Note: Names of the family members and foster mother have been changed to protect identities.
Tacked to the bulletin board above Claudette Okemow's desk is a handwritten card. On the outside, an orange flower; inside, a brief message of gratitude and the outline of a tiny hand.
"It's never-ending, the thank you," said Okemow, a family group conference worker with CLOUT — or Community Led Organizations United Together — an aboriginal-based child welfare program in Winnipeg.
"The feeling you have … you made a change in somebody's life. It's success."
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Okemow attributes that success to the model CLOUT works from. Its employees work one-on-one with the foster parents, birth parents and Child and Family Services case workers to build an individualized case plan for each family and ensure everyone is taking the right steps to reach reunification.
Okemow's thank-you card is from a mother who went through the program. Her son was apprehended by Child and Family Services at just two months old.
He was still breastfeeding at the time, and CLOUT made sure the mother's breast milk was dropped off at the infant's foster home every day until they were reunited.
Her story is just one example of what separates CLOUT from the standard, mandated agencies.
The CLOUT program began over 10 years ago as part of the community-mandated Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg.
Families are brought into CLOUT on a referral basis. If a family is aboriginal and shows good potential for reunification, the children will be placed in a CLOUT foster home with aboriginal foster parents. Birth and foster parents are connected with a family group conference worker, like Okemow.
It's a small agency, with just eight homes housing 22 beds. It's also short-term. Children only stay in the foster homes — at the very most — up to 18 months, before they are reunited with their families. And it takes in sibling groups, with children up to the age of eight.
CLOUT by the numbers
- 70 per cent reunification rate in last three years, reports CLOUT.
- 40 families reunited in 2014.
- 5 calls per month from birth parents asking to be put in the waiting list for their children to go into CLOUT foster homes.
Sue Mozdzen, the program's co-ordinator, has been working in the foster care system for over 20 years. She said CLOUT is the closest thing to actually putting the birth parents and the children in the same foster home.
Reunification always goal
Erin's daughter, Sage, was just a year old when she was apprehended by CFS last summer and placed in a CLOUT foster home.
"For her to go into care was probably in her best interest and in my best interest at that time — as much as it hurt me everyday," the 23-year-old mother said.
Erin, who spent her entire childhood in Ma Mawi's long-term foster program Ozosunon, was battling addiction at the time Sage was taken.
Over the course of nine months, Erin worked through the case plan CFS and her family group conference worker had built for her, went through treatment, completed parenting workshops and built a relationship with her daughter's foster mom, Cathy.
They met a few days after Sage was apprehended and had a conversation over a meal at McDonalds. Cathy said Erin was worried for her daughter — like every mother would be — and concerned with who was looking after the toddler and whether she was loved.
"I knew that after speaking with her, my daughter was in a good placement," Erin said.
"In the beginning, I didn't know and that was stressful, and I was just … wanting to know because my experience in care and all that."
'I know that I'm not alone as a single parent. When I need help, they will always be there, too.'- Erin, birth mom
Erin started with supervised visits and eventually worked her way up to taking her daughter for sleepovers, then weekends, and finally back home.
"I'm happy that Sage is home with her mommy, because that's the way it should be, right?" Cathy said.
Erin and her daughter have been back together since April 30 — coincidentally, that's Sage's second birthday. The young mother is clean and is expecting another daughter in August.
"I've learned from my mistakes and I learned a lot through the CLOUT program," she said. "I know that I'm not alone as a single parent. When I need help, they will always be there, too."
Opportunity for ongoing relationship
Erin's relationship with Cathy is key.
"It's gonna keep going, that relationship with her and Sage and myself as well. That's going to be Sage's auntie."
Michelle Berard is another foster mom in the program.
In her two years with CLOUT, she's fostered seven children. She maintains her relationship with the children if that's something the biological family wants.
But her priority, she said, is to empower the parents and give them the support they need to be a family again.
"If I'm able to give a little bit of myself to help other moms figure out what they want and what they need to be a successful parent, then I want to do that," she said.
Values key to success
CLOUT employees say the program works because of the trust Ma Mawi has built up with the city's aboriginal community over the past 30 years.
Cory Gregorashuk, a resource worker with CLOUT, said the program isn't something that can just be replicated.
"It takes working from a certain perspective and allowing for creativity, and allowing for community involvement, and allowing for value-based work," she said.
"Without those things, it's just stuff on a piece of paper that sounds really great in theory."
From the card proudly displayed in Claudette Okemow's office, to little girl calling her foster mom "auntie," the program is a beacon of light in Canada's dire child welfare situation.
"There is a ton of people who are successful in getting their children back," Mozdzen said.
"They might be living with FASD, they might be living with having criminal involvement in the past, but they're parenting their children, they're contributing to our community, and they're doing it."