Indigenous-led program unites families, diverts kids from child welfare system in 98% of cases
'They don't leave you, even when you're at your worst,' says mother applauding program in Manitoba
There was a moment in Cara Courchene's life when reuniting with her children seemed out of reach.
The child welfare system seems stacked against parents like her, but one Indigenous-led program has had remarkable success in trying to change that.
In 98 per cent of cases, the Family Group Conference program either reunited children with families who love them, or prevented a child from entering the child welfare system in the first place.
Courchene is one success story. She credits her mentor through the program of never giving up on her.
"What stuck with me was the way my mentor would come and check up on me, and there was a lot of times where I felt completely alone, and she wasn't worried about who would be there or anything like that," said Courchene, a member of Sagkeeng First Nation who lives in Winnipeg.
"She would come just knock on my window or my door and say, 'Hey, are you hungry?' or 'You need someone to talk to?' — and I think that's what helped me get through some of my hard times."
WATCH | Mothers praise Indigenous program reducing the number of kids in care:
The Family Group Conference program at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre released a report on Monday that illustrates the program's success in reducing the number of Indigenous children in a child welfare system where Indigenous people are overrepresented.
Hundreds of children removed from welfare system
Over the course of three years, 655 children took part in the FGC process. More than a third of the children (263) are living with their families and another 139 were waiting to return home, as of March 2020. The program also diverted 141 children from ever becoming a ward of the province.
Some families hadn't completed the program when the statistics were tallied, but the evaluation found FGC had a consistently high — 98 per cent — success rate in family reunification and diverting families from becoming involved with Child and Family Services.
Having all of those children living with their families and in their home communities would reduce government foster care costs by $15 million annually, according to an Indigenous-based evaluation of the program from 2017 to 2020.
Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, an Indigenous family resource organization, said the glowing review backs up what she already knows.
"We have been saying to everybody, since the birth of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in 1984, that investing into Indigenous-led strategies to care for our own and to ensure that our families are on the path of healing from colonization, generally speaking, that there's power in that and those are where the solutions lie."
The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre has facilitated the FGC program for more than 20 years, but in 2017 the Winnipeg Foundation, provincial and federal governments committed $2.5 million to triple the number of eligible families over a three-year period.
The centre sought out an Indigenous-led evaluation to ensure the program was meeting its goals.
The report's findings "highlight the important ways that the program works as an antidote to many of the vulnerabilities that colonial systems have created and perpetuate.
"By supporting the rebuilding of the 'family' and its relationships and structure, the program works to celebrate Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous sources of strength and safety," it reads.
Families can be referred to the program, which typically lasts one week to three months, through CFS agencies, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata and others in the community. It typically takes between three to five months from referral to resolution.
Support for parents
At a news conference Monday, Courchene and two other parents shared how the program helped them.
Marina Coates said she was used to living and struggling with her addiction alone, but the FGC changed her approach.
"On my 30th birthday I got my son back for good, my file was closed," she said, pausing as the audience clapped for her, "and right now I'm currently working two jobs — I haven't had a job in about seven years prior," she said.
"They gave me my life back, helped me keep my son back, and this definitely is my village."
Randi Thomas said his mentor would sometimes provide groceries for the family or encourage them to attend family events at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata centre.
"To be honest, I think it opened a lot more doors for me."
Redsky said in an interview she believes the evaluation of the program is "promising news" that shows how child welfare systems should operate: CFS agencies should work with community organizations "to build that circle of support around families."
Not only does the program keep kids out of care, but when kids do have to go into care, it reduces the number of days they stay there, Redsky said.
"So this is a model where everybody wins, and it's a model rooted in Indigenous values — where the family and the community is involved in the care and protection of children."
Before becoming a mother, Courchene, who spent time in the foster care system growing up, said she was trying to juggle two lives: her family life and her party life.
"Obviously, the drugs took over," so her children were removed, the 36-year-old said.
She was referred to the FGC program while her kids were at a foster home run by Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
She said her mentor made her feel like a member of the family.
"They don't leave you, even when you're at your worst like I was, they saw me in situations where I had a black eye, or I was fighting, or I was in psychosis from drug use.
"They never gave up on me and that's what I loved about them."
Courchene eventually went into detox and has been sober since 2019.
Becoming a family support worker
She said staff with the FGC program act as a support for parents whose children are in the welfare system, including in their interactions with their family's CFS case worker.
Her FGC mentor "actually cared about us coming home, and I never had that with a social worker."
Inspired by the help she received, Courchene is finishing her schooling to become a family support worker. She wants to help people like her realize they can walk away from their addictions and get their children back.
The report recommends the program be provided with sustainable funding to support the growing demand.
Redsky would like to see the program become such a normalized part of the child welfare system in Manitoba that it becomes entrenched in legislation, which happened with a similar program in New Zealand.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires told the news conference the province will have discussions with the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre about next steps so we can "capture this wonderful success and see it spread and grow."
With files from CBC's Janet Stewart