Why The Globe investigated the child-welfare system, and a family’s painful journey through it
It all began with what Stacey calls a “stupid fight.” It was early on the morning of Feb. 20, 2018, and her two young children, nine-month-old Noah and two-year-old Avery, were playing loudly in the living room. Their yells woke up their dad, Paul, who asked Stacey to keep them quiet. That sparked an argument, with Stacey threatening to leave. “If you’re going to go, then go,” Paul said, his hand on her back, pushing her toward the door. Stacey packed up the kids and left.
When she didn’t return the following morning, Paul called the local RCMP detachment. “She’d never just up and left the house before. I was concerned,” says Paul. When police spoke with Stacey, she described the fight, including the shove that precipitated her exit.
The couple had been together for four years and had known one another since childhood. Paul ran a construction business out of their tidy house on Vancouver Island, and Stacey worked full time as a grocery-store supervisor making $28 per hour.
Neither he nor Stacey had a criminal record or prior history with B.C.’s child welfare system. So they were stunned when, the next day, police turned up at their home and arrested Paul, charging him with assault. “I didn’t even have a bruise,” says Stacey.
From there, “things snowballed,” she says.
The conditions of Paul’s release on bail barred him from returning to the house, and from seeing Stacey and their children.
Social workers became a constant presence in their lives, arriving unannounced at all hours to see whether Paul – who was now homeless, his construction business floundering – had been in the home, and questioning daycare workers and family members. Once, during a four-hour questioning, a social worker took Stacey’s cellphone to ask callers whether she had been seeing her husband. Another time, Stacey says they sent an undercover RCMP officer to knock on her door at midnight, pretending to be a friend of Paul’s.
Stacey had in fact been spending time with Paul, breaking the no-contact order.
“We were scared and didn’t know about any of this,” she says. “We knew as a couple we needed to access counselling, and we wanted to remain a family at that point, but the ministry would not help in that way.”
When Stacey was two months pregnant with their third child, she came clean about their clandestine visits. Almost immediately, Avery and Noah were removed from her care. Before long, as Paul’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, they would be joined by their newborn sister, Miranda. (In order to maintain the children’s anonymity, as required by B.C.’s privacy legislation, the names have been changed and identifying place names withheld.)
Stacey and Paul’s story is messy – but it is by no means unique, particularly among Indigenous communities within Canada. Paul is Métis, and so are his children. Stacey isn’t Indigenous. In Canada, Indigenous kids are removed from their families at a rate 10 times higher than non-Indigenous children. But finding hard numbers amounts to guesswork, because Canada lacks even the most basic national data on child welfare. That means we don’t even know how many kids Canada is housing in foster care at any given time, according to Nico Trocmé, director of McGill University’s School of Social Work. In 2013, the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (for which Mr. Trocmé is the principal investigator) put the number at 62,428, half of them Indigenous – despite the fact that Indigenous people constitute just 4.9 per cent of the overall population.
The federal Liberals seemed primed to address the country’s broken child welfare system last year, when then-Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called the apprehension of Indigenous children a “humanitarian crisis” and convened an emergency meeting to confront it. In April, Ottawa tabled a bill recognizing the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit authorities to pass their own laws for children and families, emphasizing the need for more preventive care and support. It was a historic first that came in direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which implored the federal government to fix a system that had “simply continued the assimilation that the residential school system started.”
While the bill received royal assent in June, many Indigenous leaders refused to endorse it, citing a raft of shortcomings. It comes into effect in January. In the meantime, Indigenous kids continue to be funnelled into foster care at a disproportionate rate, and there are fears that what the Liberals have touted as a dramatic overhaul will fail to live up to hype. Part of the problem is that the bill does nothing to address the bias and systemic discrimination built into the child welfare system. Nor does it address the socioeconomic factors that put many Indigenous children at risk in the first place.
The system of child apprehensions is typically veiled in secrecy due to privacy laws, and B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) declined to comment on Stacey’s case. In documenting her journey from last December – shortly before Miranda’s birth – to late November, when the B.C. government seized the three children again, The Globe and Mail gained extraordinary access to the child welfare process. Social workers believe Stacey is a good mother caught in an abusive relationship. But child welfare workers believe Paul won’t stay away from his family – and Stacey and her kids are paying the price.
