'Families are healing': Regina program helps parents in crisis keep their kids

More than 20 families from across Canada - who would otherwise be in danger of losing their kids to care - are going through intensive training in Regina to learn how to function as a family.

Parents from across Canada come to Regina to save their families

Kelly Ettagiak came from Yellowknife, NWT to attend the family treatment program in Regina. (Nichole Huck CBC )

It takes a lot to shock Patti Petrucka. 

As director of the Family Treatment Program for Ranch Ehrlo Society in Regina, she gets files describing young children sniffing gas, joining gangs and smoking marijuana.

"It paints you a picture," she said.

Patti Petrucka says right now there is budgetary pressure from difference provinces. "I know we all have budgets, but I wonder about the impact. If we don't service families the way families need to be serviced, we are just delaying the inevitable." (Nichole Huck CBC )

The program offers parents who are in danger of losing their children intensive training and 24-hour support. Families travel from across Canada to take part. It currently houses 120 people, 100 of which are kids.  

"These are normal happy little kids who just need the right support and the opportunity to do well," Petrucka said.

"Parents want to be good parents and just providing them the right support and opportunity it can come together so quickly."

Success rate brings more families

Families stay an average of about six months. Stays range from a couple of weeks to nearly two years.

"Sometimes families need a lot more supports to keep children out of the system and that would have been seven children in the system," Petrucka said of one nearly two-year stay.

The program started in 2006 with two houses and has grown to 24 homes spread throughout the city. Ten of those spaces are generally reserved by the Ministry of Social Services for families from Saskatchewan. 

Family work demands you be responsive to the parents when the parents need you most.- Patti Petrucka

Petrucka said most of the 60 to 70 per cent of families who complete the program are still doing well a year later. She says the 30 per cent who don't complete the program most often fall back into unsafe family situations.

The success rate is good enough for the governments of Northwest Territories and Nunavut to continue sending families south. 

Petrucka said she has been asked to help establish similar models in other provinces, but that right now Ranch Ehrlo Society only has its sights on expanding to Saskatoon. 

"We probably should market it, we should find a way because this makes sense and it's working," she said.
"It is a cost saving in the long-term. We don't have children in the criminal justice system, we have children in the education system." 

Support when it is needed 

The program costs between $262 and $492 a day per family, paid for by the provinces the families come from. That pays for the house, groceries and access to 35 staff who work 24-hours a day including psychologists, daycare workers, treatment workers, therapists and educational assistants. 

Each family works with a registered social worker and is assigned one family therapist. The program has workers on-call 24/7. 

"Family work demands you be responsive to the parents when the parents need you most and that's often when kids are home," Petrucka said.

Chelsea Wandler is a family treatment worker and Educational Assistant. She often comes to the house to help 6-year-old Nica get ready for school then she is with her all day and will sometimes bring her back home. (Nichole Huck CBC )

Family therapists will often be in the home at 7:00 a.m. to help get the kids up and ready for school. They might help with homework or developing bedtime routines.

Petrucka says modelling healthy parenting skills is key.

"Our therapists might be working at eight or nine o'clock at night with parents who are learning how to put their children to bed because they've never parented sober, or they've never lone-parented, or they haven't had their children in their care for two years," said Petrucka. 

Dealing with trauma

Parents in the program take courses aimed at working on underlying issues. Classes include a writing group, peer support, horse therapy, yoga, recovering from addictions and dealing with trauma. 

Kelly Ettagiak, who came to Regina from the Northwest Territories in the fall, said the parenting and trauma group has been incredibly helpful to her. 

"It just finally came out one day. I just burst out crying, I wasn't even talking, it was someone else talking. It just opened up and it felt really good to not feel so alone," said the mother of three. 

Her six-year-old has ADHD. Ettagiak said she struggled with how to parent a child with cognitive difficulties. 

"It was coming to a point where I didn't know what to do anymore," she said.

Social services in Yellowknife referred her to the program in Regina. She packed up her three young children, left her common-law partner and moved more than 2,000 kilometres from home. 

Sheila Klengenberg came from Kugluktuk, Nunavut. She came to Regina with her partner of 17 years and their three children. She says they are working on dealing with the abuse and violence they experienced as children and are learning how to not repeat the same mistakes with their children. (Nichole Huck CBC )

Ettagiak said Regina was a culture shock at first. The food was a lot different than the wild meat and fish she was used to in Yellowknife.

Petrucka estimates that between 60 and 70 per cent of her clients are Indigenous. Ranch Ehrlo partners with local Indigenous organizations to provide cultural programming and access to Elders. One of the challenges is finding Elders that share the same cultural backgrounds as families from the Northwest Territories or Newfoundland. 

They didn't do the hard work for you, they did the hard work with you.- Johann Alexander

Sheila Klenenberg said she found the program helpful, but was anxious to go home to her community of Kugluktuk, Nunavut. 

She said she would like to take some of the things she learned back to the north so people could benefit from the programming without having to leave their communities. 

Life after the program

Johann Alexander is a single dad with two children aged 10 and eight. Both have FASD, which has led to serious behavioural issues and constant turmoil.

Before moving to Regina, Alexander lived in southwest Saskatchewan. He says there weren't many supports available and he was forever struggling to find work he could balance with the intensive needs of his children.

In November 2016, his mental health took a turn. He turned to addictions. 

"I tried to take my life. I just felt so alone and my family felt so excluded," Alexander said, choking back tears.

Johann Alexander credits the Family Treatment Program for reuniting his family and giving him the skills and support to become a better father. (Submitted by Johann Alexander)

He surrendered his children to social services and joined Ranch Ehrlo's program in Regina. 

"The more knowledge I had about my own issues, the stronger I became. I am the epicentre of my family, I am the support and I was the weakest link," said Alexander. 

He credits the program with helping reunite his family. His children had been put in separate houses to make things easier on the foster parents. 

Alexander said the school board was hesitant to let his children enrol in Regina because of their past behavioural issues. He said the family treatment program advocated on his behalf and connected him with the FASD network so he could begin to learn how to work with his children in an effective way. 

He said the program is not easy, but the support his family received gave him the confidence to go out on his own.

"They didn't do the hard work for you, they did the hard work with you."

About the Author

Nichole Huck


Nichole Huck is a producer CBC Radio Current Affairs. She has worked as a human rights journalist in Thailand and Ghana. Today, Huck has three children and is proud to call Regina home.