For a decade, Patricia Dawn has been helping Indigenous women in British Columbia’s Cowichan Valley at risk of having their children apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Now she wants to go farther and turn the valley into a “no-apprehension zone.”
Instead of children being taken into care, parents would get the support they need to keep them. Even if it means taking parent and child into foster care together.
Dawn, who is Métis Cree, founded the Red Willow Womyn’s Society in 2008 in Duncan, B.C. The drop-in peer support group was aimed at empowering Indigenous families — especially moms and grandmothers — working to avoid apprehensions or get their kids back.
The single mom said she decided to create the organization after hearing from Indigenous women she met in line at the food bank and in family court about racism and sexism they faced from ministry social workers.
One mother’s children had been taken into care because of ministry concerns about their father, Dawn recalled. So she cut ties with him, won home visits with her children and was going to get them back.
“Then the father showed up unannounced at the house, and when [the ministry] found out about it, they took away her visits,” Dawn said. “I’ve seen that lots. They always penalize the mother. There’s a real embedded discrimination and racism against Indigenous women.”
Now Dawn is prepared to go farther to keep children with their mothers.
‘I don’t know how Aboriginal women survive’
Across the province, almost two-thirds of the 6,500 children in care are Indigenous.
In the ministry’s Duncan office, which services a large region in southern Vancouver Island, about 78 per cent of the 275 kids in care in June were Indigenous, according to the ministry’s most recent numbers. The Cowichan Tribes based in the region are the largest First Nation band in B.C., but Indigenous people still make up just 12 per cent of the population in the area. And children in the region were twice as likely to be apprehended as kids in the rest of the province.
Dawn said she decided something had to change early this year.
She was called to the hospital by a mom who had just given birth. The ministry had already told her it would apprehend her newborn baby, Dawn said.
As the mom lay in bed, she said, ministry social workers came to remind her that the ministry would apprehend the infant when both were discharged from the hospital.
There was no celebration, Dawn said. No balloons, no family to welcome a new member into the world. Everyone knew this child would be removed from their mother’s care.
The ministry, Dawn said, was worried the mom still had contact with the baby’s father, who had assaulted her. The ministry, citing privacy reasons, won’t comment.
Dawn says ministry social workers told her the only way to keep mom and baby together was to find housing with round-the-clock supervision.
Dawn and other advocates scrambled to find a place that met the ministry’s standards. Even the local women’s transition shelter, which had locks and alarms to keep abusers out, was rejected because it couldn’t provide 24/7 supervision.
After several days of confrontations and meetings, the ministry said the mom could keep the baby for 30 days if Dawn took both of them home, providing the necessary 24/7 supervision. She agreed.
For a month Dawn slept on the living room floor of her two-bedroom apartment, giving her bedroom to mom and baby, with the other bedroom for her own child. Dawn helped the mom navigate the 21 services and three social workers in that first month just to meet the ministry’s requirements for keeping her child.
“I don’t know how Aboriginal women survive,” Dawn said. “I lived her life alongside her, and it was absolute hell.”
Dawn says that after a month she was burnt out and the relationship with the mom was strained. Other volunteers stepped up to provide two more months of housing and supervision, and family and volunteers continued providing support once the child and mom moved into their own home, helping her keep required appointments and manage the transition. They were successful in keeping the baby and mom together.
But after half a year, everyone was burnt out, Dawn says. The ministry refused requests for supports for the mom and child, she says, and ended up apprehending the baby for the same protection concerns they had in January.
The experience was an eye-opener for Dawn, despite 10 years of supporting families dealing with the ministry.
She saw the hurdles parents must navigate to keep their families together. The money spent on policing families that could have gone to help prevent apprehensions. And the need for a new approach.
Services are available once children are apprehended, but not before, she said.
This is contrary to pledges earlier this year by federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and B.C.’s Child and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy. Both promised to shift their ministries’ funding focus from child protection and apprehension to preventing kids from coming into care in the first place.
