The Current

'I felt like my heart was ripped out': Indigenous mother under 'birth alert' fears she will lose second child

January 25, 2018

A protest outside the Manitoba Legislature on Dec. 7, 2017. Almost 52 per cent of the children in care in Canada are Indigenous. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

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A 20-year-old woman is seven months pregnant and homeless. She is terrified that her unborn daughter will be taken away under the "birth alert" system.  19:27

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11,000 kids in care.

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That's just in Manitoba, where one woman is desperately trying to stop her unborn daughter from becoming a part of that statistic.

The 20-year-old woman, who we have agreed not to identify, had her son taken into care when she was 16. That set off a chain reaction, she said, that has put her unborn daughter at the same risk.

She is now seven months pregnant, homeless, and on a "birth alert" list — a system used by child welfare agencies to flag that a person's history raises questions about their ability to parent.

"I just fear that they're going to isolate me from my daughter," says the woman.

Four years ago, she was in school and living at home with her mother when Child and Family Services (CFS) came to their house and apprehended her son.

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A mother remembers the day Child and Family Services (CFS) came to her house to apprehend her son.  1:14

There were concerns about the boy's father, she said, who was in trouble with police at the time.

She also said that CFS had raised concerns about her parenting and wanted her to take courses, but "never offered to help me find the programming that I needed to get by."

"The worker that I had at the time — I am not sure what was wrong with that lady," he said. "She plainly said that I teased my son. Like I teased a four-month-old child. I don't know how you can tease a child. I guess that's just because it wasn't up to how she would parent."

She was not allowed to see her son for a week; the demoralizing effect of that separation sent her on a downward spiral.

"I felt like my heart was ripped out and stepped on," she said.

Her son remained in foster care for two-and-a-half years, during which she sank into depression and drug abuse.

'So if a person doesn't have a home, where do they bring the new baby home to?' - Sandie Stoker, Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network

Eventually, the child's grandmother won legal guardianship of him. But due to his mother's drug abuse, a condition of custody was that the child's mother leave the family home.

She has now been homeless for almost 11 months, couchsurfing in the homes of various friends.

She is no longer on drugs — she has submitted to drug tests — and said she got off them all by herself.

Knowing where to get help is an issue.

What is a birth alert?

The birth-alert system does not automatically mean a removal, according to Sandie Stoker, the executive director of Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network.

"The first step is to complete a safety assessment," she says. "If it's determined the child is not safe, then it's our responsibility to work with the parents and the family... and develop a plan which we would call a safety plan to try and ensure that child's safety to prevent them from coming into care."

A parent's historical involvement with welfare services is a factor, she said, especially if nothing changed for that family.

"But that doesn't mean that those risk factors can't be overcome."

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," she said. "Like I have been doing what I can to find housing, and to stay sober."

"It's not hard to stay sober but it's just the stress and everything. It just makes me makes me… it was so much easier just to be a drug addict, but I can't do that. I can't be that person anymore."

She has found support from local community groups.

"I have this place called AMC and they're really helping me with a lot of stuff; housing resources and programming and whatever else. They're a really big place for advocacy too.

"I honestly wish that they had that back when I was 16," she said. "This probably could have all been prevented."

She believes her Indigenous status contributes to her situation, and that the focus on problems leads to more problems, when the focus should be on finding solutions.

"If they would just come at me with an open mind and not be trying to base everything on my past, then we could work together and work past everything, so they can help me get to where I need to be," she said.

It's a challenge for families to trust us

"It is well known that here in Manitoba Indigenous people are over-represented in our system," said Sandie Stoker, the executive director of Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network.

She acknowledges that families can have a hard time trusting welfare services, but says things have progressed.

"We now have over 20 mandated First Nations agencies," Stoker said.

"We have Indigenous authorities here in Manitoba which oversee those agencies to ensure that we're doing their best to provide culturally appropriate service, and to help us to ensure that there is no systemic racism or discrimination occurring in our system."

MORE FROM THIS EPISODE

Stoker says there is no easy answer to why there are 11,000 children in care in Manitoba, but says several societal factors, such as poverty and drug abuse, are contributing factors.

She agrees that poverty in itself should not provoke an automatic intervention from welfare services.

"I can tell you that I would never authorize an apprehension… when poverty is the main reason, but poverty shows itself in many different ways like homelessness," she said.

"So if a person doesn't have a home, where do they bring the new baby home to?"

Listen to the full audio — which includes a report on Fearless R2W, a group working to help Indigenous parents and families — near the top of this page.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Suzanne Dufresne and Josh Bloch.