Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Faculty of Science
Family homelessness includes a sub-group of individuals whose experiences remain largely hidden or “invisible” within Canadian homelessness systems: parents who have been separated from their children. Yet, to date, little research has focused on the experiences of “invisible” parents who have experienced homelessness, mental illness, and separation from their children in Canada. The purpose of this dissertation was to help fill this notable gap in the literature, as well as to inform community psychology and family homelessness theory, research, practice, and policy in Canada.
The Canadian At Home/Chez Soi (AHCS) research demonstration project included a subset of parents with mental illness who had been separated from their children in the context of homelessness. Some of these parents (n = 61) participated in semi-structured, consumer narrative interviews when they entered the project at baseline, as well as 18-months following project entry. These data were analyzed for this dissertation in order to better understand the experiences of “invisible” parents experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and parent-child separation. This dissertation is comprised of three distinct manuscripts, which will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed scholarly journals.
Each of the three manuscripts in this dissertation is distinct, yet utilized complementary reflexive, critical, qualitative research methodologies that built upon and informed each other. Through a qualitative, narrative approach to identity, the first manuscript explored the narrative identities of mothers who had been separated from their minor-aged children (n = 16) and compared them with the narrative identities of women who were not mothers to minor-aged children (“non-mothers”) (n = 8). Three themes differentiated the narrative identities of women who were mothers and separated from their minor children from women who were not mothers: (a) housing stability; (b) the meaning of life; and (c) future aspirations. For mothers, stable housing was connected with being with one’s children, fulfilling one’s role as mother, and achieving family stability, whereas for women without children, housing stability was related to achieving independence and personal autonomy. For mothers, meaningful, positive life events involved being with one’s children, while negative life events involved losing one’s children. It was clear that mothers’ children were fundamental to their identities and gave meaning and purpose to their lives. In contrast, meaningful, positive life events for non-mothers involved acquiring stable housing, experiencing personal growth, and (re)claiming one’s identity, while negative life events involved experiences of incarceration. With respect to future aspirations, mothers described relational desires, which were connected with motherhood and goals to be a better mother. For women who were not mothers, aspirations were more individually focused on personal empowerment and a desire to be a better person. Findings from the first study provided a deeper understanding of the significance of mother-child relationships, which laid the foundation for the second study.
In the second study, a qualitative, intersectional analysis was conducted through gender identity and intersectional theories, and Indigenous worldviews to examine and compare parent-child relationship experiences of mothers (n = 12) and fathers (n = 24) who self-identified as either Indigenous (First Nations or Métis) or non-Indigenous/non-Racialized (White Canadian or European settlers). Findings revealed that mental illness, chronic poverty, experiencing homelessness, addictions, childhood abuse and trauma, and overwhelming adversity permeated the life stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous/non-Racialized mothers and fathers. However, noteworthy differences in parent-child relationships were found between sub-groups of parents based on gender, ancestry, and intersecting identities. First, differences were found between the experiences of mothers and fathers. Overall, one’s children were central in the lives of mothers and fundamental to their identities, whereas children were more peripheral in the lives of many fathers. When comparing experiences of parents by ancestry (i.e., Indigenous parents versus non-Indigenous/non-Racialized parents), interpersonal and systemic violence, impacts of intergenerational racism and trauma, and disconnection from one’s culture were more prevalent for Indigenous parents. At the same time, the availability and quality of cultural healing resources that began restoring their webs of “all my relations” (Thistle, 2017) were distinct to Indigenous parents. Finally, comparisons between Indigenous mothers, non-Indigenous/non-Racialized mothers, Indigenous fathers, and non-Indigenous/non-Racialized fathers revealed three findings. One’s children were mostly peripheral in the lives of non-Indigenous/non-Racialized fathers, who were least likely to discuss their children during their interviews. Indigenous mothers spoke more often than the other groups about wanting to get or getting their children back. Finally, Indigenous mothers talked more than the other groups about experiencing interpersonal violence. These noteworthy differences in parent-child relationships were found between parents based on intersectional identities, which led to an examination of whether or not these intersectional (gendered and ancestral) differences were related to parent-child relationship outcomes in the AHCS Housing First (HF) intervention.
The third manuscript used a recovery lens to examine and compare the impacts of the AHCS HF intervention on parent-child relationship outcomes for Indigenous (First Nations or Métis) (n = 21) and non-Indigenous (White and Racialized) (n = 22) parents. The study utilized qualitative data, that were analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively (by quantitizing the qualitative data). Findings from the third manuscript revealed positive improvements in parent-child relationships for Indigenous parents, but not for non-Indigenous parents in the HF intervention group (n = 27), relative to parents in the Treatment as Usual group (n = 16). The findings demonstrated the importance of culturally-appropriate HF programs for supporting the healing journeys of Indigenous parents experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and separation from their children. HF programs that were delivered by Indigenous organizations, guided by Indigenous worldviews, employ culturally-relevant and culturally-safe practices, and are staffed by Indigenous service-providers and administrators, were highlighted as exemplars for understanding how HF programs can positively impact parent-child relationships.
Findings from this dissertation contribute towards and have implications in community psychology, family homelessness, and Indigenous homelessness theory, research, action, and policy. These contributions and implications were discussed in the final chapter of this dissertation, as well as a personal reflection on what I had learned throughout my dissertation-writing journey.
Caplan, Rachel A., "“INVISIBLE” PARENT EXPERIENCES OF HOMELESSNESS AND SEPARATION FROM THEIR CHILDREN IN CANADA" (2019). Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). 2126.