B.C. Representative for Children and Youth’s Jennifer Charlesworth said she has seen the ministry’s good intentions. But actual implementation of the shift to prevention and family preservation is inconsistent across the province.
“At this point it’s not a systemic shift that’s happened,” said Charlesworth, partly because the initiative is still very new.
It could be up to four years before changes are implemented across the province, she said, and even that is an “ambitious” timeline.
“It’s a hard thing to change a system’s way of thinking and doing work,” she said. “And at the same time the need to address the ongoing issues of young people who are in care keeps the system in some ways beholden to the old ways of doing things that are more protective focus.”
High costs of a broken system
The current system isn’t working for children. Kids in care in B.C. are more likely to wind up in jail than to graduate high school. A recent death review by the B.C. Coroners Service death review panel concluded kids who have “aged out” of the child welfare system on their 19th birthday die at five times the rate of the general youth population.
Across Canada, kids in and from the foster care system make up 60 per cent of homeless youth and a third of homeless adults. Statistics Canada’s most recent report found 52 per cent of children under 15 living in Canadian foster homes are Indigenous. They are eight per cent of the population in that age group.
In an email to The Tyee, a children’s ministry spokesperson said the number of Indigenous kids in care in B.C. has dropped three per cent in the last year, to the lowest level since 2014. However the ministry acknowledges Indigenous children remain overrepresented in the child welfare system.
Even if they manage to graduate high school and avoid jail and the streets, Indigenous kids lose something when they’re removed from family, community and culture and placed — most often — with a white foster family, said Joe Norris, Red Willow board member, a grandfather, and a hereditary chief with the Halalt First Nation in the Cowichan Valley.
They lose their identity.
Norris was the oldest of 24 children. With two of his brothers, he was raised by their grandparents, who taught the children about their culture, customs and traditions.
If parents couldn’t care for their children in those days, Norris said, then extended family members raised them. There was no government system that took children away from their communities.
“Where do the teachings go when they get a foster parent? They have no idea who they are. That’s the sad part,” Norris said.
We need to return to that way of raising children, he said.
Over the past year Dawn and other advocates — regulars at Red Willow’s weekly drop-ins, midwives from The Matraea Centre, early childhood educators, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous elders — have intervened in five attempted ministry apprehensions of Indigenous children from their parents, she said. Mostly single mothers.
“Every time I get involved in something, [the ministry] separate mom and dad, and then they just hammer the Indigenous woman,” Dawn said. “They just destroy her.”
Two studies out of the University of Manitoba found women — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — who lost their children had a suicide rate more than four times higher than other moms. They were also 3.5 times more likely to die from avoidable causes like unintentional injury and suicide.
When asked about Dawn’s allegations of sexism and racism by ministry staff against Indigenous mothers, the ministry responded with an emailed statement that said it takes such allegations very seriously.
“All local offices would take any such complaint seriously and determine whether a formal investigation is required. If there is a formal investigation, the results of that investigation would inform any action that needs to be taken,” the email read. The statement did not say whether any formal investigations have been done into Dawn’s allegations.
The ministry added that cultural sensitivity training is mandatory for all ministry service delivery staff, and the Cowichan Valley office has received the training. They also encourage clients to bring advocates like Dawn to ministry meetings.
“We are changing our policies and practice to be culturally safe and trauma-informed; we are implementing a strategy to hire more Indigenous social workers; we are supporting and honouring the cultural practices of the many Indigenous communities in the province,” the email read.
While the ministry refuses to discuss cases Dawn has been involved with, citing the families’ privacy, it acknowledged she has brought forward her concerns during meetings with staff at the Duncan office, as well as staff in the offices of the deputy minister and provincial director of child welfare.
“Advocacy is welcomed but under legislation only social workers have the statutory authority to provide child protective services,” the ministry added.
The Butterfly Plan takes a village
For Dawn, the ministry’s child protection work is a colonial problem that needs an Indigenous solution.
