Sask. program offers alternative to child apprehension for at-risk pregnant moms

A Saskatchewan-based non-profit is working to minimize the risk of newborn apprehensions by keeping baby and mother together, a departure from what was seen in a viral video shot in a Winnipeg hospital this month.

Sanctum 1.5 provides a home, support for struggling moms in effort to keep newborns out of family services

Sanctum 1.5 has helped keep six newborns with their mothers and out of Saskatchewan child and family services since it opened in Saskatoon last fall. (Bridget Yard/CBC News)

A Saskatchewan-based non-profit is trying to lower the risk of newborn apprehensions by keeping baby and mother together — a departure from the conventional model of child apprehensions that was on display in a viral video shot in a Winnipeg hospital this month.

Sanctum 1.5 in Saskatoon provides a home and support for at-risk mothers, including those struggling with substance use issues or living with HIV. 

"Every one of their stories is an incredible story," said Katelyn Roberts, a social worker and executive director of Sanctum Care Group.

"You walk through these doors and you see those moms with with their baby, holding their babies and talking about breastfeeding together, or problem-solving."

Katelyn Roberts is a social worker and Sanctum Care Group in Saskatoon. (Submitted by Katelyn Roberts)

Roberts and a physician founded Sanctum Care Group in 2013 as an HIV hospice and transitional care home. Sanctum 1.5 opened in October, and since then has helped keep six babies with their mothers — and out of the child and family services system.

The program grew out of a desire for an alternative to the intervention and apprehension structure for infants born to mothers in the grips of addiction or other health issues.

Live-streamed apprehension

Earlier this month, family members live streamed video on Facebook of Manitoba child protection workers, escorted by police officers, taking a two-day-old baby from its mother at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital.

The mother later said in a statement that before the birth, she had arranged to transfer guardianship of the child over to its aunt.

A Child and Family Services spokesperson told CBC News she was confident in the decision to take the infant away, though she said privacy rules prevent the department from disclosing further details.

The public display of one family's trauma reignited criticism of CFS, and drew warnings about the potential effect the publicity could have on the child and family for years to come.

This is about preventing the long-term detrimental impacts of children going into the foster care system and being removed from their family unit.- Katelyn Roberts

It also started a conversation about what should be changed in the CFS system.

Sanctum's Roberts used to see scenes like the one in Winnipeg play out in front of her during her time as a child protection worker in Saskatchewan.

"The role those social workers have is an incredibly difficult role," she said.

The large living room and communal dining area at Sanctum 1.5. It was founded on the principle that mothers and newborns could thrive in the long-term if they were given a safe space and in-house access to services, said Roberts. (Submitted by Katelyn Roberts)

"Oftentimes there is an immediate risk to the infants, but if we had the right support and services in place we could mitigate that risk so that we didn't actually have to do that apprehension."

'I could see both sides'

She was a provincial case manager in Saskatchewan, focused on working with women who were HIV-positive, pregnant and not engaged in care, as well as pregnant women at high risk of contracting HIV.

The job took a toll on Roberts.

"I could see both sides: the role that child protection was playing, but also the gaps in the system that prevented these moms from getting the appropriate care that they needed in order to parent their children," she said, adding that the women she was in contact with were often homeless or struggling with substance use. 

"They didn't have the right supports and services while they were pregnant, and so they would go into hospital and they would be separated from their child, which really is counterproductive to keeping moms and babies together."

The mothers at Sanctum 1.5 have access to a kitchen and other communal spaces. (Submitted by Katelyn Roberts)

Sanctum 1.5 was founded on the patient-centred, holistic principle that mothers and newborns could thrive in the long-term, given a safe space and in-house access to recovery and health care services, said Roberts.

'Looks like a home'

Many new mothers in contact with Saskatchewan's child and family services system were themselves once in foster care, said Roberts. At Sanctum 1.5, each woman has her own room, with a crib and closets, as well as access to a kitchen, living room and other communal spaces.

Moms and their kids also have access to toys and kid-friendly zones of the house. (Submitted by Katelyn Roberts)

"From the outside, from the inside, it just looks like a home," said Roberts.

And then there's Peri (short for perinatal), the 130-pound therapy dog. He's a big hit with the moms, said Roberts.

Peri the therapy dog is a big hit with the moms, said Roberts. (Submitted by Katelyn Roberts)

The program deals with mothers at various stages of pregnancy and with their own unique needs. 

"In terms of providing the prenatal intervention, for us that's the magic in terms of engaging women when they're most motivated for change," said Roberts. 

"Sometimes that turning point is when they, you know, look their baby in the eyes for the first time," she said.

"So we provide that additional support … to mitigate the risk that the ministry has with these moms, but also support them in recovery and achieving their goals of parenting if that's what they want."

Saves province money

Roberts said Sanctum provides follow-up support for up to an entire year after pregnancy. On average, mothers return for about three months after giving birth, she said.

Sanctum has a budget of about $850,000 per year. It is funded through Saskatchewan's ministries of health and social services and also benefits from private funding, said Roberts.

She said through addressing patient outcomes, Sanctum 1.5 saves the province's health authority a lot of money. 

"If you prevent one baby from becoming HIV-positive, you save the health authority $1.3 million in health-related costs," she said.

"More importantly, this is about preventing the long-term detrimental impacts of children going into the foster care system and being removed from their family unit."

With files from Janice Grant