It Takes A Village: Starr Reiling Fosters A Brighter Future For The Child Welfare System
“A big part of who you become is knowing who you are,” muses Starr Reiling. She is from the Treaty Six territory and lives in Edmonton where she attends Yellowhead Tribal College’s Indigenous social work program. She’s in her second year of her schooling and she was inspired to pursue this career path based on her experiences growing up in the foster care system and the insights she gained. While she started off in a good foster home, things changed for her when tragedy struck her new family.
After her foster dad passed away, her foster mother was no longer able to foster and she bounced between group homes and a treatment centre. Separated from the only sibling she knew and restricted to confiding in each other through letters, until she was old enough to go into independent living and spend as much time with her sister as she liked. Now her three daughters attend school with Reiling’s three sons and they live five minutes apart.
Raised in the village of New Sarepta, just outside Leduc, she and her sister never really fit in as the only Indigenous children in their community. She carried shame about her ancestry because of all the stereotypes about her people and their substance use, paired with a lack of public understanding around the social history that contributed to intergenerational trauma. .
Given the challenges she faced, she wanted to become a social worker and help youth going through similar difficult circumstances. As an advocate in the system, Reiling wants to provide the kind of support she wished she had. The social work program is academically challenging but she gets support from the instructors when she needs it. Beyond the intellectual demands, the curriculum is opening up old wounds and showing her areas she needs to work through. While the goal is professional growth and advancement, it’s also been a catalyst for personal growth.
When the going gets tough, her children inspire her to keep going. She became a mother at 21 and while she was doing well at the time, she felt she could do better and had some growing up to do. Mentally, emotionally, financially and by breaking intergenerational cycles, she worked to improve herself. After growing up not having been raised by her own mother, she was determined that nobody else would raise her children. “Now I have three sons, and everything I do is for my children,” she smiles.
Outside of school, works part time in a virtual position and her kids are busy with soccer twice a week. When she gets some downtime, she likes to treat herself to spa treatments and take care of her appearance. Reiling likes to relax and conserve her energy, as the demands of her schooling and parenting can catch up with her energetically. When she’s especially tired, she likes to spend time watching tv to decompress. She goes to counseling to maintain her mental health and has an outside person to bounce things off of and talk things through when she needs it.
If she could go back in time and talk to her younger self, she would say, “If you feel alone and you don't feel supported, there's support out there,” thinking about the child advocate who helped her when she felt her voice wasn’t being heard. “When things get tough, like just keep pushing forward, because when you're going through a hard time, you're always going to overcome it, and it gets better,” she continues.
When she thinks of the future and what she hopes will come to pass, Reiling thinks about the Nations who are taking over responsibility for their child welfare programs and the opportunities that could create. She remembers how in foster care she didn’t know the specifics of her Indigenous identity and that’s why she thinks children in care should be able to stay within their own cultures and communities so they know who they are.
As she says, “a big part of who you become is knowing who you are,” and as a future social worker, she has the opportunity to be part of a child welfare system that honours the cultural identities of children, the value of community care and the importance of siblings staying together. Inspired by her children and the children she could help in the future, Starr Reiling is taking the hard times of her past to try and shape brighter futures for Indigenous communities and their young ones.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.