North·In Depth

Woman says child protection system failed her and her kids in time of need

A mom says after she was attacked and seriously injured by her ex-partner, the Northwest Territories child protection system re-victimized her and her children by repeatedly trying to apprehend the kids.

'We got nothing,' says woman of promises of counselling, care after knife attack

An N.W.T. mother said child and family services attempted to appreehend her children after she was attacked by her ex, then failed to deliver promised counselling to help them recover from the attack. (CBC)

A mom says after she was attacked and seriously injured by her ex-partner four months ago, the Northwest Territories child protection system re-victimized her and her children by repeatedly trying to apprehend the kids.

The woman told CBC News the first attempt to apprehend her three children happened as she was lying in the ambulance, waiting to be transported to hospital, after her ex-partner attacked her with a knife.

"My eldest brother, who I had phoned to come and get the kids — I actually had my daughter phone him — he had arrived and already had the kids and he informed me that social services had tried to take the kids from him," she said.

Child protection law prohibits publication of any information that could identify the children, including the identity of their mother. It also prohibits officials from speaking about the case.

The woman said a social services worker was in the waiting room at the hospital as she was being stitched up, and then the next day, when she reunited with her children at her mother's cabin. She says they told her if the children could not stay with her mother, they would be apprehended.

"Their grounds were that my children had been exposed to domestic violence, and that it was a safety risk for my children, and they also spoke to me that I was not well enough to provide that care."

'I haven't committed any crimes'

The woman said she was still capable of caring for her three young kids, who range in age from one-and-a-half years old to 12. She said she told the workers she had split with her ex-partner months before.

"He did not live with me. We had been separated. He broke into our house. I haven't committed any crimes. I don't do drugs, I don't do alcohol. I'm an honour student. I have a degree at the university. Why are you trying to do this to us?"

Why are you trying to do this to us?- Mother

The woman said the workers complimented her mother on how well-kept her cabin was and asked her where she worked. Her mother told them she works in the same department as they do — N.W.T. Health and Social Services. She said the workers' attitude changed immediately.

"That's when they started saying, 'Oh, we can help you guys … now we're going to send you all off together as a family for treatment,'" recalled the woman.

"I was like, 'OK, that's more realistic. That's what you should be doing if someone is a victim. You should be offering help, not offering to take their children away.'"

Apprehension a last resort: official

Child protection workers have the authority to apprehend children immediately if they believe, after investigating, the children are at risk of harm.

"The workers are obligated under the [Child and Family Services] Act to keep the child's best interests first and foremost," said family law lawyer Margo Nightingale. "But they are also obligated to do what they can to reintegrate families."

Nightingale says in deciding whether or not to apprehend, workers must also take into account the harm that's caused when a child is apprehended.

Les Harrison, the assistant deputy minister of child and family services, said if a parent suffers a serious injury as a result of domestic violence, the department prefers that any children involved be taken care of by a member of the family while the parent recovers.

Yellowknife family law lawyer Margo Nightingale says child protection workers are required to consider the harm that apprehending children causes families. (CBC)

"If the parent was able to make the decision for themselves that a particular family member or friend would be the best place to care for that child, I think we would support that," Harrison said

Harrison said the decision to apprehend or not is based on a safety assessment workers do to estimate the risk of harm to children. Even if the workers determine there is a risk of harm, apprehension is not the first thing they're supposed to consider.

"It would be first of all, saying to the parent, 'We don't think that, right now, you're able to keep your kids safe. We need to figure out a plan.'"

The woman says after the child protection workers became supportive, they developed such a plan, known as a voluntary service agreement. Together, they decided she and the kids were going to stay at a shelter in Alberta where they could all get counselling to help them cope with the trauma of the attack.

Broken agreement

The Department of Health and Social Services agreed to fly the woman and her three children to Calgary and "explore and provide treatment options including, but not limited to: family treatment, programming and counselling-related services to address trauma, PTSD and individual needs."

The woman provided CBC with a copy of the agreement. It was to run for six months with an opportunity to extend it. But cracks started showing as soon as a social worker brought her and her children to a shelter in Calgary, she said.

"When I got to the primary stage shelter, in Strathmore, Alta., she [the social worker] dropped me off and said, 'I'll see you in six months.' And the primary stage shelter lady was, like, 'Whoa, we're not a six-month shelter, we're a 21-day shelter. And we're the only shelter in the city.'"

The assistant deputy minister of child and family services, Les Harrison, says apprehension is a last resort. (CBC)

The six-month plan lasted six weeks.

The woman said during that time, she and the children moved to a different shelter or hotel every week or so. She said they received no counselling.

"We got nothing. I didn't get anything and my kids didn't get anything."

They ended up in a hotel. She started to worry about her two older children, who were by then missing school. She said N.W.T. social services had explained they could not be enrolled because of a delay in getting documents from their schools back home.

She said during their stay, there was pressure from Calgary social workers to allow them to take her children.

The woman said she finally told social services she was going to break the agreement because of the numerous moves, the lack of counselling and missed schooling for her children. She gave them a week's notice. At the end of that time, she said, the department simply cut off all help.

She and her kids ended up locked out of their hotel room, where all of their belongings were, because the bill had not been paid.

Under the voluntary service agreement, the Department of Health and Social Services promised to not let the family lose its public housing unit back in the N.W.T. while they were getting help in Calgary.

"I came home to an eviction notice on my door from housing, because social services really didn't do anything until the very last moment when I said I was coming home," she said.

"I had to wait for them to clean out the blood and clean up the glass," she said, referring to the scene of the attack that began the ordeal. 

"You couldn't see the stairs to the house because they had been snowed on."

2nd attempt to fix system

The mom said she believes she and her children were the victims of a bias that child and family services has against Indigenous families. She pointed out that though most foster homes are non-Indigenous, most of the children in care are Indigenous.

"It's no different than saying, 'Let's take all these Native kids and put them in a residential school and have them raised by non-Indigenous values and hopefully we'll get them all assimilated and continue our path of colonization,'" she said.

Harrison said the department is developing sensitivity training for staff on Indigenous culture and issues.

"That training is focusing on cultural respect, awareness and understanding and how to support Indigenous families and communities," he said.

Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy last month in Yellowknife looking at a foster parent recruitment campaign poster. The department has launched a campaign to improve foster care in the territory. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

Harrison said the government has also approved funding for the development of a family preservation program that it's planning to implement across the N.W.T. next year. The program will focus on finding ways to help families in less-intrusive ways, such as working on parenting skills.

"It's our intent to develop, support and hire local Indigenous people working in that area, in that field," said Harrison.

The two initiatives are part of a plan the department has developed to improve the quality of child care following two consecutive damning reviews by Canada's auditor general.

The department agreed with all of the recommendations in a 2014 audit report and developed a plan for addressing them. But a report last year found that, despite the recommendations and plan, children in the system were in even more peril than they were four years earlier.

"We found that many of the changes we examined were not well implemented or resourced and, in our opinion, produced worse services for children and their families," wrote the auditor general in the 2018 report.