Inside Manitoba's child protection court, where families learn their fate in 10 minutes

An investigation into child protection court proceedings and documents shows the day-to-day realities of the child welfare system move at a procedural, brisk pace. What isn’t always shown: why these kids were taken into care to begin with.

Once CFS is involved, families go to child protection court to determine next steps

Child protection matters are closed to the public in court, but media are allowed inside. CBC attended some matters and reviewed documents to gain a better understanding of how the child welfare system functions. (Ryan Cheale/CBC)

On any given Monday morning on the fourth floor of the Winnipeg Law Courts, parents are shuffled in and out of a small courtroom to learn the fate of their family unit.

Outside, the rows of green chairs are filled with people waiting their turn.

It is an uncomfortable place to be. It's not uncommon to walk by and witness someone engaged in a heated conversation with their lawyer, family members, or case worker.

Most people enter the courtroom wearing jeans and T-shirts, a contrast to the suits and office attire usually seen in the Winnipeg Law Courts.

One woman wears red sweatpants and a matching hoodie, her dark brown and blond hair held up in a messy ponytail.

Inside the small courtroom, Robert (not his real name) sits with his girlfriend. He's in court to find out what Child and Family Services has planned for his one-year-old son, who was taken into care when he was just two days old.

(The Child and Family Services Act prohibits CBC from identifying anyone involved in child protection matters, but for clarity, aliases are used in this piece.)

The woman with Robert, whom he identifies as his girlfriend, is asked to leave, in case the matter ends up going to trial.

An apprehension removes children from their world — their peers, family, school, neighbourhood, and home.… A delay in the production and service of particulars is intolerable.- From a decision in a 2016 court case

The agency is asking that the child be taken into care permanently, the court hears. A social worker tells the court the plan is to allow the father monthly visits with his child. Robert shakes his head.

His lawyer says Robert has been visiting the child weekly up until then.

"He wants some assurance that the visits can continue as they are," the lawyer says.

The social worker says that could likely be arranged.

The order is granted, and another family is ushered in.

The weighty question of what will happen to a one-year-old child is answered in about 10 minutes. During those 10 minutes, it's not made clear what prompted the agency to apprehend the child in the first place.

This is child protection court in Manitoba.

Highest per capita rate of children in care

The court is essentially where families learn their fate once CFS gets involved, and what they need to do to get their kids back. 

When a child is taken into care, families, their lawyers, and CFS agencies have to be in court within four days before a master, which is similar to a judge. That's the law in Manitoba. 

Agencies also have to provide updates on case plans and what kind of protection order they're seeking. The agencies might be asking to place a child with a foster family for a few months or permanently, depending on the situation. 

The province has the highest per capita rate of children in care in Canada and apprehends about one newborn a day. Almost 90 per cent of children in care in 2018 were Indigenous.

In recent years, several tragic cases have made headlines in Manitoba, such as the death of Vanatasia Unique Emerald Green, a newborn who died in March while living in a Winnipeg foster home. These cases have placed the child welfare system under scrutiny and prompted calls for change.

But the day-to-day realities of the child welfare system are much more procedural, moving at a brisk pace. On the Monday morning CBC News visited the court, nearly 10 cases were dealt with in less than three hours.

In this way, the courtroom is not unlike any other courtroom at 408 York Ave., except that this one deals with whether or not families will be kept together.

A look at court documents about Robert and his child doesn't shed much light either.

They say the child was taken into care last summer. Robert was served papers while in jail, the documents say.

They also say the mother is in her early 30s, and has another child with a different man. That child is also in the child welfare system.

Lack of detail: lawyer

That lack of detail is not uncommon, says Wil Hedges, a lawyer who specializes in child protection cases and represents families with children in the system.

When children are taken into care, agencies are required to provide families, and their lawyers, with information about why they are taking their kids away, Hedges said. 

When I represent an Ontario family, I usually know very clearly what the agency concerns are and so do my clients. In Manitoba, I might find out a few weeks later.- Lawyer Wil Hedges

But how much information the court gets depends on the agency. Sometimes, when a child is first taken away, agencies only file a basic application, which typically has very little information, Hedges said. 

"There might be one sentence about concerns about … addiction, or concerns about mental health. It might be very, very general, with no specific examples," he said. 

"It makes it difficult for us to figure out how we can encourage our clients to work on a case plan, and work toward resolution of the concern."

By contrast, in Ontario, child welfare agencies provide an affidavit that outlines their concerns and the families history, which is usually very detailed, he said.

"When I represent an Ontario family, I usually know very clearly what the agency concerns are and so do my clients," he said.

"In Manitoba, I might find out a few weeks later, and in some cases it is still not clear to me after a longer period of time."

A 2016 court case revolved around the very issue of an agency's ability to provide details on a family's situation to the courts in a timely manner.

Several of the details of the case are under a publication ban, but a copy of the decision in the Court of Queen's Bench says that the father's lawyer twice attempted to get written details about why the agencies felt his children should be in care.

Social workers met with the father, but didn't provide him or his lawyers with anything in writing. Written details weren't provided until the father's lawyer filed a motion in court.

