For a decade, Patricia Dawn has been helping Indigenous women in British Columbia’s Cowichan Valley at risk of having their children apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Now she wants to go farther and turn the valley into a “no-apprehension zone.” Instead of children being taken into care, parents would get the support they need to keep them. Even if it means taking parent and child into foster care together.
Dawn, who is Métis Cree, founded the Red Willow Womyn’s Society in 2008 in Duncan, B.C. The drop-in peer support group was aimed at empowering Indigenous families — especially moms and grandmothers — working to avoid apprehensions or get their kids back.
The single mom said she decided to create the organization after hearing from Indigenous women she met in line at the food bank and in family court about racism and sexism they faced from ministry social workers.
One mother’s children had been taken into care because of ministry concerns about their father, Dawn recalled. So she cut ties with him, won home visits with her children and was going to get them back. “Then the father showed up unannounced at the house, and when [the ministry] found out about it, they took away her visits,” Dawn said. “I’ve seen that lots. They always penalize the mother. There’s a real embedded discrimination and racism against Indigenous women.”
Now Dawn is prepared to go farther to keep children with their mothers. Across the province, almost two-thirds of the 6,500 children in care are Indigenous. In the ministry’s Duncan office, which services a large region in southern Vancouver Island, about 78 percent of the 275 kids in care in June were Indigenous, according to the ministry’s most recent numbers. The Cowichan Tribes based in the region are the largest First Nation band in B.C., but Indigenous people still make up just 12 percent of the population in the area. And children in the region were twice as likely to be apprehended as kids in the rest of the province.
Dawn said she decided something had to change early this year. She was called to the hospital by a mom who had just given birth. The ministry had already told her it would apprehend her newborn baby, Dawn said. As the mom lay in bed, she said, ministry social workers came to remind her that the ministry would apprehend the infant when both were discharged from the hospital. There was no celebration, Dawn said. No balloons, no family to welcome a new member into the world. Everyone knew this child would be removed from their mother’s care. The ministry, Dawn said, was worried the mom still had contact with the baby’s father, who had assaulted her. The ministry, citing privacy reasons, won’t comment. Dawn says ministry social workers told her the only way to keep mom and baby together was to find housing with round-the-clock supervision .Dawn and other advocates scrambled to find a place that met the ministry’s standards. Even the local women’s transition shelter, which had locks and alarms to keep abusers out, was rejected because it couldn’t provide 24/7 supervision. After several days of confrontations and meetings, the ministry said the mom could keep the baby for 30 days if Dawn took both of them home, providing the necessary 24/7 supervision. She agreed.
For a month Dawn slept on the living room floor of her two-bedroom apartment, giving her bedroom to mom and baby, with the other bedroom for her own child. Dawn helped the mom navigate the 21 services and three social workers in that first month just to meet the ministry’s requirements for keeping her child.
“I don’t know how Aboriginal women survive,” Dawn said. “I lived her life alongside her, and it was absolute hell.” Dawn says that after a month she was burnt out and the relationship with the mom was strained. Other volunteers stepped up to provide two more months of housing and supervision, and family and volunteers continued providing support once the child and mom moved into their own home, helping her keep required appointments and manage the transition. They were successful in keeping the baby and mom together. But after half a year, everyone was burnt out, Dawn says. The ministry refused requests for supports for the mom and child, she says, and ended up apprehending the baby for the same protection concerns they had in January.
The experience was an eye-opener for Dawn, despite 10 years of supporting families dealing with the ministry. She saw the hurdles parents must navigate to keep their families together. The money spent on policing families that could have gone to help prevent apprehensions. And the need for a new approach. Services are available once children are apprehended, but not before, she said.
This is contrary to pledges earlier this year by federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and B.C.’s Child and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy. Both promised to shift their ministries’ funding focus from child protection and apprehension to preventing kids from coming into care in the first place.
