A First Nations mother is facing possible legal action from a child and family services agency in Manitoba after starting a social media campaign in an effort to regain custody of her children.
The woman began the campaign in October to raise awareness about her struggle with CFS since losing her children a decade ago. She obtained legal counsel and warned CFS she would take legal action to get her children back should they not be returned, immediately.
In response, the agency sent a letter to the woman's lawyers on Nov. 6 advising the mother to remove the names of her children in care from social media posts, or face potential legal action.
It's against Manitoba's CFS Act to publicly identify children who are involved in proceedings under the act. That's punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 for an individual, or up to two years jail time, or both.
The woman responded via Twitter that she "won't be silenced."
Her social media posts have been shared hundreds of times via Twitter and Facebook and an initiative to raise funds for her legal costs has so far raised $7,590.
Taken in 2007
In order not to identify the woman's children, CBC News is not identifying the 34-year-old mother.
The mother said that her children were placed in the system in 2007, when her ex-boyfriend was charged with assaulting one of her three sons. She was breastfeeding her youngest at the time when he was taken from her arms, she said.
She left the boyfriend immediately, she said, and did everything she could to get her children back. Months became years.
She now lives in Serpent River First Nation, Ont., with her husband and eight-year-old daughter.
"I've never given up," she said.
"I have done absolutely everything within the system to get my children back and it hasn't worked... My boys repeatedly say that they want to come home.
"The CFS agency and the Manitoba advocates have failed my children and my family."
Her oldest son is now 18 and is no longer in care. When he was 15, he took a bus on his own accord and showed up on her doorstep. CFS allowed him to stay with his mother.
Her other two children, ages 14 and 10, are still in foster homes in the Winnipeg area.
Her lawyers sent a letter in early October to Manitoba's minister of Families and the executive director of West Region Child and Family Services in Rolling River First Nation, saying if the woman's children were not returned they would take action under the CFS Act.
Planning to sue
Now, the woman is raising funds via a social media campaign to take the Province of Manitoba to court.
"I'm filing a lawsuit against Manitoba for failing to return my boys to my home, which Manitoba CFS itself has called a good home," she said.
"I'm seeking damages for the harm done to my children and my family. I don't care about the money, but this is going to send a message to Manitoba that the child welfare system is prevailing upon First Nations and Métis families and it has to stop."
The woman's counsel, Toronto-based First Nations lawyer Katherine Hensel, said she's been following the mother's plight for years.
However, this is not an extraordinary case, said Hensel.
"There's a culture within child welfare, particularly with respect to Indigenous children, that sadly assumes that child welfare intervention is necessary and benefits Indigenous children," said Hensel.
"The timeline clearly at this point has been unacceptably long and it's caused the family and the children to suffer immeasurably with likely lifelong consequences for all of them."
This past summer, the mother was able to spend time with her sons in Serpent River. She said she was told by CFS that her sons would soon be returned to her care and she began preparing to welcome them home.
The CFS agency said it is unable to comment on the case due to privacy laws.
Talks about reunification
A set of emails forwarded by Hensel to CBC News dated July 2017 states that CFS was not in opposition to discussing reunification with the mother. The email exchange is between Ontario's office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth and a supervisor with West Region Child and Family Services.
But the process slowed down when a CFS worker reported things were moving too quickly and causing the boys stress.
"You can imagine that these two boys were in the comfort of their foster homes settled and bonded and to be surprised at an initial family visit arranged with [redacted] whom they had not seen in years, to be told by [redacted] that they're coming home. Both the boys were shocked and frightened about their futures," wrote the supervisor.
The supervisor then wrote that one of the boys was feeling "confused and scared" about possible reunification and suggested therapy. The supervisor then offered flights and accommodations for the mother to visit her sons to form stronger bonds.
The Ontario Child Advocate representative responded, advising that he had spoken with the boys and heard statements contrary to the CFS supervisor's account. The advocate suggested an expedited family reunification plan to return the boys by September. He added it was in the children's best interest.
Soon after, the mother retained a lawyer to help get her children returned as soon as possible. She then started sharing her story on social media and launched the Go Fund Me campaign to pay for the legal costs.
In the meantime, the mother said she incorporates cultural teachings to help her cope.
"Without my culture I don't feel like I would be able to survive," she said.
Letters of support
The First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said CFS is putting up roadblocks to delay the return of the woman's children.
"She's never been given the chance," said Cora Morgan. "She's done everything that she can do and there's no concerns for protection."
Morgan added that the AMC will continue to support the mother. Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day and Anishnabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee have also sent letters of support.
More than 11,000 children are currently within the child welfare system in Manitoba and 90 per cent of them are Indigenous.
The most recent Stats Canada data reported that as of 2011, Indigenous children accounted for 49.1 per cent of all children in foster care in Canada.