Toronto's promising alternative to child protection is in demand

Patrina Lemorseley of Toronto lost custody of her children, but got a second chance, thanks to a family group conference.

Family group conferencing helps reunite families, especially in marginalized communities

Patrina Lemorseley lost custody of both of her teenage daughters, but was reunited with them after a family group conference. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

Across Canada, aboriginal and black children are more likely to be taken from their families and put in care than children from other groups. That's an overrepresentation that many child protection agencies are trying to change.

One approach, called family group conferencing, brings the extended family together to come up with a solution.

Patrina Lemorseley of Toronto lost custody of her children but got a second chance thanks to a family group conference.

Sitting in a half circle in one large room, Lemorseley, social workers, her extended family and others — a total of 18 people — talked about the outcome they wanted for the children. 

'An extremely special moment'

"There were two grandmothers, there was a great-grandmother, two uncles, an aunt, a cousin, my sister was there, my boyfriend was there," she said of the conference. "It was the first time all these people were together in a large room for years. So it was an extremely special moment."

The conference included Lemorseley's daughters. as well as her eldest son, now living on his own.

"Before we started, we all did a prayer together that we would be able to live back with my mother. Everyone introduced themselves and said what they want to happen," said Lemorseley's youngest daughter.

"Everybody was focused. Everybody said OK, we want to see the girls out. We're tired of seeing the girls in care. We want them out. And we don't mind helping," said Lemorseley's sister.  

Lemorseley was then reunited with her two teenage daughters.

But it was not easy. She remembers plenty of crying at the conference.

"There were tears of joy, tears of grief, because through it all, I think one of the things that a lot of us knew is how hard it must have been for those kids," she said.

That was a family group conference that took place at the CAS branch in Scarborough, from a documentary, She's Here Now, airing this weekend on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition.

Numbers not proportional

That approach could help reduce the number of black and aboriginal children in care. Currently, black children make up just 8 per cent of Toronto's youth population, but they account for 41 per cent of young people in CAS care.

Last year, the Toronto CAS referred 115 cases for family group conferencing.

Philip Howe, the director of Scarborough's branch of Toronto Children's Aid, said the conferencing approach has resulted in solutions. He noted 80 per cent of the cases that go into family conferencing end up with a plan agreed to by everyone involved, including CAS.

"It's pretty amazing, considering how polarized these cases are," he said.

He said the cases, some of which involve litigation, find a supportive solution within the space of one family conference, which can last anywhere from a few hours to the whole day.

There are other benefits, too.

"What stays with me is how honoured the children would be to know there's a roomful of people coming together around [them]," he said. "It quite moving."

'A lot of legwork goes in'

Family group conferencing can be a heavy lift, from gathering all the relevant people in one room at one time, to paying for a service to co-ordinate the conferences.

"It's time consuming," said Howe. "Before they gather in a room, a lot of legwork goes in to connect with people."

The conferencing can involve anywhere from five or six people up to 35.

Toronto CAS uses George Hull Family Group Conferencing, a third party, to facilitate the conferences.

Kim Curran, the director of prevention at George Hull, said there is an avalanche of referrals.

"The number of kids engaged with child welfare are exponentially greater than the kids we serve," she said. "We're hampered by our limited budget."

She said by letting the families be the decision makers, the conferencing is taking the "oppression" out of the system.

Nyron Sookraj, a family group conference facilitator at George Hull, has been working with family conferencing for three years. Before that, he was a case worker with the Catholic Children's Aid Society for 33 years.

He said conferencing allows children to stay within their communities, most times within their families. He said he hopes the practice will be used more and more.

"I can really feel the change coming," he said. "If there's a way to keep children within families, they do better."