The current system isn’t working for children. Kids in care in B.C. are more likely to wind up in jail than to graduate high school. A recent death review by the B.C. Coroners Service death review panel concluded kids who have “aged out” of the child welfare system on their 19th birthday die at five times the rate of the general youth population. Across Canada, kids in and from the foster care system make up 60 percent of homeless youth and a third of homeless adults. Statistics Canada’s most recent report found 52 percent of children under 15 living in Canadian foster homes are Indigenous. They are eight per cent of the population in that age group.
In an email to The Tyee, a children’s ministry spokesperson said the number of Indigenous kids in care in B.C. has dropped three per cent in the last year, to the lowest level since 2014. However the ministry acknowledges Indigenous children remain over-represented in the child welfare system. Even if they manage to graduate high school and avoid jail and the streets, Indigenous kids lose something when they’re removed from family, community and culture and placed — most often — with a white foster family, said Joe Norris, Red Willow board member, a grandfather, and a hereditary chief with the Halalt First Nation in the Cowichan Valley. They lose their identity. “Where do the teachings go when they get a foster parent? They have no idea who they are. That’s the sad part,” Norris said. We need to return to that way of raising children, he said.
Over the past year Dawn and other advocates — regulars at Red Willow’s weekly drop-ins, midwives from The Matraea Centre, early childhood educators, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous elders — have intervened in five attempted ministry apprehensions of Indigenous children from their parents, she said. Mostly single mothers. “Every time I get involved in something, [the ministry] separate mom and dad, and then they just hammer the Indigenous woman,” Dawn said. “They just destroy her.”
Two studies out of the University of Manitoba found women — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — who lost their children had a suicide rate more than four times higher than other moms. They were also 3.5 times more likely to die from avoidable causes like unintentional injury and suicide.
When asked about Dawn’s allegations of sexism and racism by ministry staff against Indigenous mothers, the ministry responded with an emailed statement that said it takes such allegations very seriously. “All local offices would take any such complaint seriously and determine whether a formal investigation is required. If there is a formal investigation, the results of that investigation would inform any action that needs to be taken,” the email read. The statement did not say whether any formal investigations have been done into Dawn’s allegations.
The ministry added that cultural sensitivity training is mandatory for all ministry service delivery staff, and the Cowichan Valley office has received the training. They also encourage clients to bring advocates like Dawn to ministry meetings. “We are changing our policies and practice to be culturally safe and trauma-informed; we are implementing a strategy to hire more Indigenous social workers; we are supporting and honouring the cultural practices of the many Indigenous communities in the province,” the email read.
While the ministry refuses to discuss cases Dawn has been involved with, citing the families’ privacy, it acknowledged she has brought forward her concerns during meetings with staff at the Duncan office, as well as staff in the offices of the deputy minister and provincial director of child welfare. “Advocacy is welcomed but under legislation only social workers have the statutory authority to provide child protective services,” the ministry added.
For Dawn, the ministry’s child protection work is a colonial problem that needs an Indigenous solution. And she said the Red Willow Womyn’s Society has it. The society proposes the Butterfly Plan, a three-step response to child apprehensions based on keeping the parent and child together. Step one — take them both into care. “Offer them sanctuary, to stand with them, to acknowledge and respect them for surviving genocide,” Dawn said. That sanctuary could be with family. If that’s not possible, Dawn said, a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous households offering a safe place for parents and children for up to 30 days should be created.
Step two — respectful support. The second stage, or circle of service as Dawn calls each step, comes when the mom feels capable of advocating for herself and her child, assessing her strengths and letting the community know how they can help her succeed. “She says what she needs and we ask how we can support that,” she said. “So there’s dignity and respect, and she becomes the hero of her own life.”
Step three — independence and community. The family is standing on their own two feet, with the skills they need. But a loving and supportive community has their back. “She’s not alone in it,” Dawn said. Dawn estimates Red Willow could launch the Butterfly Plan in the Cowichan Valley with a $55,000 annual budget, enough money to hire two part-time workers and set up partnerships with other family and child support services in the community.
Dawn says they’re planning to start a Go Fund Me campaign to help raise the funds.