A two-year-old girl climbs into Michael Redhead Champagne's lap as he sits in the living room of a small home in Winnipeg's North End, where a Christmas tree stands decorated in one corner of the room. She asks him for help playing a video she wants to watch.
He's helping out because her mom — sitting on her couch with Champagne on one side and a worker from the domestic violence support organization Wahbung Abinoonjiiag on the other — is busy talking to a Child and Family Services assessment worker who is sitting in a chair across from her.
'We really just want to provide translation services, translating from CFS jargon into human language.' - Michael Redhead Champagne
She's trying to convince him that the little girl and her three-year-old brother shouldn't be taken from their home.
"I'm physically demonstrating to the CFS worker that I'm a safe adult for the kids and an emotional support for the mom," Champagne said.
The 21-year-old mother of two has known Champagne for years and asked him to sit in on the meeting. He says it illustrates the kind of work he tries to do with the group Fearless R2W, a loose network of parents and community members based in the St. John's and North Point Douglas neighbourhoods.
Champagne describes himself as a "helper" with the group.
"We really just want to provide translation services, translating from CFS jargon into human language," he said.
That same afternoon, people were gathering in front of the Legislative Building as part of a nationwide day of action calling for child welfare reform. Champagne had planned on attending the Bring Our Children Home rally, but he felt sitting in with the mom during her meeting would be a better way for him to support the movement.
The woman's meeting with CFS came after neighbours called police about a domestic violence incident involving her partner.
Besides helping keep an eye on the two-year-old during the meeting, Champagne also asked clarifying questions about which services were being provided to the family, and about how the system would help the mother complete the required programming.
At the end of the meeting, the worker from the All Nations Coordinated Response Network (ANCR) said he would not be recommending apprehension. Three years ago, though, the woman's son was taken from her when he was six months old.
'It's just a great support to know that someone will actually come with you to a meeting with CFS, because that's honestly a really scary experience.' - 21-year-old mother of two
"It was horrible when he was taken away," said the mother, whose name is being withheld to protect the privacy of her children.
The mother said she had her son when she was 17 years old, and CFS became concerned about verbal abuse by the father. It was almost a year before she got him back.
She says she appreciated having advocates with her during her meeting.
"It's just a great support to know that someone will actually come with you to a meeting with CFS, because that's honestly a really scary experience," said the mother.
"The worker said, when he came, that it was great to see support. Just them being here was them advocating because they came, they took time out of their day and sat in on a meeting with CFS."
Clearing up confusion
Fearless R2W — a name that references the postal code that covers the area stretching from North Point Douglas in the southeast, up to St. John's in the northwest — started in February 2015 as a means to provide education and sharing circles for families involved with CFS.
CFS has two main streams of services — family enhancement and child protection — and Champagne says parents were often confused about which stream they were involved in.
"That's a pretty specific question to have to ask and I think that parents that don't have extensive experience within the system wouldn't necessarily know to ask those questions in that way."
He says parents would initially think they were in the family enhancement stream, when in fact they were part of the child protection stream, which is more serious and more likely to lead to apprehension.
In addition to support and information sharing, the group acts as a bridge to more official supports, like the First Nations Family Advocate.
With about 20 volunteer members, Fearless R2W has a limited capacity to help people, but Champagne says he's hearing more and more about people doing the kind of work his group is doing, and he wants to see that continue.
"My wish is that a Fearless R2W-like group would pop up in every community where child welfare over-apprehension is a concern," he said.
Agencies, advocates working together
Sandra Stoker, executive director of ANCR, says she hadn't heard of Fearless R2W before, but knows Champagne and would welcome similar groups getting involved to support families.
"I think that that is welcomed by particularly our agency and should be welcomed by the system as a whole. Our child welfare system is somewhat complicated. It can be extremely intimidating," she said.
'My wish is that a Fearless R2W-like group would pop up in every community where child welfare over-apprehension is a concern.' - Michael Champagne of Fearless R2W
She said efforts like Champagne's are timely, because the child welfare system is in a process of truth and reconciliation.
With more than 10,000 children in care, Stoker says the goal is to reduce the number of kids in the system.
ANCR has had positive experiences with informal advocates, and has good relationships with official child advocates from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Southern Chiefs Organization, Stoker said. As long as the relationship is "non-adversarial," she says it's good for families to feel like they have someone looking out for their rights.
"We encourage workers not to be intimidated by that, not to feel like they're not going to be able to do their job and that any advocate with the family will actually help us reach our end goal."
At the end of the meeting Champagne attended with the 21-year-old mom he, the worker from Wahbung Abinoonjiiag and the mother all left with action items to complete.
"I think that was important because it shared the load from the mom so that she didn't have to do it by herself," Champagne said.
The mother says her recent experience with CFS left her feeling like the agency has changed since her first experience three years ago, and she says that's partly because of her advocates.
"It shows that I know my resources that are out there and that they probably won't end up being involved because of them just being here and me knowing my supports."