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Canada How one B.C. community is fighting to keep Indigenous children with their families

Patricia Dawn of the Red Willow Womyn’s Society in Cowichan Valley holds hands with a child who was recently part of a removal interruption in Duncan, B.C.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Eleven days ago in a Winnipeg hospital, a man visiting his two-day-old great-niece saw police and social workers suddenly crowd the room. They were on orders to apprehend the infant due to allegations of her mother’s alcohol misuse, which the family denies. Horrified, the man began streaming the scene.

His decision to let Canada witness what his family saw – the video was seen 1.3 million times – prompted empathy and outrage. But in the West alone, three Indigenous babies enter care this way every day. In Manitoba, 90 per cent of the 11,143 children in care are Indigenous.

One small Vancouver Island community believes it can provide a different approach.

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In the Cowichan Valley, which runs from Nanaimo to near Victoria, a growing network of Indigenous mothers, advocates, midwives, doctors and elected officials is trying to keep Indigenous children in their homes and communities.

B.C. law stipulates that children being abused or neglected – that is, not being provided with proper food, clothing, supervision or medical care – must be removed from their home. When social workers come calling in Cowichan these days, parents reach out to the Red Willow Womyn’s Society. The Indigenous group advocates for parents and educates them of their rights.

The group is not challenging protection orders, founder Patricia Dawn says. “We’re suggesting creative measures to keep families together – especially moms and their babies.”

About 12 per cent of the region’s 84,000 people are Indigenous. Duncan, the regional hub, has one of B.C.’s highest urban child-poverty rates, at 30 per cent. The valley has twice the rate of children in care compared with the provincial average (7.7 children for every 1,000). At last count, 78 per cent of youth in care in the region were Indigenous.

On Jan. 4 last year, Ms. Dawn got a call from a Duncan mother in tears. Social workers with B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) were en route to hospital to apprehend her son, then just six hours old, over concerns with his father.

Because the woman has children in care, The Globe cannot legally reveal the identities of the woman, who is referred to for this story as Amy, or her son. Amy’s six older children have been removed twice due to abuse perpetrated by her former partners. In the first instance, her partner was physically violent with her; more recently, a second partner is alleged to have touched her daughter.

A woman The Globe is calling Amy, a member of the Pauquachin First Nation, has had seven children apprehended by welfare services.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

MLA Sonia Furstenau and North Cowichan Councillor Maeve Maguire met Ms. Dawn, a Métis-Cree mother of two, in hospital. Amy’s midwife, Kate Koyote, persuaded the hospital not to discharge Amy, and engineered a plan that satisfied her social worker: Amy agreed to live under 24-hour supervision. The women’s shelter, even with alarms to keep abusers out, lacked round-the-clock supervision, so Ms. Dawn agreed to bring Amy and her infant son to stay in the apartment she shares with her teenage son. The baby’s father agreed not to see Amy or their son.

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Ms. Furstenau has supported several mothers of newborns facing removal this way. Her office, where Ms. Maguire works as a constituency assistant, has become a de facto advocate’s office: In the past three months, 38 per cent of calls and e-mails related to child welfare.

“We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis,” the Green MLA says. “There are a range of choices available to us as individuals, as there were for elected officials in the residential-school era. I have chosen not to be a bystander, to do everything in my power to stop children from being removed from their mothers, their nations, their cultures.”

Indeed, two-thirds of the 6,500 children in care in British Columbia are First Nations, Inuit or Métis; and 45 per cent of the 185 babies under 31 days taken into care last year in the province were Indigenous. Nationally, Indigenous children under the age of 14 comprise 7.7 per cent of all children in the country, but represent 52 per cent of all children in foster care.

Child-protection workers are more than four times more likely to launch investigations into Indigenous families, and 12 times more likely to remove Indigenous children than other children, according to the the 2008 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect. The researchers also found that Indigenous families were eight times more likely to be investigated by protection workers for neglect specifically than non-Indigenous families.

Most Indigenous children are apprehended for neglect, which is “another word for poverty,” says Nico Trocmé, the study’s principal researcher.

Patricia Dawn of the Red Willow Womyn's Society is photographed with an eagle wing, which symbolizes asking the creator for protection.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

In the past 12 months, Red Willow has halted four of the eight attempted removals they intervened in, not including Amy’s, Ms. Dawn says. When the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) heard of Red Willow’s efforts, it opened spaces for single mothers in a local transitional housing project it runs. Its next project will be a family centre run in conjunction with Matraea, an organization focused on maternal health. The Indigenous-run facility for single mothers and their families will offer housing, on-site counselling for addictions and trauma, an in-house nurse practitioner and a full-time advocate to accompany women to visits with doctors, social workers, teachers and lawyers. With supports like these, Amy says she and her son would still be together.

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Amy, a 33-year-old member of the Pauquachin First Nation, has faced a lot of trauma. She is the daughter of residential-school survivors who abused alcohol. Her former partner, who became angry when he drank, used to beat her – once so badly it cost her a kidney. The MCFD took their children into care after that, cutting off his access to them. The former partner died by suicide shortly after.

Amy fought to have the children returned. But on Nov. 12, 2017, her six children, who range in age from 8 to 16, were again apprehended. Her new partner, the infant’s father, had unbeknownst to her allegedly touched her eldest daughter inappropriately. (The MCFD declined comment, but two of Amy’s medical practitioners confirmed the details of her case.)

By last March, Amy, who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, was juggling visits to 21 social agencies and three social workers, and spending hours on the bus every week to visit her older children in a village outside Duncan. Feeling overwhelmed, she reached out to the infant’s father for support, breaking the rules they had agreed to.

The ministry, once notified, immediately removed the infant, whom she was still nursing.

Red Willow has already racked up multiple successes, but Amy’s needs ultimately proved beyond what the grassroots community movement with limited resources was capable of providing at this point, Ms. Dawn says.

Amy is homeless now. Without children, she no longer qualifies for rent supports. She’ll never get her seven children back, she says a social worker told her recently. She sees them two hours a week, an arrangement it took months to negotiate. Her eight-year-old calls sobbing at night, begging her to come get her. Amy, who has been sober for more than a year, is fighting the temptation to return to drinking.

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She recently found out she was pregnant. She reluctantly had an abortion, she says, through tears.

“I knew that my child, as soon as he or she was born, would be taken from me. I cannot bear the thought of one more child being ripped from my arms. I cannot bear to die one more time.”

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