Billie Joe Rogers has devoted the past five years to completing her PhD thesis, which evaluates a B.C. provincial program to support indigenous youth living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and involved in the juvenile justice system.
An Ojibwe member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Ontario, Rogers’ thesis topic aptly mirrors her deep interests in building healthy indigenous communities, and in program evaluation. She completed her degree while employed at an Aboriginal consulting firm specializing in program evaluation and research.
“I had always wanted to study psychology and get a PhD,” says Rogers. “I found a job at the same time that was really in line with my values, so I definitely get to bring the skills I’ve learned in the PhD program to my job.”
Rogers, 33, was the first in her family to graduate from university when she earned a BA from the University of Waterloo. This month she’ll be the first to earn a PhD when she crosses SFU’s convocation dais to receive her PhD inpsychology.
Her thesis evaluated the cultural design aspects of a B.C. program aimed at supporting Indigenous youth undergoing a FASD diagnosis. The goal is to help Indigenous youth living with FASD to rebuild or enhance their cultural connections, and to understand the implications of their FASD diagnosis.
“I think the program is doing ground-breaking work,” says Rogers. “Its holistic design is very effective. It really focuses on the individual youths and their complex needs.”
She says the number of Canadian youth living with FASD is about 0.2 per cent (two per thousand) but the rates jump to about 26 or 27 per cent for indigenous youth in the corrections system.
“Many people living with FASD don’t display any visual characteristics,” says Rogers, “but they do have behavioural challenges, so people assume they’re difficult or troublemakers. Instead, it’s a brain deficit resulting from prenatal alcohol exposure.”
While there is no common profile for FASD, it frequently presents with secondary disabilities such as mental illness, substance misuse, vulnerability to victimization, unemployment, attention deficit and hyperactivity. Cognitive deficits are also common, such as learning disorders, memory difficulties, and difficulties with abstract reasoning and connecting cause and effect.
Rogers’ evaluation revealed that the program is also decreasing the resulting shame and stigma these youth experience, both personally and in the community. As well, participating youth have developed stronger connections to their cultural heritage.
“With the history of colonization and continued colonial policies, we are seeing indigenous children with no connection to their communities, culture or families,” she says. “The importance of indigenous culture cannot be understated, as culture is intricately connected with identity, belonging and pride.
“I’d give the program an A+,” says Rogers, who earned straight A’s throughout her graduate studies.