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child-welfare system

An Indigenous mother is waging a social media campaign to get two of her children back after they were taken from her by child-welfare authorities in Manitoba 10 years ago. The eldest has aged out of the system and lives in Manitoba but visits his mom regularly. The mom is photographed on Nov. 22, 2017, on the First Nation community in Ontario where she now lives.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

An Indigenous woman who had three of her children taken out of her care a decade ago by child-welfare workers has mounted a social media campaign aimed at getting the youngest two back, but has been warned she could face fines or jail time for sharing information about them online.

The woman, a member of Manitoba's Ebb and Flow First Nation currently living in Ontario's Serpent River First Nation, says she has never stopped trying to regain custody of her children since they were apprehended – and won't stop now. Her lawyer filed a court application last week seeking the children's return.

"The [child-welfare system] has stolen my children and kept them away from me for 10 years," the woman said in a Nov. 8 post on Twitter.

"I won't be silenced."

Read also: Manitoba vows to reduce number of Indigenous children in care

The province's child-welfare legislation prevents anyone with access to information about a child in care from sharing that information except with the province's children's advocate or a ministry official or by order of a court.

The dispute is playing out as Manitoba is overhauling its child-welfare system to address the growing number of children coming into care, the majority of whom are Indigenous. The number of children in care in Manitoba, roughly 11,000, is among the highest per capita in the country.

According to a backgrounder released by the Manitoba government last month, the number of children in care has increased by 85 per cent over the past 10 years and almost 90 per cent of those in care are Indigenous. Costs have tripled in the past 12 years. Children are coming in the system when they are young – 40 per cent were between birth and 2 when they first came into care – and more than half, 54 per cent, of permanent wards are under the age of 10.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced this month she would convene an emergency meeting early next year on Indigenous child welfare. Ms. Philpott compared the situation to Canada's residential school system, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and communities and left a legacy of pain.

The mother says she has been lobbying child authorities in Manitoba to reunite her family since 2007, when three of her children, all boys, were removed from her care.

According to her, the boys were taken after her oldest son was injured by her former spouse. She says she left him as soon as she found out about the injury to her child and has had nothing to do with the man since. Her oldest son has since aged out of government care.

The woman is attempting to regain custody of her two younger sons, aged 10 and 14. She recently intensified that campaign with an online appeal to raise funds to cover legal costs and Twitter posts that chronicled her attempts to have the children returned to her care.

Those posts caught the attention of child-welfare authorities in Manitoba, including West Region Child And Family Services, the First Nations group that handles child-welfare services for nine member First Nations, including Ebb and Flow.

In a Nov. 6 letter to the woman's lawyer, counsel for WRCFS cites the privacy requirements of Manitoba's child-welfare legislation and asks that "offending postings" be removed, saying the agency is "concerned about the impact social media postings can have on the children now or in the future."

The penalty for breaching confidentiality under Manitoba's Child and Family Services Act can be severe, the letter adds, "including a fine of up to $50,000 or imprisonment for a term of 24 months, or both."

The woman's Toronto-based lawyer, Katherine Hensel, said she plans to file a court action in Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench this week seeking to have the children returned to their mother.

Ms. Hensel said the woman's case is not unique.

"This is a completely ordinary, everyday case in many respects – in terms of what we characterize as systemic discrimination, arbitrary decision-making … decisions that are not safe for children or in the children's best interests," Ms. Hensel said.

"That is unfortunately, and particularly for Indigenous children, an everyday occurrence."

What makes the woman's case stand out is her refusal to quit, Ms. Hensel said.

"Parents whose children are taken under these circumstances – they fight and fight and fight, and lose and lose and lose – it is so devastating, and so traumatic that they often cease to be in a position to parent because of the trauma.

"But that hasn't happened to her," Ms. Hensel said.

Ms. Hensel said she would first seek to have guardianship orders for the boys overturned. She also plans to file for damages related to the case.

In her social media posts, the woman has insisted her home is safe and that she has passed home assessments by social workers, even posting a video of her house and furnishings.

In her posts, she describes a lack of communication by child-welfare authorities, saying she once travelled from her home in Ontario to Winnipeg for a scheduled visit with one of her children only to have it cancelled without advance notice.

In Manitoba, four authorities, including the Southern First Nations Network of Care, oversee agencies that provide child services through the province.

West Region Child and Family Services did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Southern First Nations Network of Care, the authority that oversees WRCFS, said in an e-mail that the case is protected under confidentiality provisions of provincial child legislation.

In a prepared statement, Manitoba's Department of Families said it cannot provide specific information about children in care, adding that, "under the Child and Family Services Act, child safety is paramount. Children are taken into care only when there are serious safety concerns that cannot be resolved without removing the child."

Agencies will work with parents or guardians to provide a safe environment for their children, "but there are occasions where this is not immediately possible," the statement said, adding that, "apprehensions are a last resort and the primary goal is to work with families toward safety so that children can flourish within the family network and community."

Manitoba's child-welfare system has been under scrutiny at least since the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old Indigenous girl who was beaten by her mother and mother's boyfriend after social workers decided the girl was safe and closed her file. A 2014 public inquiry found the system failed the girl at every turn – her death went undiscovered for nine months.

Last month, the Manitoba government announced a reform to end a "crisis" in the child-welfare system, unveiling four essential areas including "lifelong connections for children through reunification and permanence."

Ms. Hensel, meanwhile, says Manitoba's child-welfare system skews toward apprehending children rather than providing services that could help struggling families stay together.

A Commission of Inquiry headed by retired judge Ted Hughes into the death of Phoenix Sinclair raised similar concerns.

"Cross-Canada research shows that Aboriginal children are taken from their homes in far greater numbers, not because they are Aboriginal, but because they are living in far worse circumstances than other children," the 2014 report said. "They are poor because their parents are poor. They live in substandard housing; their parents are struggling with addictions; and they don't have the family and supports they need."

Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde says there is a gap in services and programs for Indigenous children on reserves that needs to be immediately addressed.

The Canadian Press

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