities to find out what’s most helpful and how can research help support them,” Brown added.

He explained his research team must first build – and strengthen – relationships with Aboriginal communities in order to start discussions about fostering children with disabilities.

Brown and his co-investigator, Jane Ursel at the University of Manitoba, will begin slowly by making connections with Aboriginal communities in Manitoba, where Brown is from and the project is located.

“That’s the first part of it – going out meeting people and talking to them, finding out what are the best questions to ask, and finding the best way to support Aboriginal foster parents. That’s the really important piece – finding out what the community wants out of the research,” he said.

Brown also noted the issue of supporting Aboriginal foster parents caring for children under the fetal alcohol spectrum is complex and will require a carefully planned approach – not just in Manitoba, but nationwide – due to systemic issues relating affecting our Native communities.

“Conditions (in Native communities) are deplorable. When kids get into trouble, there are kids who have to leave because the standards are such that they can’t stay in a community that has poor standards of care. It’s hard to get foster homes in these communities because the poverty conditions are so significant,” he said.

“It’s bigger than one family’s issue. It’s generations of struggle. There’s no easy or simple way of dealing with this.”

Once the work in Manitoba is done, and whatever comes out of the research there, Brown would like to explore the project’s focus on a large scale.

“It would be cool to look at disabilities and this issue in a national way. Each community has its own story and its own agenda and wants things done a certain way. And that’s the way it should be,” he said.

“The whole project is a group effort and at the end of it, I hope we have something tangible, useful and practical that can be useful to Aboriginal foster parents and communities. That’s what we want at the end of the day. Not juts a report. Something practical. I hope this helps communities and systems be resourced well to look after kids.”


SSHRC and Western: How do they fare?

Granted, postsecondary institutions fared relatively well following the announcement of Budget 2012. Still, tough economic times and a shifted focus towards innovation and new technologies have, alongside the cutting of some programs, rendered the grant environment within the tri-councils – Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) – increasingly competitive.

Here’s where Western stands with SSHRC.

  • Western has the third-highest percentage of SSHRC researchers in the G13 (behind Ottawa and Queen’s), at 53 per cent;
  • SSHRC funding accounts for nearly 15 per cent (14.6) of Tri-Council (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR) funding, which is the highest of anyone in the G13;
  • Western’s share of SSHRC funding has increased 27.6 per cent over the past five years. By comparison, the overall pot of SSHRC funding only went up 2.2 per cent, with most of it going to schools outside the G13;
  • For the last three academic years, per constituent university, Western sat sixth in the G13 when comparing total funding issued by SSHRC;
  • When comparing normalized funding, Western was, on average, fifth;
  • Western’s success rate with SSHRC over the last decade has been as high as 63 per cent (in 2003-04) and as low as 37 per cent (in 2006-07 and 2008-09). The last two years have been steady at 44 per cent;
  • Last year, Western received $5,680,199 – reflecting actual cash flow – from SSHRC, the highest total in the last decade.