A baby was born in the Cowichan Valley in early January, setting off a wearingly familiar scene in the child's community. Social workers arrived five hours after the baby was delivered to notify the mother that they would be apprehending her newborn as soon as the pair was ready to be discharged from hospital.
Just days later, a similar story unfolded in another Vancouver Island community, when a three-day-old baby was taken from a Huu-ay-aht Nation mother because social workers concluded the infant was not safe in her care.
The Huu-ay-aht Nation, located about 100 kilometres west of Cowichan, took the case to the B.C. Supreme Court to defend that mother's right to nurse and bond with her baby, winning an interim order to allow increased access.
But in Cowichan, where the rate of child apprehensions is more than seven times higher than the provincial average, a group of women stepped in to form a protective circle around the newborn in their community, preventing social workers from taking the baby at all.
"There was a lot of movement in the community to say, 'not one more separation of mom and baby,'" a long-time Cowichan Valley midwife, Kate Koyote, said in an interview.
On the day the Cowichan Tribes baby was to be discharged, the hospital room filled with advocates for the mother and newborn. None of them can be named because of privacy rules that are meant to protect the identities of families involved in child-protection cases, but The Globe and Mail has spoken with several individuals close to the events.
The advocates were aware of the risks that social workers had identified, but they were able to persuade them to accept a detailed plan that would allow the baby to remain safely in the mother's care. The social workers and the prospective foster parent, who had arrived with an infant car seat to take the child away, left empty-handed while the mom and baby went to stay in a home together, where they are receiving support and supervision.
Ms. Koyote said that day was a turning point for her community. "We have made a breakthrough."
Across B.C., Indigenous communities have been pushing for the right to regain control over the welfare of their children. A central goal is to protect children without severing the parental bonds, and without their children losing their cultural connections.
In the Cowichan Valley, a broader coalition has developed. The local Cowichan Tribes is working with advocates including Ms. Koyote's midwifery practice, a women's advocacy centre, and the local MLA, to develop a community model for family support. Robert Morales, a Cowichan Tribes treaty negotiator, has been involved, bringing his years of experience as a family lawyer to the table. "Culturally, amongst the Coast Salish people, protection is not a foreign concept," he noted in an interview. But their child-protection model looks different from the B.C. government's – involving elders and extended family to help keep children safe within the community.
The Huu-ay-aht First Nation, based in a community in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, has developed its own model, and has spent $600,000 since last August on community-based family support services – without assistance from either the federal or provincial governments. They argue they were able to offer an array of support services for the mom and baby, and had lined up extended family homes to assist the mother and newborn at issue in the Supreme Court ruling.
But social workers in that case placed the baby with the baby's paternal grandmother – who is a member of a different Indigenous community – in a town hours away. That mother is now living in a hotel, away from home, to be closer to her baby. The Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) had issued a standard order that would allow her supervised visits with her baby for only a few hours a day, Monday to Friday. The court order increased access to allow the mom to establish a healthy nursing schedule.
When lawyers for MCFD went back to court last week to defend their actions, the Huu-ay-aht Nation's leadership declared a public health emergency: Despite all their community planning and supports, the number of their children who have been seized by child protection workers to be placed in government care is on the rise. "We have a plan that can bring the number of children in care to zero, but we have not received support from either the provincial or federal governments," Chief Councilor Robert Dennis said in a statement.
"This case is a clear example of everything that is wrong." His community wants the provincial and federal officials to provide Huu-ay-aht "with immediate funding, co-operation and jurisdiction to address this emergency."
The Cowichan Tribes mother would have been in the same situation as the Huu-ay-aht mom, with only a few hours a day, five days a week, to nurse and connect. Instead, the Cowichan mother and her baby have remained together, allowing them to form that crucial bond that occurs at birth.
In her 15 years as a midwife in the community, Ms. Koyote has advocated to keep newborns with their mothers even when they need support. "When you remove a child at birth, you are tearing the fabric of the foundation of that relationship," she said. "The evidence is overwhelming, when we separate moms and babies, we are creating long-term problems for both of them."
She said the children who are apprehended by the ministry struggle with poverty, lack of housing, addictions or domestic violence. "But they are just like you and me. They love their babies … I have seen so many families who are desperate to keep their babies."
Indigenous children are grossly overrepresented in government care across the country. Indigenous children under the age of 14 comprise 7.7 per cent of all children in Canada but represent more than half of all children in foster care.
This child-protection model of apprehension has been described by the federal Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott, as a "humanitarian crisis." The B.C. Minister for Children and Family Development, Katrine Conroy, has described the province's child-protection system as a failure.
Despite those admissions, change has been frustratingly slow.
Ms. Koyote's midwifery practice, Matraea, is working in partnership with the Red Willow Womyn's Family Society in Duncan to develop a proposal for services that would create a "no apprehension" zone, where families involved with the MCFD would be allowed a safe place for visits without fear of having their children taken, and to access counselling, housing and parenting skills training. The idea is not to challenge the ministry's assessment that a child is in need of protection, but offering a different way to provide that protection.
Sonia Furstenau is the Green MLA for the Cowichan Valley, and has been working to support this community uprising against an entrenched system.
In the House on Thursday, she rose in Question Period to ask why the minister responsible for MCFD, Ms. Conroy, has not been able to change the system that the NDP, while in opposition, fiercely criticized. "The minister is no longer in opposition; she's in charge. In the last seven months, she could have issued ministerial directives. She could have tabled legislation before now, introduced new policies or, at the very least, issued a letter to every staff member in her ministry, detailing her expectations on how things would be different."
Ms. Conroy responded that she intends to introduce legislation during the current session that will allow ministry officials to engage in direct communication with Indigenous communities to help develop individual child-protection plans – something that is currently prohibited in the Child, Family and Community Service Act.
"We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we are changing the system," she told the House.
In Cowichan, the mom and her baby have been living together in a home with supervision. Ms. Koyote said the next step in such a case would be to allow a mother to return to her home – and the community has the resources in place that would provide wrap-around support to address any protection concerns.
"These babies need to be with their mothers. The culture has to change," Ms. Koyote said.
She said the progress with this one case provides reason for optimism. Local officials with the ministry have shown a willingness to engage with the community about alternative solutions to their protection concerns. "At this point, we have had engagement that we have never had before," she said.
"We are in uncharted territory."