And she said the Red Willow Womyn’s Society has it. The society proposes the Butterfly Plan, a three-step response to child apprehensions based on keeping the parent and child together.
Step one — take them both into care.
“Offer them sanctuary, to stand with them, to acknowledge and respect them for surviving genocide,” Dawn said.
That sanctuary could be with family. If that’s not possible, Dawn said, a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous households offering a safe place for parents and children for up to 30 days should be created.
Step two — respectful support.
The second stage, or circle of service as Dawn calls each step, comes when the mom feels capable of advocating for herself and her child, assessing her strengths and letting the community know how they can help her succeed.
“She says what she needs and we ask how we can support that,” she said. “So there’s dignity and respect, and she becomes the hero of her own life.”
Step three — independence and community.
The family is standing on their own two feet, with the skills they need. But a loving and supportive community has their back. “She’s not alone in it,” Dawn said.
Dawn estimates Red Willow could launch the Butterfly Plan in the Cowichan Valley with a $55,000 annual budget, enough money to hire two part-time workers and set up partnerships with other family and child support services in the community.
Dawn says they’re planning to start a Go Fund Me campaign to help raise the funds.
But the plan is already being piloted through a relationship Red Willow has established with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)’s Cowichan Valley Branch.
The branch was already operating a transitional housing project for parents with young children, who so far have been mainly young Indigenous moms, in a leased six-unit apartment building. The two most-recent housing referrals have come through Red Willow.
CMHA Cowichan Valley executive director James Tousignant said the non-profit is not a housing provider. But it operates the local homeless shelter, and saw a need to provide a transitional step for people leaving the shelter.
As part of that initiative, it leased the building five years ago.
It wasn’t supposed to end up being housing for families — CMHA Cowichan Valley was actually planning to use the units as a recovery house.
It just turned out that way, said Tousignant, after they found their first tenant through a referral from a social worker at the children’s ministry looking for housing with wrap-around services for a family in trouble.
“Now every unit in there has a mom-and-kid or a dad-and-kid combination,” Tousignant said of the apartment building.
“It was done just one family at a time, and it wasn’t until we started working with Red Willow that we realized that we’re actually doing something that needs to be done,” Tousignant said. “But it wasn’t something that was planned to be done by a committee. We were doing it because this is what we do with individuals we support: we provide transitional housing, we wrap supports around them.”
Tousignant said the Cowichan Valley branch wanted to do more work to prevent the kids of today from becoming the homeless, addicted or otherwise marginalized adults in need of CMHA services in the future.
It’s by chance — and because of Dawn and Red Willow — that the building provided a way to do just that, he said.
“We couldn’t do what we’re doing unless she was doing what she’s doing,” Tousignant said of Dawn, “but she couldn’t do what she’s doing unless we were able to help her out as well. So it’s this really interesting synergy that’s happening.”
Now CMHA Cowichan Valley is scouting locations in Duncan for a larger transitional housing program specifically for families trying to keep their newborns and young kids out of care, with hopes that BC Housing will help with funding. Currently, beyond ministry funding directly to some families to help offset their housing costs, there is no outside funding for the pilot.
The whole initiative is called “It Takes a Village.” Because much like Dawn’s Butterfly Plan, family and community members, service providers and government agencies, and advocates like Red Willow will need to come together to provide struggling families with the services and supports they need.
Tousignant hopes once the second phase is up and running, Red Willow Womyn’s Society will take over the “It Takes a Village” program.
“We would not be able to do what we’re doing if it was not for Patricia coming and supporting those mums,” Tousignant said.
“I see that organization being part of how this “It Takes a Village” project turns into a program.”
Uphill fight for change
Hereditary chief Norris has a vision for Indigenous families aligned with the Butterfly Plan. But he knows change is not going to happen overnight.
