Nova Scotia

N.S. agency expanding services to meet needs of Black families in crisis

A provincially funded program aimed at keeping families together is expanding its services to meet the particular needs of Black families struggling to raise their children.

'I think we're going to make change,' says social worker Courtney Brown

Social worker Courtney Brown is working with the Families Plus program. (Holly Adams)

An agency hired by the Nova Scotia government to help families struggling to stay together is expanding its services to offer aid specifically geared to Black families.

The Families Plus program, run by Family Service of Eastern Nova Scotia, has already hired the first of two social workers who will provide guidance and support to those families.

"I think we're going to make change, so I'm really excited about it," said social worker Courtney Brown, who was hired five weeks ago to work with the program.

Brown, who grew up in the Halifax suburb of Timberlea, described herself as a descendant of Africville, a Black community on the shore of Bedford Basin that was expropriated and bulldozed in the 1960s.

"We know there are gaps within Black families and Child Welfare and there's that mistrust, so my hope is that I can try to eliminate some of that so there can be a better working relationship with Children and Family Services and the Black community," said Brown, a 2016 graduate of Dalhousie University's school of social work.

Program launched 5 years ago

Families Plus started as a pilot project in Sydney five years ago and has since expanded to New Glasgow and Lower Sackville. The program only has the resources to help a limited number of families, but the province is considering further expansions to what is now a $655,000 initiative.

Tracey Taweel, deputy minister of community services, told a legislature committee this week it was "designed to work with families in crisis, whose children are at imminent risk of removal and placement into out-of-home care."

"The goal is for children to stay home with their families in a safe, stable and nurturing environment," Taweel told MLAs on the all-party committee.

And so far, it seems to be working.

According to Nancy MacDonald, executive director of Family Service of Eastern Nova Scotia, 36 families have taken part in at-home counselling sessions and ongoing support provided by their social workers.

8 of 83 children taken into care

Those families have a total of 83 children between them. The province has only taken eight of those into care. 

MacDonald wasn't surprised by that figure.

"I think it speaks to the uniqueness of the program," she said. "I think it speaks to the fact the development of the program and the responsiveness of the program is truly hearing what the needs of the families are."

Social workers can see their clients at their offices, but most sessions take place at home when it's most convenient or appropriate for the families involved.

"If bedtime routines are creating the biggest time of turmoil in your household, then why wouldn't our service be in your home in the evening? Up until this program, we didn't have the ability to be able to transform our system to deliver that," said MacDonald.

COVID restrictions have shifted some work online or over the phone.

"We never missed a day of contact with the families that we had had prior to [COVID]," she said. "Some families, they want the face-to-face still, which is fine." 

'It gives them a sense of comfort'

MacDonald said expanding the service to meet the specific needs of Black families was another way of making the program more accessible and better geared to struggling families.

Brown said there are not many Black social workers in Nova Scotia, which can make the work harder when a Black family is struggling with an issue like racism.

"There's importance in working with someone who looks like you and who is reflective of yourself," she said.

Racism is something Brown said she's lived with her "whole life."

"I think of race every minute of the day."

Brown said her experience and culture gave her the ability to  provide an "Afrocentric lens" to her social work.

"Even them just seeing me and seeing that I look like them, it gives them a sense of comfort," she said.

It's a sentiment echoed by the deputy minister.

"It's really, really important that we deeply understand the cultural nuances and background of those families that we are serving, and that we don't try to force fit families into what is primarily a white system," said Taweel.

"Having the person who is providing the most intensive level of support look like you and understand some of the cultural traditions — what is valued in your family, what is valued in your culture — is really important."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.





Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter since 1987. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.