Once families like Stacey’s are in the system, they “can’t get out,” says Stacey’s Vancouver-based lawyer, Maegan Giltrow. The system has become deeply risk-averse, Ms. Giltrow adds. “We’re jumping to remove children to prevent low-likelihood harm, and yet we know that removal itself has a high likelihood of causing harm – sometimes very significant damage.”
At its heart, this case boils down to a fight over risk: the potential risk of physical harm to the children if they remain with their mother versus the certain psychological, cultural, linguistic and spiritual damage if they are taken away from their home and Indigenous community.
In legal terms, it’s a fight over how to interpret the "best interests” of the child.
To determine what those best interests are, B.C.’s child welfare legislation states that social workers must consider “all relevant factors,” including a child’s safety, emotional needs, the importance of continuity, the quality of the relationship with their parent, and the impact of breaking up that relationship.
If the child in question is Indigenous, they are supposed to consider two additional factors: the importance of being able to learn about and practise Indigenous traditions, customs and language, and the importance of belonging to their Indigenous community.
But in Canada, a social worker’s opinion and understanding of a situation reigns supreme – and as far as the MCFD was concerned, keeping Stacey’s children away from their father trumped everything else.
One of the most alarming episodes occurred late in April, 2018, two months into the no-contact order. That afternoon, Paul’s mother phoned the RCMP. Her son and Stacey had had a fight, she told them, and Paul was alone in the family home. She was concerned he was suicidal. When police arrived, he refused to open the door, leading to a five-hour standoff.
Paul says now that he wasn’t suicidal and doesn’t know why his mom thought he was. He does admit to feeling frustrated and defeated. His life was spiralling out of control, and he was desperate to be with his kids, whom he’d barely seen in months. Maybe if I do something crazy enough, he thought, they’ll see that something’s got to change. When police in tactical armour began swarming the house, he says, he grew terrified. He was arrested without incident, detained under the mental health act and taken to hospital before being released later that night.
Paul “carries a lot of anger,” Stacey says, noting that his ugly childhood was marred by the addictions and violence of the people around him. The more the ministry intervened in their lives, the angrier Paul seemed to become, she said, and “I was the closest person to take it out on.”
He could become a “scary person” when he was angry, she says. “But I’m more afraid of [social workers] than I ever have been of him.”
A month after Paul’s arrest, a social worker arrived unannounced one night to search the home for Paul. He wasn’t there, but the next morning, Stacey admitted he had spent a total of nine nights there over the past several months. “He stayed on and off those nights to see us, as he had not had any access to the kids whatsoever,” she says. “He missed them, they missed him.”
The following day, Avery and Noah were removed from Stacey’s care and sent to live with her ex-husband’s sister. After a month, they were sent to a foster home. Stacey was never told why.
They were returned to her three weeks later, under supervision, again with no explanation, she says. But Stacey theorizes it was because she’d started engaging in counselling and group therapy, and had provided positive feedback to the ministry on what she was learning. At the time, a ministry safety assessment noted glowing feedback from Stacey’s domestic violence counsellor and from the various parenting and family support programs she’d been attending at their suggestion. The file states that social workers had no concerns with the state of Stacey’s three-bedroom house overlooking a valley, and that she didn’t use alcohol or drugs. (Coffee is her only vice.)
Yet, just a month later, she would lose her children yet again.
On Aug. 28, Stacey agreed to give Paul a drive to retrieve his truck, which had broken down at a remote worksite. They were due in court later that day, and they argued over legal strategy. Paul demanded she drive him to the kids’ daycare, grabbing her by the back of the neck and telling her he wouldn’t leave her alone until he’d seen the kids. When the couple arrived, Stacey told the staff Paul was outside and she was afraid to leave. A daycare worker called the RCMP, and Paul fled with her car, purse and house keys. He was later charged with assault, uttering threats and taking a vehicle without consent. Stacey – then three months pregnant – later admitted Paul had stayed with her and kids for three nights over the previous several weeks.
The next day, social workers arrived to take Avery and Noah into foster care once again. This time, they would remain there for eight months.
