Note: Name of mother has been changed to protect her identity.
Kelly, a single mother of five, had her children taken away two years ago. She said if she had been given the proper support, it would have never come to that.
"It wasn't abuse or substance abuse. I went through a lot of stuff over really nothing," Kelly said.
The 27-year-old said she was suffering from postpartum depression, and that's why her children were apprehended.
According to the Child and Family Services Authority Act, there has to be suspected maltreatment in a home before a child is apprehended — whether that's physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or the child is in the presence of drug or alcohol abuse.
Cora Morgan, Manitoba's new First Nations family advocate, said she refuses to believe that has happened for all of the over 10,000 children currently in the province's child welfare system.
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Morgan said she believes there are things mentioned in the CFS act that aren't always being practised by caseworkers — like a full investigation to confirm the suspected maltreatment is actually happening.
"One of the other things that's also in the act that I know for certain isn't happening is preventative measures — where there's supports brought into families to help parents when there's trouble or perceived trouble," Morgan said.
Molly McCracken, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' (CCPA) Manitoba office, said for the numbers to turn around in Manitoba, social workers need to work from a different viewpoint.
"Let's differentiate between an urgent situation and one where, perhaps, if we wrap supports around the family and make sure that they have good housing and resources, we can prevent that kind of very dramatic and traumatic intervention, which is apprehension."
When Kelly's children were apprehended, she was battling post-partum depression. Her sister had also just died.
"I didn't know what grieving was," she said. "I was uneducated about what happens when you grieve and when you lose someone."
'It should be an extraordinary thing that the child is removed from their home and unfortunately it's a daily occurrence for aboriginal families.'
- Katherine Hensel, aboriginal lawyer
She said she was crying a lot and broke down at her children's school. Someone called CFS, and that night they came to her home and took her children away.
After that, she sunk further into depression.
"I was always sleeping. I didn't want to get out of bed. I never showered. I barely ate. My mom had to care for me. It was really bad."
Her three youngest children were placed in short-term foster homes, and her older two went to stay with their dads before moving into a group shelter. Kelly said Winnipeg's CLOUT (Community Led Organizations United Together) program ensured she made it to visitations in time, and helped her get back on her feet.
She started asking for help, went back to school and enrolled in a variety of parenting programs. Slowly, after nine months, her children were integrated back into her life.
"They shouldn't be taking kids away from their families without really trying to help them," Kelly said.
"I know it costs a lot of money for them to take kids and put them somewhere. They should actually focus more on families; to empower them and help them, and not just to come and take their kids over a phone call or what someone says."
Katherine Hensel, an aboriginal lawyer in Toronto, agrees with Kelly. But she said there's not just financial costs associated with placing children in care, but emotional and cultural costs.
"The system, as it's currently set up, has no problem spending money — thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars — on keeping children in foster care," Hensel said.
"But often [it] won't spend a dime on supporting children and families within their home and keeping the family together. It should be an extraordinary thing that the child is removed from their home and unfortunately it's a daily occurrence for aboriginal families."
Kelly's family has been back together for a year, but the experience is something the children still talk about and won't soon forget.
"It was hard at first because [the children] were hurt, too, and we had to do a lot of healing with them," said Kelly.
Political will needed
Through her research with CCPA, McCracken found that when aboriginal families are connected to their culture, and understand what's happening to them in a historical and economic context, they have the ability to improve their own situation.
"We know some of the root causes of interaction with the child welfare system are issues of poverty," she said.
"Personally, I don't agree with moving backward. What does it take to improve the system as it stands is what I'd like to see."
Morgan added there needs to be a "willingness from government to effect meaningful change."
"Not Band-Aid approaches, but really involve and engage our community in finding the answers to this issue."