Year-long delays in child apprehension hearings devastate Indigenous families, chiefs tell court

The year-long wait for court hearings that parents can face after their children are seized by Child and Family Services is another way the justice system is failing First Nations, Manitoba chiefs argued in court Friday.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs granted intervener status at non-Indigenous family's hearing

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs argue delays in child protection hearings disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples. (CBC)

The year-long wait for court hearings that parents can face after their children are seized by child and family services is another way the justice system is failing First Nations, Manitoba chiefs argued in court Friday.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs took part in a case brought forward by a non-Indigenous couple challenging the 13-month wait between when their child was apprehended at birth in 2015 and the date of their official post-apprehension hearing, which is set to begin on Jan. 30.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs presented its concerns about delays in child protection hearings after it was granted intervener status in the case in December, arguing delays disproportionately affect First Nations families. 

Almost 90 per cent of children in care in Manitoba are Indigenous, although only 17 per cent of Manitobans are Indigenous.

Proceedings on Friday relate to a pair of decisions under appeal that ruled the child didn't need CFS protection in the first place and that the parents waited too long for their official hearing.

As an intervener, the AMC is arguing delays in post-apprehension hearings disproportionately hurt Indigenous kids and families, adding to the harm caused by the "devastating legacy of colonialism, residential schools and displacement of First Nations peoples."

Children raised outside culture

While parents wait for a post-apprehension hearing, children are often placed in non-Indigenous homes, resulting in kids being raised "outside of the culture, language and traditions of their families and communities," the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs wrote in its factum statement presented to court on Friday.

"The result of this 'ongoing cultural erosion' is assimilation," the factum states, pointing out the Public Health Agency of Canada has stated identity plays "a key role in healthy child development."

The experience can also leave apprehended kids poorly prepared to become parents, the factum argues.

The negative impact on Indigenous parents of apprehended children is "magnified and compounded by the history and ongoing impacts of colonialism, displacement and residential schools," the AMC argues.

Parents face feelings of shame and hopelessness following an apprehension, which are made worse by court delays and can contribute to suicide risk, the AMC says in the factum.

The apprehension of children also puts housing benefits at risk, meaning parents face poorer housing conditions during long waits as well as disrupted schedules that can affect their ability to work, the chiefs' association states.

"Delays in post-apprehension hearings make it more likely for many First Nations parents that losing a child means losing their home, while fighting to regain their child means losing their job," the factum reads.

Last December, Manitoba Chief Justice Glenn Joyal called current delays "intolerable" and announced upcoming changes to the province's court system that will shorten the length of time child protection matters take to get to court.