Scientists know what happens to children who are traumatically separated from their parents. First, a wave of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenalin, surge through their bodies. Their hearts begin pounding, their breathing quickens, their blood pressure rises. Over time, the stress hormones begin attacking and killing cells in the hippocampus, part of the limbic system, which regulates emotion. If too many cells die this way, the child will have trouble down the road, particularly when processing emotions and evaluating risk. The damage can be dramatic and permanent, affecting everything from academic and career performance to relationships.
There is “no greater threat to a child’s emotional well-being” than being separated from a primary caregiver, according to Johanna Bick, a psychology professor at the University of Houston who studies adverse experiences in childhood. Decades of research have concluded that children forcibly separated from a parent have a higher likelihood of developing cognitive delays, and psychiatric problems including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, mood, psychotic and substance-use disorders.
For Indigenous children who are ripped away from their communities and culture, the physical and mental trauma is magnified and can span generations – something that has been well documented in survivors of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.
Stacey witnessed the impact on her children firsthand. When she arrived at the MCFD office for supervised visits with Avery and Noah, who were living in a foster home with five other children under the age of six, Noah often seemed lost, stunned and tired. “He wandered around with a blank look in his eyes,” she says. He would go to others to be picked up and held before going to his mom. It broke her heart, though she never let him see it. His three-year-old sister referred to their foster mother – whose home Stacey wasn’t allowed to visit – as “mom.” Whenever Stacey left them, she would pull the car over and break down in tears.
At the time, Stacey was six months pregnant and terrified. “I could not enjoy my time being pregnant like a normal expecting mother would be,” she says. “I couldn’t share it with Paul or my children.” Stacey worried about not being able to prepare her older children for a new baby coming into their lives. Most of all, she worried about losing another child. “I was scared to death that my baby, who I knew I would breastfeed, would be taken from me. I was afraid I would have social workers outside the delivery room waiting for me to give birth.”
In early January, Miranda was born at the local hospital, weighing in at 7.5 pounds. Paul was there for the delivery. A male social worker was on hand, as well, and as soon as he officially took custody of the newborn, Paul was forced to leave. He was not allowed back.
“It’s time,” the social worker told Stacey.
It was seven weeks after Miranda’s birth, and the 20 minutes Stacey had been granted to say goodbye to her were over. Her daughter was about to be placed in a foster home.
“It’s time,” the social worker kept repeating, her voice growing louder and more insistent with each repetition. Stacey’s chest grew tight. “She’s just a baby. She’s my baby,” she whispered, her tears soaking Miranda’s head. The infant was sleeping burrowed deeply in her mom’s red hooded sweatshirt. Stacey held her tightly.
It was Feb. 25, 2019 – just over a year after that fateful fight with Paul. Though Miranda was already technically a ward of the province, Stacey had spent nearly 50 days with her in hospital, behind the maternity ward’s locked doors. Hospital staff took that highly unusual step – the typical stay following an uncomplicated delivery is a day or two – so that Stacey could breastfeed her baby daughter and spend critical early bonding time with her. It was also the only way the MCFD could be assured Miranda would be safe from Paul.
But the situation had become untenable: their stay had so far cost the hospital $60,000. A local Indigenous activist had begun tweeting about Miranda’s imminent removal, alerting the community. Hospital administrators feared the media might catch wind of a brewing controversy; a month earlier, the family of a First Nations infant filmed her being taken away from her mother in a Winnipeg hospital, sparking a social media storm. The hospital wanted Stacey and her baby out.
But the MCFD wouldn’t let Stacey take Miranda home. The problems were twofold: in their opinion, she couldn’t stay away from Paul (who at the time was in pretrial custody on the assault charge stemming from the daycare incident), and they also believed Paul’s behaviour had grown increasingly erratic and violent.