CBC reviewed court documents on some child protection matters, but they contained few details about what prompted CFS to take the children into care. (Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

In that case, the judge wrote that denying parents details, in writing, about why their children are taken into care is denying them due process.

"An apprehension removes children from their world — their peers, family, school, neighbourhood, and home," an online copy of decision reads. 

"A delayed litigation means that some children that ought to be returned home, either immediately or over time with supports, spend more time in agency care while those things that rooted the children to their pre-apprehension world wither away," the decision reads.

"For this reason, more than any other, such a delay in the production and service of particulars is intolerable."

A government of Manitoba spokesperson said the level of detail agencies provide the court might vary based on which agency is handling the case, the family's situation, and whether or not there is an ongoing criminal investigation. 

"But it must provide enough detail to show there are grounds to believe the child was in need of protection at the time he or she was taken into care," said a provincial spokesperson.

Family reunification

The goal of reunification was reached for one father and his children in a case heard in the child protection court on the day CBC was there.

The two children, both under the age of 10, were taken away from their parents in late 2016, the court heard.

The children were returned to their father in December 2018. The agency wasn't able to find the mother.

Moving forward, the family will be under CFS supervision. The father will have to comply with a number of conditions, including making sure the children attend school and allowing the agency inside his home.

Adversarial system

The challenge of working on these kind of issues through the courts is that it is by nature an adversarial system, says Cathy Rocke, a former social worker who is now associate dean of the University of Manitoba's social work department.

Social workers are trained to develop relationships with people, and to work with them to resolve the challenges in their lives, she said. 

Delays in the court system can sometimes prevent children from being returned to their parents, a former social worker says. (Shutterstock)

"The court system is completely opposite — it's about finding proof around did somebody do something," she said. 

"You're immediately into trying to prove somebody did [or] somebody didn't fulfil their needs as a parent. That's adversarial, because the parents are going to deny [it], because they want to try and keep their kids, so you're in that sort of adversarial dilemma right away."

Court delays can also be a major roadblock to getting families back together more quickly.

Rocke has heard of cases where "it might be that we want to assess the situation, we asked for a three-month temporary order to sort of take a look at … what is happening, we've placed the kids either in a foster home or maybe [with] extended family," she said.

"And then the court delays are longer than the actual time that you are asking for."

New 60-day limit

In the last year, there have been significant changes to child protection matters to mitigate these delays.

Now, matters have a 60-day time limit to be resolved before they're sent to an intake judge, where the judge will decide whether or not the issue should go to trial.

"That's a fairly strict policy that the courts adhering to," said Hedges, the family protection lawyer.

"Sometimes they let it go over a few days beyond 60, but certainly not very long beyond that."

Still, 60 days is not a lot of time in the court system, Hedges said.

"Sixty days sounds like a lot, but if a new client has to apply for legal aid and have a lawyer assigned, that can take a couple of weeks," he said.

If there are any hiccups during that application process, there can be even more delays.

Hedges said it's not uncommon for a case to land on his desk when the 60-day time limit is almost up, and the case is already about to be sent to an intake judge.

Another way

At the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, a holistic alternative to the court system is being used. It brings families together to talk about their issues through a process called family group conferencing.

The process, based on Indigenous ceremonies used before colonization, involves a day of ceremony where the family is left alone to talk about their challenges and what the child needs. That may take a few hours or the better part of a day, says Jackie Anderson, the family group conferencing co-ordinator for Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.

Sometimes the family is referred to them from a CFS agency, sometimes the families come to the centre themselves, Anderson said.

The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre organizes family group conferencing as a holistic approach to the court system. (Warren Kay/CBC)

After going through the conferencing process, the centre works with the family to line up the resources they need. This could be anything from affordable and safe housing to addictions treatment to furniture.

"This isn't just some model that some educator-researcher has created … this is the way that we did things as Indigenous people," Anderson said.

"If anything, we're bringing back our ceremony, and being able to empower our families to … be making those decisions, rather than systems or people that don't know the strengths of the family, or the strengths of the community."

In one instance, Anderson helped a mother of five furnish her three-bedroom through Facebook. She said she made a post on her timeline and collected enough items to furnish that family's home, as well as enough for another, within a couple days.

By bringing these resources together, family group conferencing empowers parents to keep their families together, even when facing phenomenal challenges, Anderson says.

"When you've lost your housing, you've lost all your household items, how do you rebuild your home? And if your income is limited because you're on assistance, how can you then afford to get a three-bedroom home in order to bring back five kids?" she said.

"It's quite a phenomenal model to be able to watch from start to finish, and to see where families are when they first come in, feeling so defeated, and how the hope intensifies for them as they see that they have those supports."

A long road

Back in child protection court, some families have a long road ahead.

A social worker steps forward to speak about a newborn, who is living with the infant's paternal grandparents. They are now applying for permanent guardianship, the worker tells the court.

She says both parents are struggling with addiction. The mother was offered counselling options, the worker says, but didn't take the agency up on them.

The mother has another child in care and hasn't seen her children since October.

The social worker says she doesn't know where the mother is now.

"She has a tendency of disappearing."


Sarah Petz


Sarah Petz is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. She was previously based at CBC New Brunswick. Her career has taken her across three provinces and includes a stint in East Africa. She can be reached at or @sarahrosepetz on Twitter.