The Manitoba government wants more traditional methods of care put in place for indigenous foster children.

Proposed changes to the Child and Family Services Act would also see the province hand off more responsibility to indigenous communities, allowing troubled children to be placed with other relatives or families in the same community.

The proposed legislation would underscore the importance of indigenous communities determining and carrying out care of their children, according to traditional customs, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said, adding the province will consult with indigenous communities to determine what customary care would look like for each of them.

Working with CFS agencies, the individual communities would be directly involved in developing care plans, supports and services. Parents would also maintain guardianship of their children in a customary care arrangement.

Under the proposed legislation:

  • There would be an increased focus on prevention and supporting families to prevent children from coming into the care of CFS.
  • Indigenous communities, in collaboration with CFS agencies, would be directly involved in developing care plans, in arranging and planning supports and services for children and families.
  • Parents would maintain guardianship of their children in customary care arrangements.
  • There would be an understanding that family healing takes time.
  • There would be collaborative planning for healing, family reunification and permanency opportunities for CFS-involved families.

The plan was first promised in last month's throne speech, and is in response to inquiry recommendations that have criticized the high number of aboriginal children in foster care.

Irvin-Ross also said there will be an increased focus on helping families before their children become at risk of apprehension.

"These proposed legislative changes would support an increased number of culturally appropriate caregivers in Manitoba and may reduce the number of indigenous children in care," she said.

"We have heard from indigenous leadership that children are the collective responsibility of the community and look forward to working with them to develop customary care models that reflect these values." 

'It's a great support,' says Winnipeg mom

The proposed changes are welcomed by Angeline Spence, a Winnipeg mother who took part in a customary care program with her children more than a decade ago.

Spence said she grew up in CFS care and became pregnant when she was 17 years old, and the group home where she was placed gave her the opportunity to bring in extended family members and resources to support her as a parent.

CFS at Thunderbird House

Proposed changes to the Child and Family Services Act would see Manitoba hand more responsibility to indigenous communities, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said at an announcement at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg on Wednesday. (Meagan Fiddler/CBC)

Her older child would have had a much different life without the customary care program, Spence said.

"It's a great support because my daughter is really close with her grandmother and close with her cousins, second cousins and aunties, and it's just like she's growing up with them," she said.

Spence said was apprehended from her father when she was young, but she believes she would have benefited from customary care back then.

"He was 26 years sober but he was also a commercial fisherman, so there was no way of him taking care of us," she said of her father.

"But if the social worker knew how healthy he was and if she branched out to other people in the family, then maybe she would've realized at a sooner age [rather] than isolating me and my family from each other."

At the same time, she said customary care has given her the skills to reconnect with her father and her siblings.

These days, Spence works at the group home where she lived growing up.

With files from The Canadian Press