Ten days earlier, Stacey had met with social workers for a “safety planning conference” to examine the options. They were joined by representatives from two Indigenous groups that wanted to present some creative alternatives to removing Miranda. An official with the B.C. Métis Federation, a non-profit society that aims to keep Métis families together, came armed with a 34-page “plan of care” that suggested the organization move Miranda and Stacey into a Métis home, in a location unknown to Paul, where the family would be guarded 24/7 by a security firm. An alarm system, cameras and a series of new locks would provide additional layers of security. Stacey would change her cellphone number. “This would be at no cost to the government,” Lauretta Morin, the federation’s director of child welfare, told the social workers. “There would be no placing the child in government care. And there would be no long-term risk to the child.”
Patricia Dawn, founder of the Red Willow Womyn’s Society, a grassroots organization that works to keep Indigenous families together, argued that the ministry’s risk assessment didn’t consider the “certain psychological harm” Miranda’s removal would cause her. “We know the biological damage and long-term damage this child will incur from being removed,” she said. “We have to consider the safety of the child in that way too.”
In the end, however, the social workers decided the “potential for physical harm” at the hands of Paul if Miranda were to stay with her mother outweighed all other factors. They pointed to the incident of Paul barricading himself inside the house as proof he had been “suicidal,” the director of the MCFD’s local Aboriginal Services Team told Stacey in a meeting. “Suicide and homicide are very closely linked,” she added. (The relationship between the two has been studied extensively, and the correlation was found to be weak and statistically insignificant, according to a 2005 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology.)
Stacey had also admitted earlier that she suspected Paul might be using crystal meth. “That makes him very unstable,” one social worker said. “We cannot ensure the safety of the children if he is out in the community.” (Paul was once addicted to cocaine years ago, and this past June, he was convicted of possessing a controlled substance – meth. But he denies any recent drug use. His lawyer, Simon Knott, says his client repeatedly offered to submit to urinalysis, but the MCFD has refused the offer.)
The Métis Federation’s safety plan did not “address the risk of Paul sufficiently,” the director of the local MCFD office explained, because security guards cannot intervene in case of a dispute. “Our mandate is safety first, the best interests of the child second,” another social worker said. And they needed Stacey to “demonstrate change” before they were willing to consider allowing her to have custody of her children, though they could not point to anything specific they wished to see from her that would demonstrate she was changing. They seemed to imply that Stacey was the problem, though it was Paul who kept contacting her and whose behaviour had caused social workers to enter their lives in the first place.
By that point, the meeting was entering its third hour. “I’m a competent, confident person," said Stacey. "I’m a good mother. Everyone here has acknowledged that. I’m being punished. This has gone on long enough.” That she felt she was being punished was a sign Stacey had not sufficiently changed, one social worker countered.
And so, on that February morning, Stacey was discharged from the hospital. Two social workers put her and baby Miranda into a van and drove them to a ministry office, where, after a three-hour wait, she was told Miranda would be going to a foster home and given 20 minutes to say goodbye. As a social worker carried Miranda away, Stacey clung to her daughter’s empty car seat, her hand shaking violently. Her breath came in ragged gasps. How am I here again? she thought. How can this be happening again?
“It’s a nightmare,” Stacey said as she sat in her empty house just hours later.
There were pictures of her missing kids on every wall and shelf. The fridge was a giant collage of giggling children – on laps, in swings, in high-chairs, their faces smeared with food. Their empty bottles hung upside down in a rack beside the sink. Teddy bears stood like sentinels guarding empty cribs. Stacey kept looking down at the suddenly bare space in the crook of her left arm where Miranda had spent the past seven weeks. She spoke in a dull monotone, the horror of the removal still raw. Miranda had never taken a bottle. She had never slept on her own. Was she hungry? Stacey wondered. Was she crying herself to sleep? She had never felt so alone. Her pride as a mother, as a provider, had been shattered. “It just keeps getting worse and worse.”
Few experts defend the seizure of infants at birth in all but the most extreme cases, and British Columbia announced in September that it plans to stop “birth alerts,” a controversial practice allowing social services to contact hospitals without parental consent when there are potential risks to infants. Yet, in Western Canada, three infants are taken into provincial care after birth every day, the majority of them Indigenous. In B.C. last year, 488 infants under 13 months were removed from their birth families. Of them, 265 were Indigenous, like Miranda. In that period, Alberta removed 505 infants; of them, 315 were Indigenous. In Manitoba, 87 per cent of the 354 infants removed in 2017 were Indigenous. Nearly three-quarters of them remained in the system 12 months later, putting them on the fast track to “permanent guardianship” – that is, the “absolute termination of parental rights,” as Manitoba’s child welfare legislation defines it.
