Kitchener-Waterloo

'Circle of support' formed to help Indigenous mother reunite with children

A group of people formed a 'circle of support' in order for an Indigenous mother to to regain access to her children in foster care.

Seven people in Waterloo Region proposed to support a Mi'kmaq mother in her legal battle for child custody

A photo of the mother's hands, along with her children's, at one of her weekly access visits. (Submitted by Jennifer )

A group of people in Waterloo Region has formed a "circle of support" for an Indigenous woman to win back legal custody of her children. They believe by providing her with the resources she needs, they will facilitate a "creative" way for her to reunite with her family. 

"It is, in a way, creative, because it's not a solution that's often used by the systems, such as the child welfare system," said Wendy Newbery, an independent facilitator with Bridges to Belonging and member of the circle. 

Due to a publication ban, the CBC is unable to identify the mother by her real name and therefore has provided her with the pseudonym Jennifer. 

When I got the decision, I had about a 5-to-10 minute emotional breakdown- Jennifer
Wendy Newbery is an independent facilitator at Bridges to Belonging, based in Waterloo region. She says Jennifer's circle of support contains "an eclectic group of people." (Submitted by Wendy Newbery)

Jennifer, who said she comes from the Qalipu First Nation Band in Newfoundland, is appealing a decision made by the Ontario Court of Justice, ruling her three children be permanently placed in the Canadian foster system last month. She believes her children were unjustly apprehended. 

"When I got the decision, I had about a 5-to-10 minute emotional breakdown," she told CBC News. 

"After that, I just went into fierce mama-bear mode and I'm just moving forward with everything because my kids are better off with me, than ... where they are," she said.   

Long line of court battles 

It's been a long series of court appearances, legal proceedings and bureaucratic paper work for Jennifer. She said her children were apprehended in 2013, when she originally called Family and Children Services of the Waterloo Region (FACS) because she needed support with house work. 

"I was a single mom and my three-year-old had bowel issues so it was kind of tricky on potty-training," she said.

"We were going to pediatricians. He was constipated to the point where he didn't realize he was going and because of all the behavioural issues... the house kind of got neglected."

Later on, Jennifer said the agency temporary apprehended her children because it found her house to be "unsanitary." 

"It wasn't that bad," she told CBC News. "It was messy because I was a single mom." 

'It was not a parenting assessment' 

Four months later, a parenting capacity assessment was ordered and according to Jennifer, the test didn't adequately assess her ability to parent. 

"It was more of an IQ [test] - they wanted me to spell words, to read certain sentences" she told CBC News. "Honestly in my opinion, it was not a parenting assessment."

They wanted me to spell words, to read certain sentences- Jennifer

Jennifer said a doctor came to one of her supervised visits to evaluate her for an hour and a half. 

"At that time, I bought chicken nuggets and french fries for dinner and he put down that we didn't use utensils," she said. 

"It's chicken nuggets and fries, I didn't think we needed utensils for that."

She said the psychologist stated that she prioritizes her needs before the needs of her children's, and that she is ill-equipped to parent. 

"That's what they're basing it on till this day still," she explained to CBC News.  

Karen Spencer is the executive director of Family and Children's Services of the Waterloo Region (Peggy Lam)
FACS refused to comment on any specifics of the case to maintain confidentiality and respect the publication ban. But in an interview with CBC News, Karen Spencer, the executive director of Family and Children's Services (FACS) of Waterloo Region, said parenting capacity assessments are ordered by the court and conducted by registered psychologists.  

"That psychologist who is doing this assessment would also have to meet requirements of the court to be deemed an expert, to be able to do this type of assessment," she said. 

"It is a fairly rigorous assessment where the psychologist would review our records, would speak to our staff, would speak to our parents, would speak to the children, and often would speak to other agencies who are involved with the children," said Spencer. 

A 'creative' proposal 

Jennifer's "circle of support, which consists of seven people, have been meeting at Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo to "check-in" with her weekly since April last year. 

'It is an organic community kind of support' - Wendy Newbery

The members supervise visits with her children and help her with legal meetings. 

"It is an organic community kind of support," Newbery said. 

Newbery said members of the circle were moved and attracted by Jennifer's "story and determination," so they offered a proposal to the courts, saying they would support the reunification of her family. 

"We have a group of seven community members who have each agreed to check-in with Jennifer daily, if her children are returned to her," she said. 

Doug Hatlem is a co-pastor at Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo. (Submitted by Doug Hatlem )
Another member of the circle is Doug Hatlem, a co-pastor at the church. He said there's been a tradition of hosting "circles" among Indigenous groups and the Mennonite Central Committee. 

"The circles of support and accountability...have meant to walk with people until they die, sometimes for decades. We have that type of experience around that circle here," he said. 

Hatlem called Jennifer an "excellent" mother and said she didn't deserve to have her children apprehended. 

"There's been an injustice done. She reached out for help," he said. 

"A good community, a good nation would've given her the help she needed so she'll be able to keep her kids, rather than immediately removing them."

Hatlem said the circle will support Jennifer for as long as she needs

"Till the children are grown, or even more if needed," said Hatlem. 

Newbery said circle members are equipped with "a wonderful blend of skills and ability," including specialty in early childhood education and Indigenous knowledge.  

"It's quite an eclectic group of resource people," said Newbery. 

"Knowing that she can speak to anyone in the circle about her concerns, knowing we support her voice, has probably helped her to feel much more grounded." 

Cultural connection 

Brent Balmer is a lawyer representing Jennifer. He said he can't comment on the specific details of this case because of the publication ban. 

But he said, a "community," such as a circle of support, can help an individual and the Children's Aid Society negotiate a plan that benefits all parties, even if that plan is limited by the "blunt instrument of the court."

There's a history of people being cut off from their community and the support that the community can provide- Brent Balmer

"In particular, in the Aboriginal context, if they can get some support from their community which is culturally appropriate.. then the hope is that the parties would be able to work together and come up with a plan so that their children can be safe and be connected with their community," he said. "Ideally that's what happens." 

Balmer said it's important for the Children's Aid Society to "be flexible" in "these types of situations." 

"People get in trouble because they're disconnected, they don't have supports. They don't have people they can turn to," he said.

"In the Aboriginal community that's a concern because there's a history of people being cut off from their community and the support that the community can provide," said Balmer. 

The idea of the circle of support was first proposed to by an Indigenous senior, who Jennifer met at Healing of the Seven Generations. 

Appealing the ruling

Jennifer said she's appealing the court decision and filed her appeal papers last month. 

"I'm appealing the Crown ward decision, there's no question about that," she said. "Even my youngest... he says she wants to come home with me." 

Spencer, from FACS, said all parents have the right to an appeal. 

"It's really unfortunate that there are times when we can't agree on what the outcome should be for children. Having said that, we always strive to work co-operatively with parents," she said. 

"First and foremost, that's what we always want to do." 

About the Author

Peggy Lam

Reporter

Peggy is a reporter based in Winnipeg. She has worked for the CBC in Vancouver, Toronto, St. John's, Kitchener-Waterloo and Edmonton. Got a story idea? Email her at peggy.lam@cbc.ca or tweet her @peggylam_