“It’s going to take time, it’s not going to be easy,” said Norris, who went to residential school as a nine-year-old and stayed four years. The residential school system lasted more than 125 years, involving 150,000 Indigenous children.
Meanwhile, Dawn and other advocates continue to work to prevent apprehensions. In July, after advocates stepped in to challenge a planned apprehension of an infant, both mom and baby moved in with a local non-Indigenous foster mother, and then with a woman who provides ministry-required supervision for visitations between kids in care and their families.
Today mom and child are still together and living in the CMHA’s apartment building. A plan has been developed to get her two daughters back in her care by Christmas.
Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy has told The Tyee she wants social workers to think “outside of the box” to keep children and families together, committing to more work on preventing kids from coming into care in the first place.
The Tyee first requested an interview with Conroy for this article in July. She was not made available.
In an emailed statement, a ministry spokesperson said reducing the number of Indigenous children and youth in care was a “top priority.” The statement noted that changes to Bill 26 the Child, Family and Community Service Amendment Act in the spring allow social workers to involve Indigenous communities and their leadership in plans of care for a family before apprehension of children is considered.
This was recommended in Chief Ed John’s report on improving Indigenous child welfare. The ministry says it is implementing recommendations from the 2016 report, but it was criticized for not consulting Indigenous people before changing the legislation.
Dawn said Red Willow’s interventions are keeping families together, but the local ministry office is dragging its feet in responding.
The ministry needs to be held accountable for its mistakes, she said. The links between foster care, parent and youth suicide, homelessness, and missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada mean this system is killing people.
“Nobody’s winning. But what they’re a part of is the residential system holocaust. And I don’t care what their excuses are, it’s not working.”
Dawn said she has been contacted by teachers, nurses and doctors concerned with the rate of apprehensions.
The ministry, in an emailed statement, said children are only removed from their mothers when it’s necessary for their safety and there are no alternatives.
When child protection concerns are raised for families working with the ministry, 82 per cent of children will stay with their families, four per cent will move in with extended family, and 14 per cent will go into care, the ministry said.
“The ministry must explore the least disruptive measures when responding to any child protection concern, and keeping children connected with their families, culture and community is a ministry priority,” the statement said.
The Sixties Scoop revisited
Cowichan Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau has been hosting regular community meetings about the apprehension rates in her riding with concerned community members like Dawn, as well as the local children’s ministry office, to discuss a way to bring the era of child apprehensions to an end.
Furstenau says she’s been passionate about the issue as an MLA and will remain passionate until it’s resolved — even if it takes longer to fix than her political career lasts.
“Given that we recognize the devastating impacts residential school, the devastating impacts of the Sixties Scoop, I would like us to also — in real time — recognize the devastating impacts of the separation of children and families right now.”
Furstenau won’t say whether she supports any particular model for stopping the apprehensions. But other than in cases of abuse where child protection is truly in the child’s best interests, she said apprehensions of all children, but particularly Indigenous children, need to stop.
“This isn’t just an emotional position, it is a evidence-backed position that there is significant potential harm that can occur from the trauma of separation,” said Furstenau.
While Furstenau commends the local children’s ministry office for showing up to her community meetings, she agrees with Dawn that the system may be too entrenched in its ways to change.
“I think systems become so deeply ingrained in their practices that it’s very hard to change them,” she said, adding the ministry too often takes a punitive and paternalistic approach to intervening with families. “The system has been constructed so that it’s very difficult to not operate in those ways.”
Her solution? Build an alternative system to replace the current government child welfare programs.
“Demonstrate how it could work,” Fursteneau said, citing the work of the ‘Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, which hasn’t had a child apprehended in more than 10 years
“I have this vision that [the ministry] comes to your door and you throw it open because you know that somebody is there to support you,” Furstenau said.
“A complete reversal of what we have now, which is typically [the ministry] comes to your door and it’s a terrifying experience for everybody.”
Story was updated on Nov. 27, 2018 at 12:30 p.m. to correct a name