Bill C-92 doesn’t specifically address birth alerts, and in September, Saskatchewan said it will continue the practice. The federal law could, however, reduce the number of newborn apprehensions: it stipulates that “prenatal services” should be prioritized over removal when it’s in a child’s best interest, “in order to prevent the apprehension of the child at the time of the child’s birth."
But there are other reasons many First Nations leaders refused to endorse the new bill. In March, Ryerson University’s Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led think tank, called on five legal experts in Indigenous law to examine the new bill. They castigated the report, identifying several areas of concern. There are no funding commitments attached to the law. There is a “glaring” lack of clarity when it comes to granting Indigenous people “meaningful” control over child welfare services. The “best interests of the child” provisions still prioritize an Indigenous child’s safety over the importance of things like their cultural and linguistic upbringing, their relationship to family, to community, to spirituality. And attempts to curb government intervention are “limited,” the authors wrote, and potentially force Indigenous governing bodies to serve as delegates of the federal government, carrying out decisions and laws they do not agree with.
B.C.’s Métis Commission for Children and Families, the designated voice for Métis youth, children and families under the province’s child protection system, has supported the removal of Miranda, Noah and Avery at every step. The office – staffed by 1.75 people located in Kamloops – endorsed the decision to place them with non-Indigenous families and did not suggest alternatives to apprehension. (The Métis Commission declined to comment.)
The bill also fails to address statutory limitations. In B.C., a child under five can stay in foster care a maximum 12 months before they become a permanent ward of the province, extinguishing all parental rights. While a judge may extend the temporary order beyond 12 months, “that’s totally discretionary,” says University of Alberta law professor and former social worker Hadley Friedland. “When their subjective assessments of risk rule the day, will any law reform that doesn’t explicitly fetter their discretion or demand more evidence prior to such drastic measures make any difference?” Once the clock runs out, nothing can be done, regardless of how healthy the parents have become or how the situation at home has changed. It amounts to a state-sanctioned practice of orphaning kids, most of them from First Nations communities.
Ms. Friedland calls Stacey’s situation “Kafkaesque”: “Nothing she does is helping. And at the same time, the clock is ticking.”
In the days after Miranda was removed from her care, Stacey took the Ministry to court, guided by her new lawyer, Ms. Giltrow, who has had success reuniting Indigenous families. (Stacey’s previous legal aid lawyers only ever told her to follow the ministry’s orders. Why even have a lawyer if all they do is tell me to do whatever the MCFD says? she often wondered.) Ms. Giltrow agreed to help Stacey because she was trapped in the system, with no way out.
With Miranda now in foster care, Paul became desperate the get the kids home to Stacey. He even told The Globe he was considering breaching the orders of his release and forcing police to send him to jail: “I don’t know what else to do.”
The following night, March 21, he let himself into the house through a window when Stacey wasn’t home. When she returned, he told her he wanted to return to jail so she could get the kids back. They argued, and he pushed her onto the bed and grabbed her hair. He was charged with assault and criminal harassment, and got his wish: with their father behind bars, the kids went home to Stacey in early April.
A short time later, a judge dismissed Stacey’s case, saying he had no issue with her having custody of her children, especially with Paul in jail.
The victory was short-lived.
Over the past seven months, Stacey had begun trying to unwind some of the damage of her children’s time in foster care. There were physical scars: both toddlers had head lice for the entire time in care, and Avery still had ugly red scarring on the back on her skull, where she couldn’t stop scratching.
But the emotional wounds went much deeper. Avery, who left home a vibrant, joyful little girl, still panicked whenever Stacey left the room. “When it’s time for me to go, she cries and cries,” Stacey said. In foster care, she had refused to leave her baby brother’s side. When it was time for his naps, she climbed into bed beside him. He was the only constant in her life.
