British Columbia·UNBROKEN

'I felt robbed': Indigenous mother says baby's apprehension was wrong

Emotional and psychological problems plagued her during pregnancy, but instead of getting help after her daughter was born, woman says she wasn't given a chance.

57% of newborns taken into foster care in B.C. are Indigenous

E.'s newborn baby was apprehended when she was two days old. Social workers were concerned she was a danger to her baby. (Angela Sterritt/CBC )

The parents want this story told. However, at the request of the parents, the CBC is not identifying the family by name. 

E. felt elated and exhausted. A day earlier, she'd given birth to a baby girl.

Her pregnancy and childbirth had been difficult, even turbulent. But as the 26-year-old Gitxsan woman recovered in her room at the B.C. Women's Hospital last July, she felt relief.

Yet her partner, J., the father of their newborn girl, was panicking. It wasn't just that E. was recovering from an emergency C-section and the baby was six weeks premature.

J. was worried because four social workers had just visited E. in her hospital room, following up on reports during her pregnancy she'd threatened to kill her unborn baby.

He was right to be worried. The next day social workers informed E.  they were seizing her newborn.

"I just cried, I hugged [J.] and we sat on the hospital bed crying," said E., in a recent interview at her home in New Westminster, B.C.

Advocates say the apprehension should never have happened.

Troubling reality

E.'s story highlights a troubling reality in British Columbia, where 57 per cent of apprehended newborns are Indigenous.

By contrast, Indigenous children comprise less than 10 per cent of the province's population.

Numerous studies have concluded one of the key factors is intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous people. This trauma has created higher levels of poor mental health, addictions and poverty.

In E.'s case, there were several incidents that led social workers to worry about her mental health and believe she was a danger to her baby.

However, a lawyer who fought to have the baby returned says social workers should have introduced alternative measures at the outset, including getting help from J.'s nearby extended family and other social supports.

"We had two parents that didn't have any violence on their record ... [with] no drug or alcohol issues, " said Sarah Rauch.

Cutting ties

Rauch also points to the denial of the baby's right to critical early breast feeding and bonding as a significant injustice in the case.

"No one considered what it would mean for the baby," she said, noting recent legal decisions make clear the law upholds the right of newborn babies to bond with their mothers. 

"With Indigenous children in particular, all too often the solution seems to be to cut that tie."

'Keeping children connected' a priority

The agency which apprehended the baby, the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, was unable to comment on the specifics of the case.

The agency has child protection authority from the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development. Spokesperson Meaghan Hume told CBC in an e-mail that "removal is a last resort," emphasizing its priority is to keep "children connected with their families, culture and community."

E.'s baby was eventually returned to her and J. 

But E. and J. want the details known because they feel the actions of social workers were wrong.

J. and his daughter after he and E. regained custody. The lawyers for J. and E. say more should have been done at the outset to allow the couple to keep their baby. (Courtesy E. and J.)

E.'s  story also reveals how trauma experienced by Indigenous people through colonization and residential schools can ripple through generations.

She says her mother's experiences at residential school affected her own ability to parent.

"They beat her culture out of her, ripped her identity away," she said. "They treated her unfairly ... that's how she treated me."

In response to years of calls for change, the provincial government announced amendments to B.C.'s aboriginal child welfare system in 2018, giving Indigenous communities more say in decisions. The new law aims  to keep Indigenous children out of foster care.

Rocky path

E. told CBC she feels strong now, but added it's hard to talk about the weeks leading up to the apprehension, or even her pregnancy.

She learned she was pregnant two days after Christmas in 2017.

She and J. lived in a one-bedroom rented condo in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. E. worked full time in a marijuana dispensary and J. worked in construction.

E. is soft spoken, but deliberate with her words.  During an interview,  E. played with her baby in a Jolly Jumper, making lion sounds, calling her a "little leo."

While pregnant, E. said the thought of motherhood overwhelmed her. (Anegla Sterritt/CBC)

Towards the end of her first trimester, E. said she called an abortion clinic to inquire about the deadline for legal termination of a pregnancy. Then, after a night of quarrelling with J. — at five months pregnant — she punched her stomach. 

After that she agreed to see a psychiatrist. And decided she wanted to keep her baby — no matter what.

But as the pregnancy progressed, E.'s mental health declined.  According to E. and social worker records obtained by CBC, her psychiatrist found she had undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, social anxiety and depression.

Four weeks before her daughter was born, and following another argument with J., E. texted her midwife, saying she wanted to kill the baby.

"I just wanted to get it out of me," she said. "I wanted an abortion or to give it up for adoption," she said.

'They didn't give us a chance'

The day before she gave birth, E. went to the  hospital for a meeting where medical professionals urged her to undergo the C-section. The baby was in breech position with a falling heart rate. E. was told her baby could die.  But E. felt trapped. She refused and left the hospital.

E. had very much wanted a natural birth, in line with traditional Gitxsan culture. 

Overnight, she reconsidered, and returned to undergo the operation. The next day social workers arrived in her room, asking questions.

E. told them she was struggling mentally and emotionally. Social workers noted she was feeling "delusional" and was "hallucinating." E. disputes that characterization, attributing her condition to the effect of drugs from the surgery.

The next day the social workers informed her they were seizing her baby. The preemie would stay in hospital, then be transferred to a foster home.

"They didn't give me a chance or either of us a chance to be parents," E. said.

'I couldn't be with her'

By now, E. was determined to keep her baby.  She wanted to bond and breast feed, but social workers only allowed her a two-hour visit each day.

"I felt robbed, I felt sabotaged that I couldn't do anything with her, I couldn't see her, I couldn't be with her," she said.

Still, she pumped her breast milk, and visited her baby every day.

Both E. and J., who are unmarried, hired lawyers to get their baby back.

Despite local family support on J.'s side, it wasn't until the baby was 17 days old that an agreement was reached to return the baby.

But there was a twist. E. and J. could only get full custody if the family agreed to move to Whitehorse. That's where J. had other extended family from the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. The Kwanlin Dun's social services were willing to provide ongoing support. 

E. and J. at Vancouver International Airport enroute to Whitehorse last summer. (Courtesy E. and J.)

E. was relieved, but she felt displaced in Yukon.

"We had to move our entire life and drop everything, just so that we could keep our child," E. said.

In the end, the move didn't work out — E. wasn't getting along with J.'s family and wanted to return to the Lower Mainland.

With the blessing of the Kwanlin Dun, the family moved to New Westminster, where all three now live together.

E. and J. were deeply affected by their baby's apprehension and worry child authorities could break up their family again.

But their daughter brings them hope.

"Having [my baby] as my light to guide me through it all, makes all the tears and pain worth it," said E. 

"She is honestly the best thing that has ever happened to me, I will fight for her always."

To hear more about this story, click on the audio below:

This story is part of a CBC Vancouver series examining the over-representation of Indigenous children in government care in British Columbia.