Cree mother alleges bias in child apprehension case
Ministry says workers are trained in cultural sensitivity
A woman whose children were apprehended by the province in March says she was the victim of racial and religious bias.
The woman has since regained custody of her three children – ages eight, five, and a baby – under a supervision order, but she and her lawyer say the separation shouldn't have happened.
The 33-year-old mother, who can't be identified in order to protect the identities of her children, was staying in a central Edmonton domestic violence shelter when she said she had an anxiety attack, and went outside to practice Cree rituals to help calm herself.
The woman, who identifies as Cree and African, said she and her children arrived at the shelter in early March. She was fleeing a situation in her rural community, and had hoped to start over in the city. But soon she came into conflict with another shelter resident — a woman from her home community — and said relations turned sour with shelter staff.
The mother said that on March 22 she went outside the shelter and was making offerings of tobacco and food, and praying. She had her baby with her in a carrier and covered it with a blanket. She said she was confronted by workers at the shelter, who called Children and Family Services to attend.
A portion of a Children's Services report prepared for court and shared with CBC News alleged the mother was talking about evil spirits, and had covered her baby's face, obstructing his airway.
The workers alleged she was speaking in rhyme and also made owl noises, but also said that she was aware of her children's needs and was worried about them as the workers prepared to take them — concerned that the older kids weren't dressed warmly enough, and that she hadn't pumped enough milk for the baby she was breastfeeding.
But in an interview with CBC, the mother said that while she was experiencing an anxiety attack, she told the workers and police officers who were called that she did not believe she needed to be hospitalized. When the police arrived, she said, she felt like she was being judged, and she didn't fully understand what was happening.
"I was more concerned about my children's safety. So that's why I went with them and I was co-operative," she said.
She was admitted to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for psychiatric care under the Mental Health Act, but was discharged four days later. According to the Children's Services report, upon admission doctors explored several possible mental health diagnoses for the woman.
While she was hospitalized, she said her two older children were placed in foster care, and her baby was placed with her sister.
What the court heard
Her lawyer, Brian Fish, said he wonders if seeking to have her hospitalized was a way around not having any other grounds for apprehending the children, and said it seemed like a "trick."
"To me, that's an abuse of process," he said. "So it's the abuse of process that first got me really a little disturbed by the way the department was acting."
During an initial court hearing to determine if the children would remain in care ahead of a trial, Judge Geoffrey Ho found there was credible and trustworthy evidence related to the mother's mental health and drug use that required ongoing intervention for the children, according to court transcripts.
The judge cited the mother's unwillingness to take an anti-psychotic medication that had been prescribed to her.
"Possibly, there's credible evidence that she is using illicit drugs at the present time," he said.
In an interview, Fish said his client was never drug tested while in hospital.
He argued there was no evidence of drug use, other than the written observations of a doctor who treated her, who noted that the mother's behaviour could have been related to crystal meth use.
The excerpt of the Children's Services report stated that during intake at the hospital, doctors proposed various mental health diagnoses to explain the woman's behaviour, in addition to possible drug use, though they noted that the mother denied using illicit drugs.
The report stated that after four days, a psychiatrist determined a prolonged stay in hospital wouldn't be helpful and said the fact that the woman's behaviour had stabilized may have been related to her body clearing itself after illicit drug use.
A later assessment by a different psychiatrist found that while the woman was isolated and without many supports, a family reunification was achievable and should be expedited.
In an interview, the mother acknowledged she previously struggled with drug use, but said she has since sought treatment and isn't using anymore.
She said she believes assumptions were made about her because of her ethnicity, both when she was accused of behaving erratically while performing rituals and later when it was believed she may have been using drugs. She said it made her feel as though she is a member of a "class of damaged goods."
"I was being pushed aside and that I won't overcome any of it. And that I'm just going to have to take it and accept it. That's what it felt like to me," she said.
Children's Services workers are trained in culturally sensitive practices and would rely on people from the family's spiritual and cultural community for guidance with anything a worker may not be familiar with, Brock Harrison, chief of staff to Alberta's minister of children's services, said in an email.
"This includes connection to religious leaders, multicultural health brokers and other community agencies and supports from that particular faith or culture," he said.
"Also, assessing the mental health conditions of a parent is outside of the scope of the role of a caseworker. The [children's services] worker's assessment is only about safety and risk of future harm to the children."
He said he cannot disclose details about the case because of privacy laws.
Harrison said the ministry does not track data on how often the parents of apprehended children are hospitalized for mental health concerns. He said in every case, efforts are made to place the children with family or alternate caregivers before an apprehension takes place.
In this case, the two older children were with separate foster parents and the baby was placed with the mother's sister.
The woman said those months were hard, and when she would see the kids on Facetime they would talk about each other, missing each other.
Five months later, in late July, the mother and Children's Services came to an agreement to return her baby under a supervision order. Her two older children were also returned through a similar agreement in early August.
The woman's experience mirrors many stories that University of Alberta assistant professor Hadley Friedland has heard from other Indigenous parents.
Friedland is co-lead of the Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge, a partnership between the U of A's faculties of law and native studies with a mandate to assist Indigenous communities working through governance and legal issues.
She said that while she doesn't know all the details of this specific case, there are tools available that could help keep families together and prevent unnecessary separation of parents and children from happening.
"Too often women who are victimized in domestic violence situations end up in a situation where that distress and reaction can be pathologized like this," she said. "So putting in supports and creating some safety around this family and some supervision could have prevented this, possibly."
Friedland said there are programs that allow for this, such as the "family preservation" workers in Edmonton, who do intensive work with parents going through challenging situations. But she said more could be done given the amount of power that the province has that can lead to long-term separation of families.
"We need better checks and balances, and we need more accountability," she said.