Could Yellowknife hold answers to Manitoba's CFS crisis?

Numbers that illustrate the extent of Manitoba’s foster care crisis speak for themselves. Manitoba has the highest rate of children in care in Canada. At last count there were 10,293 children in care, up 55 per cent since 2006.

Northern city has three 'family preservation workers,' goal to keep families together and healthy

Family preservation worker Noelene Byrne walks down a Yellowknife street with her client, Dawn Blanchard. Byrne is one of the three family preservation workers helping to keep families together for the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Numbers that illustrate the extent of Manitoba's foster care crisis speak for themselves:

At last count, there were 10,293 children in care, up 55 per cent since 2006. 90 per cent of children in care in Manitoba are aboriginal. Compare that to the population of aboriginal children in this province, which stands at around 23 per cent, according to a report by the Assembly of First Nations.

The crisis is not new. It has been building for years. Throughout that time, decades of public concern and scrutiny over child welfare in Manitoba. Nevertheless, asking why the situation is as bad as it is now has never been more relevant. 

Neglect linked to poverty

"Neglect and poverty are (among) the major explanations for children in care," says Brad McKenzie, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba for the Faculty of Social Work. Previously McKenzie was a social worker with Child and Family Services.

Cases of neglect among aboriginal children maltreatment cases are 8 times higher than for non-aboriginal children. (Courtesy of Assembly of First Nations)

While neglect may seem a precise term, it encompasses a broad range of maltreatment cases. It could indicate the caregiver has failed to provide adequate clothing or medical care, or a lack of supervision.

Neglect impacts aboriginal children at a higher rate than non-aboriginal children; eight times more, according to a survey of agencies across Canada for the Assembly of First Nations' 2011 "Kiskisik Awasisak: Remember the Children" report.

Neglect makes up 56% of aboriginal child maltreatment cases

Research by Brad McKenzie and Corbin Shangreaux published in 2010, looking into Manitoba foster care specifically, found neglect was the "primary form of maltreatment" of aboriginal children, making up 56 per cent of cases.

Digging deeper, among those cases "physical neglect," or caregiver failure to adequately provide food or housing, was the most common form of neglect.

Poverty too often hangs in the backdrop of situations where a child lacks adequate housing or food. And in Manitoba, the connection between poverty and neglect is striking.

Take for example in Winnipeg, every month 20,000 children receive assistance through food banks, according to the anti-poverty group Campaign 2000.

Poverty can place children in danger

"We know from research that the majority of children who are in care come from poverty," McKenzie says. While child welfare agencies may, to some degree, unfairly target poor families, "We're also recognizing that poverty also contributes to neglect in ways that do place children in danger."

The good news is, well, this is not news. Agencies in Manitoba are undertaking work in addressing root causes of maltreatment cases, but the system is piecemeal. Many more resources are poured into investigating maltreatment, compared to supporting families before a crisis hits, according to McKenzie.

"There has been work done...we have in many jurisdictions much more emphasis on a field of practice in child welfare called 'differential response' (also known as 'family enhancement'), we have some of that in Manitoba, but not enough," says McKenzie.

Family preservation a focus in Yellowknife program

A potential way to address root causes of neglect may be underway in Yellowknife.

Almost a decade ago, the northern city's Health and Social Services Authority began deploying "Family Preservation Workers" to neglect cases. Caroline Berens was one of the first hires.

"What we're doing is creating change within the family and we're doing that through modeling behaviour, modeling discipline, (and) modeling routine," she says.

Berens is primarily assigned situations where parents need extra help to fill gaps in their caregiver skill sets. Her assistance varies: budgeting tips, informing parents about affordable childcare, nutrition counseling or just being a voice on the phone parents can call if they need a friend.

Caroline Berens became the N.W.T.'s first dedicated family support worker eight years ago. She now works with a team of three at the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority. (submitted by Caroline Berens)

Berens, not a social worker, gains trust 

A key factor which makes Barens different from a social worker is she does not do child apprehensions nor does she fill out court documents. Her presence in the family is a source of support, she listens and encourages small steps toward positive change.

"You name it we do it...we're in the homes and we're there to help them whether it's with the children, with shopping or taking them to an appointment... just visiting them, listening," she says. Berens says she has even helped clients clean their homes and do laundry.

According to McKenzie, CFS must continue to protect children against maltreatment but it is possible the current system errs, at times "too much on the side of safety" and in some cases apprehensions do harm to the family unit by removing the child.

"If we could intervene earlier in the cycle, we would not need to take all of those children into care...which is quite expensive," he adds.

Berens has seen many parents turn a corner in her eight years working in family preservation.

She says, "Families we began to see maybe when they're in a middle of a lot of stress, there may have been family violence and alcohol...give them a year or two...then one day they're walking down the street and they're a family...they're laughing. It's a big joy to see those things."