Ms. Crawford recently spoke with Fenix Solutions Inc. CEO Jennifer MacKinnon, who writes a monthly column, Ottawa Women of Wonder, to profile and celebrate local women in business.
Tell me how you started your career.
I started in mental health in Ontario. In 1999, the provincial government moved ahead with mental health reform in Ontario. One in every four to five people will be touched by mental illness, yet it was getting only three per cent of the health funds. We’re not prepared for the number of people who will be affected in the future.
I actually worked at facility in northern Ontario that housed a psychiatric hospital throughout high school. I worked on the wards as a residential counsellor; everything from helping them with their meals, to hygiene, recreation, skills development – the whole gamut.
I had grown up in the neighbourhood where this facility was and I really believed that this was a place of moral higher purpose. I was shocked when I got in there and realized it was incredibly repressive. By virtue of someone getting slapped with a “mental health” disorder, everything was stripped away from them. They had no decision-making power over their own lives; the things we take for granted each day were taken away. They couldn’t decide if or when they could have a nap, go for a walk or eat a meal. And it was very isolating for the residents.
I wondered “how could this happen?,” and I was only 16. I questioned the whole institutional structure, which wasn’t very popular with my older and well-established colleagues. It made me question everything. I would also stand up for those people and question the treatment they were provided.
Where did you go from there?
After my first degree at Ryerson, I went back to work there and was leading the de-institutionalization movement that was beginning to happen at that point. I was introduced to a young boy who was institutionalized at the age of four into the facility where I was working. He had a terrible history with obvious neglect. I started working with him when he was 12 and worked with him for years. I became his primary caregiver and councillor. I ended up taking him home with me and, because he needed “one-on-one care,” I started taking him on rounds with me when I was working. He stuck with me.
He wasn’t verbal and a lot of his frustration and “acting out” happened because he wasn’t able (in this facility) to express himself the way he needed or wanted. The facility was rigid and couldn’t accommodate him. After witnessing him at school I saw a huge potential in this boy and believed he was misdiagnosed. Yet, because he lived his whole life in an institution, what could we expect from him regarding his behaviour? If he opposed the “system” he was punished.
I actually fought for legal guardianship of him. During the de-institutionalization movement, he was the first to go and, sadly, no one cared where he would end up. He ended up in specialized foster care which was ill-suited to his needs. I was given the legal right to make decision on his behalf and eventually became his guardian, but it took a long time. In the meantime ended up in eight different foster homes in 11 months; the last ending in a 911 call saw him back at a psychiatric hospital. He was sedated to the point he couldn’t stand up. I was called to go get him, and had begun making preparations for him to come live with me.
During this time I found a woman with a farm who had a son with similar issues. He was placed there while I went back to school and he was thriving. It was a stable environment for him. However, he died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve morning 1992, which was devastating.
What did he die from?
He had a history of seizures, and in fact had 45 in one day. He was having about one grand mal seizure per month and had a grand mal seizure that morning.
How old was he?
He was 15 years old. It was devastating. He had gone through so much in his short life and was finally in a place where he was thriving, he was in a life skills program, in a home environment, in school, they were teaching him to manage money...
How do you recover from that kind of experience?
I don’t think I did. My work became my therapy; it is my therapy for that. Everything I do, whether it is advocating for poverty or pensions or social housing, or the work I do in Kenya, it’s all about challenging our systems and infrastructures in society because they are not up to the task.
In many respects our social services system is the best in the word. But it’s antiquated, it’s post-war and doesn’t support the requirements of families today.
Hundreds of people over his life made decisions that were not in his best interest, but rather where he fit into the system. At some point, you lose the human aspect.
We need to focus on how best offer a system that reflects the needs of these kinds of people. That’s my life’s mission.
At any point did you think you can’t change the system, given what happened to this little boy, and so many others?
I never think that way. It never should have happened and initially I blamed myself (he should have been with me and so on). And I remember someone telling me not long after he died “he’s probably better off.” And I thought, we wouldn’t say that about anyone else’s child. It was fundamentally wrong.
I grew up thinking the government and society have some responsibility to provide for us and for the vulnerable. Health care is a “human service” it is provided for people by people. No one tried to ruin this boy’s life, but we need to fix the system.
For a good portion of people our social services work. But for a percentage of them it doesn’t. They get labelled “hard to serve” but it’s essentially “hard to service.” The goal should be “What does Jane Doe need?,” versus using the same format for everyone and sedating or restricting those that resist.
Have you been labelled or ostracized because of your beliefs?
I probably have been labelled and I think at some facet of my career I may have been ostracized. At some level organizations can be “clicky” and if you don’t play the game by the unofficial rules you can have a bumpy ride. Certainly I’ve had more bumps that smooth rides.
Is it because I am a woman? Is it because I am a woman who says what she thinks? Is it because I won’t compromise my values? At some level you start to question yourself. It’s probably a combination of things.
It is much easier to go with the crowd and accept the rules. I am not wired that way.
Tell me about your "bumpy" ride.
The adoption of my son from Kenya is a perfect example. I volunteered my time to work with a group of women in Kenya with a friend of mine, Wendy Muckle, for an organization called Hera Mission. We started going to work with a group of 10 women and we support more than 200 orphans and 90 widows in western Kenya. A whole generation of people have been wiped out due to AIDS, malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.
I was working at the Ottawa Hospital at the time and this trip came at a time when we both needed more both personally and professionally. On the flight to Kenya (Jan. 10) I told Wendy I was going to start the adoption process once there. I wanted a child and always knew I would adopt.