The kids toddled after her in a pack her whenever she went, the older two on foot, Miranda crawling behind them, almost keeping up. Stacey constantly reached down to hug or touch one of them when they wandered out of reach. She would sit on the floor, with Miranda in her arms, so Noah – who was only just beginning to babble and speak a few words – climbed on her back and gave her slobbery kisses, while Avery laid against her knee, flipping through a book. When visitors came by, they showed little interest in them. When she tried to leave, even to take out the trash, the older two would run to the closet for shoes, crying “me too,” or “get boots on,” so they could follow her out.
By then, Stacey had cut Paul out of her life completely and moved to a new apartment unknown to him. She’d bought a car with new licence plates he wouldn’t recognize. She changed her phone number and email address to demonstrate to the ministry she was doing everything she could to keep Paul from contacting her. To her, the decision was automatic: “These are my kids,” she said, staring at Jackie Chan, the blue and red fish with flowing fins she’d recently bought the kids. But her 20-month battle has taken a toll. She had developed stomach and back problems from the constant stress. She’d stopped seeing her friends – it was too hard, too embarrassing to explain.
As for Paul (who has been convicted of three assault charges and the drug charge since that first fight in February, 2018), he’d been released from jail in June, and was once again barred from contacting Stacey and the kids. He moved in with an aunt and began working in construction. But as summer turned to fall, he grew increasingly frustrated. He still hadn’t seen his kids. It was starting to seem like he might never see them again. As a first step toward being able to visit his children, the MCFD required him to take a series of parenting courses and access mental health supports. But they were unavailable in the region, his lawyer says.
In November, as Miranda’s first birthday approached, he showed up at the new apartment (Stacey says he found out where they were living through friends). Stacey, who was terrified social workers might learn he was there – grounds for the kids’ immediate removal – told him to leave. Neighbours heard the yelling and called police. “You don’t know what it’s like not to be able to see your kids,” Paul screamed when they arrived. He was arrested once again, and charged with assault and resisting arrest.
“We’re stuck in this cycle that seems to be propagated by the MCFD,” said Paul’s lawyer, Simon Knott, at the time. Mr. Knott told the ministry Paul was willing to leave Vancouver Island, and move 1,000 kilometres north if this would allow Stacey to keep them. But this wasn’t enough to address the risk he poses, he was told. Mr. Knott says his client should have long since been out on bail, but is staying behind bars in hopes that Stacey might get the kids.
But on Nov. 23, with Paul expected to be out of jail within days, the MCFD entered Stacey’s home unannounced shortly after 9 p.m., waking the kids and pulling them from their beds. All three children were screaming as they were carried out to a waiting van. The removal was so rushed that social workers drove off without breast milk for Miranda. The following day, she tried repeatedly to ask social workers to pick up milk for Miranda, who was refusing formula. “I will let you know if/when I become available,” the social worker replied.
Social workers told Stacey they’d received a report that she was “planning to flee” with the kids. Stacey says there is no truth to this, and photographed her full fridge and unpacked bags. She believes a disgruntled relative filed the report. Already facing a huge legal bill from her previous court fight, which cost her $25,000, Stacey worries she might not be able to afford another battle. (To help her avoid bankruptcy, a friend named Ron Bardutz launched a GoFundMe to help cover legal costs. So far, it has raised $125.)
As for Paul, he’s staying behind bars for as long as possible to help Stacey’s case. But he’s been apart from his kids for nearly two years. “I don’t even know what Miranda looks like. It breaks my heart,” he said back in April. “I love my kids. I would never hurt them. I just want this to end, so we can get back to trying to be a family.”
For Stacey’s part, she says she has no interest in being with Paul. She has done dozens of hours of anti-violence training and domestic violence counselling during this whole ordeal, and she has realized that the issue is brutally simple: “It’s him or the kids. And I won’t put my kids on the line.”
But time is running out. If the two older children are kept in care for much longer, they’ll hit the 12-month threshold that could lead to the termination of Stacey and Paul’s parental rights and permanently transfer custody to the ministry. Avery and Noah could become orphans. They might never see their parents again.
Stacey says the whole situation is a mother’s worst nightmare. “It’s especially hard being told how the ministry and social workers all recognize what a great mother I am and know I’m not a risk,” she says. “And yet my children have been taken from me.”
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