Giving up her son was one of the most difficult decisions Virginia Collins has ever made, but she says she had little choice.
Collins is one of a number of mothers who recently gave temporary custody of her child to Child Youth and Family Services to get him out of Natuashish.
"It just came to a point where I had to say to them, 'I can't do this anymore. I'm just putting my boy's health in jeopardy.'"
Her son is now with a foster family in Ontario where he will go through an intensive treatment program. The move was Collins' final effort to get her 13-year-old son away from solvent abuse.
She said she is aware people from outside the community are judging her as a parent but said many don't know the reality of life as a single mother with an addicted child. Collins said if there had been resources in the community she would have never sent her son away.
"It's not that we don't want our kids with us," she said. "I love my son and I miss him, but I have to do what's best for him."
When he first began sniffing gas at age 11, Collins tried her best to help him and keep him with her in the community. She said she soon found out she was helpless to fight the control the addiction had over her son. She said he was nearly chronic in his abuse, and having lost two uncles to suicide who had chronic inhalant addictions, she feared her son would meet the same fate.
He and other kids in the community would siphon gasoline from Ski-Doos and other vehicles to fuel their increasingly powerful addictions.
Collins sent him to outside treatment four times and took time from work to attend one six-week treatment program with him.
"They are coming back to the same problems, the same parents and the same environment," Collins said.
A single mother who doesn't drink, Collins said proposed parenting classes could be helpful to some people, including herself, but she's already taken numerous courses and doesn't see the problem as being solely attributable to parenting. She said the inhalant abuse continues for a number of reasons, and it isn't necessarily the community as a whole but some people in it.
"Kids see what is happening; they see what people are doing," she said.
During the recent Innu Nation election in the community, the problems intensified, Collins said. Although Natuashish is officially a dry community, she said the amount of alcohol and other substances made available to adults during the election exacerbates things, ultimately leaving some kids, especially those with inhalant abuse problems, literally out in the cold.
Collins said there are divisions in the community and disputes between individuals and groups, which are counterproductive to helping the children.
She said in order to solve the inhalant abuse problem, the community has to band together and outside help and treatment solutions need to be available in the community.
Not long ago, she and a group of other parents banded together to go look for kids and bring them home when they were sniffing, but she said often children couldn't be found or it was difficult to get them home or get them to stay there. For many parents, especially those working, it is impossible to constantly monitor the children. Collins said the problem is worse in summer.
"My son was the same this summer as he was last summer," she said.
Child, Youth and Family Services Minister Charlene Johnson said the department is working with the community to find solutions.
The government is considering sending in a specialist from an outside treatment facility to help and potentially offer parenting classes.
Johnson said the recent media coverage doesn't mean the issue is new to the government.
"I've been in this department for two years in January," she said.
"It's been pretty level and stable in terms of the number of children who have solvent-abuse issues."
Johnson said her department has a caseload in the community of 25 children and youth with solvent-abuse issues, 12 of whom are currently in out-of-province treatment centres.
Natuashish has a population of more than 700 with approximately 50 children born each year. Nearly half the population is under 19 years of age.
Johnson said the department is doing everything in its power to help. The community was temporarily without a full-time social worker but it has since hired one and received approval recently to hire a second. There are also two community service workers from the department based in the community.
Johnson said they work with parents to help in the home.
"With solvent-abuse issues, behaviour gets extreme," she said.