In Kenya we meet with friends for dinner who tell us their daughter is expecting a child, and they are devastated because they had been orphans and can’t conceive of another mouth to feed. Wendy mentions my interest in adopting and by the end of dinner we arranged to meet the girl and look into the process.
We thought we had a couple of months to plan. My son was born Jan. 16 – three days after we met the family! I wanted to be sure they didn’t want to keep the baby and we spent hours together, yet they were adamant they wanted me to adopt him. I left that night with the baby and the birth mother. I finally found a place where I could get formula. The baby hadn’t eaten yet and he was now 11 hours old.
He was so alert. I was rocking him in the slum, and a dog was barking, and he turned his head. His eyes were so bright. I believe he instinctively figured out who was going to take care of him and that’s why he was so settled with me.
I took the birth mother to a gynecologist to get looked at and then she wanted to go home to her family. The baby stayed with me and I had a pediatrician look over the baby.
Did you name him?
We named him together – Devlin. But I gave him his middle name, Hera, which means “love” in his tribal language.
Tell me about the adoption process.
Long story short I was there for 15 months and had to change the adoption laws in order to bring him home. I brought him home on March 23, 2008.
I had to come home to start the adoption process and the hardest thing I’ve done is leave him behind in Kenya with the birth family after we had bonded. The process is so complicated; Kenya won’t even look at you unless your application is completed in Canada first, including all the background checks, home visits and so on. And the government here in Canada has to approve you first, they make a recommendation to Kenya, and then Kenya makes the final decision.
I actually went back to Kenya without the approval from Canada yet, but believed in my heart I would get it, so took my chances and went back to be with Devlin. A few weeks later I was approved by Canada and was able to begin the process in Kenya.
Tell me about the Kenya adoption process.
Kenya has a new process because of the child trafficking that happened in the past. They have several provisions in the new Act that by virtue of how our adoption took place I broke 5-7 provisions. In many ways they didn’t even have to consider my case.
They have a central adoption agency that screens all adoptions. You can’t meet with them or talk with them, they make a decision about the file. Apparently they were going to turn me down, but a man presenting my case to them encouraged them to reconsider. This was in September which ended in a complicated review by them. But once finished with them you then go to the courts.
But this was the year Kenya was going through an election. There was so much at stake during this election, with the incumbent having a long history of corruption. The election was held Dec. 27 and the corrupt government had interfered and stolen the election. By Dec. 30 the country was at war and we were stuck in the middle of it. There was tribal violence; thousands of people died, thousands of people lost their homes. This country that had always been known as a beacon of peace had erupted in violence. We had to keep moving further away in order to avoid the violence.
How did this affect your adoption process?
Our court date was postponed numerous times because of the violence. Finally on Feb. 29 we had our court date. In order approve my adoption they had to they had to create a legal precedent, around provisions they felt strongly about upholding.
What kind of rules?
They have rules against allowing single-parent adoption, particularly of a female parent and a male child. You cannot have contact with the birth family; the child is supposed to be given up to the state and placed in an orphanage and then go through the specified process. You name it, I broke it.
By the time we got to court I felt there was a very good chance they would take Devlin away from me and place him in an orphanage.
Did you have a plan B?
The thought of losing Devlin made me sick, and I thought “okay, I will move to Kenya and beg them to let me keep custody of him.” Essentially give up my life here and fight for my son.
Families are not allowed to speak during the hearing. But in the end, the judge asked me if I had something to say. And I was ready. In the end he wrote the judgement with us all in the room. And when he finally started to speak I started sobbing.
It took several weeks to get his visa and we finally made it home after 15 months.
Was your family supportive?
My family visited while I was there and my mom actually stayed during the last six months I was there. My family knows me; they know better than to say it might be time to move on.
Did you work while in Kenya?
Yes, I was still at the hospital and they allowed me to work from Kenya. I have to give Jack Kitts the credit for that; I expect he got a lot of push back for that. I worked Canadian hours in Kenyan time.
When I got home I left the hospital. I now had a toddler and there was no way I could keep the hours I had while at the hospital.
What did you do next?
In November I was appointed CEO at the Canadian Council on Social Development. If you look at my job description it is completely aligned with who I am. And right after I took the position it was announced that funding for the CCSD would be cut severely, and I would have lay off employees.
This is 92-year-old organization that came up with the concept of employment insurance, disability pension, old age pension and is literally the founder of some of Canada social infrastructure. I thought this would be a time for us to rebuild, which has been incredibly difficult.
Where are things at now with Devlin?
Devlin is now in kindergarten at a wonderful school. And my parents live with us and did so prior to my adoption of Devlin. This has been great for me and great for Devlin as well. They have supported me so much, my mom in particular. It has given them a whole new focus in their lives.
It's funny because it's very African for extended families to live together. So it's been really great. My mum comes from a large family; she was one of 17 kids.
What influence did your mom have on your life?
My mom is very nurturing and very strong. And I think that I get my ability to find success has been because of the stability my mum has provided. And she has always been very supportive. I can't say enough about her.
I was also close with my grandmother (the one who had 17 kids). She accepted us all, despite the fact that our generation was so different from hers. She gave me the ability to be open and accepting of others, which I believe lead me to this path in life of helping people.
Will you adopt again?
One of my greatest worries is that Devlin will be an only child and not having that support and friendship a sibling provides. I always believed I would have more than one child, and ideally it will be from Kenya to have that shared heritage.
Devlin's heritage is very important to me. We are visiting Kenya together this spring and I pay for the birth mother to be in a private school in Kenya. We have pictures of her around the house and Devlin knows who she is.
Quick facts: 1) I sing. I've sang at friends weddings 2) I was hit by a car when I was six years old 3) I like to travel. Devlin has had 60 flights so far!