A couple hoping a week-long trial would end their bitter battle with a Manitoba child welfare agency that apprehended their newborn son from hospital will have to wait until March 6 after a judge delayed the trial so the father could get a legal aid lawyer.
The couple, who can’t be named because the child is in the child welfare system, believes the system is unfairly rigged to force parents to comply with demands by an agency – like supervised visits with their child– who they believe should never have been apprehended.
The boy was taken at birth because his mother was convicted of failing to protect her infant daughter six years ago from injury.
She was at the time, trapped in an abusive relationship herself.
Her abuser got 18 months for assaulting the mother – and she in turn got three years probation and lost her daughter for not keeping her from harm.
Someone had shaken the baby but the courts couldn’t prove who did it.
A legal aid lawyer convinced her to plead guilty to failing to protect the baby, for which she was put on the province’s child abuse registry.
Court records show Justice Scott Abel, the same judge presiding over their matter on Monday, had said the guilty plea was enough to put her on the registry as an abuser.
The mother’s legal aid lawyer had asked Abel to recuse himself from the trial on Monday, saying her client feels he’s biased against her.
Abel rejected that, saying the previous matter doesn’t bias him in the current case.
The mother has been out of that abusive relationship for nearly six years.
She said she’s in a healthy, loving relationship with her son’s father, and helps raise his older children from previous relationships, but none of that seems to matter.
Suspecting there’d be problems because of her prior involvement with child welfare, the couple had contacted Michif Child and Family Services in December 2018 — four months before their son was born.
“All of December I was trying to meet with them to make a case plan to make sure my unborn child was not taken from us,” said mother.
In April 2019, weeks before their son was born, they heard back from the agency that they wanted to meet.
“They said nothing about an apprehension, it was possible but probably not, and would need to do a home inspection. We passed it – passed two by two totally different agencies,” said mom.
Then their son was born later that month and in swooped CFS.
They’d put a birth alert on mom’s health file so that anywhere she had the baby, hospital staff are flagged to notify the agency.
The baby was a day old when they took him from his nursing mom. The agency occasionally sends the parents photos of their son along with notes about how he’s growing.
“It’s like they rub our noses in it with these photos of our son who they stole,” the mother has told APTN. The couple’s story was first made public on APTN InFocus last September
The infant is now nine months old and still living in foster care. He’s never been home and his parents have stopped seeing him, refusing to abide by the agency’s demand that they supervise their visits.
“I will not be forced into anything, I’m not guilty or accused of anything there was no reason to take my son,” the dad said after court Monday. “I have my other children and their mothers are all behind me on this too.”
APTN News has numerous emails from Michif CFS to the parents admonishing them for being “disrespectful” to staff when they criticize the agency for taking the boy.
In court Monday, the father started court proceedings asking if “you’ll finally tell me why you took my son.”
Justice Scott Abel said the point of a trial is for the agency to lay out why. But those arguments were never heard because court adjourned so the father could get his own legal aid lawyer.
“Legal aid gets paid when CFS takes children so it’s in their best interests to drag it out and help as little as possible,” said the frustrated father. “I’m probably better off defending myself but the court refuses to hear me out or answer any of my questions.”
Before court got underway the father asked two Michif CFS staff members in the hallway, “Are you guys going to tell me why you illegally have my son?”
Both smiled but didn’t answer him.
There are 11,000 kids in care in Manitoba.
By law APTN News can’t name a child in care or their parents, relatives or anyone who might lead to their identity.
The couple has found support from their local Progressive Conservative MLA Len Islefson, former Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Oullette, and former Manitoba Liberal leader Jon Gerrard — none of which the agency or the court considers relevant.
Court documents from a previous appearance shows the caseworker admits she didn’t do an investigation or evaluation before taking the baby, but simply acted on the old file of a different agency that took the mom’s older daughter.
“Because of the information that we received in the intake module , after consulting with my supervisor we both agreed that if (the baby) was to be returned him, he would have been at risk of serious harm,” said the caseworker in the documents.
The agency has not said why they won’t return the baby to his parents and do home checks as a way to address any concerns.
The parents said their son is at no risk of any harm with them.
But the father points out that agencies get more money from the government for putting kids in care. And he believes legal aid lawyers appointed to child welfare matters are just part of a system that doesn’t work for parents.
For the past 20 years in Manitoba, agencies got money based on the number of kids in care.
Critics pointed out this gave agencies good reason to take and keep as many kids as possible.
The Transforming Child Welfare in Manitoba Opportunities to Improve Outcomes for Children and Youth report called for a dramatic shift in how the system operates including to de-incentivize apprehending children. A shift to block funding for agencies – instead of funding them based on the number of kids they take, was a first step.
“What we found from a pilot project of eight agencies that participated in the block funding pilot is that there is a 18 per cent reduction in the apprehension of kids as a result of block funding,” said Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson.
While agencies were quick to condemn the funding changes, Stefanson said the province is moving ahead, based on results from the pilot project.
“I’m not concerned so much about what people are saying, I’m concerned about results,” said the minister.
The same review calls for an end to birth alerts that disproportionately flag Indigenous mothers.
These alerts can separate mothers from their newborns – something First Nations Family Advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Cora Morgan has said is one of the most violent acts you can commit against a woman.
British Columbia is the only province so far to have announced an end to birth alerts.
The couple from Brandon, Man., said it’s frustrating that there’s nowhere to go when CFS has run amok and question how these agencies across the country can be given such power without accountability.
They said lawyers and judges seem to rubber stamp whatever agencies demand which allows the industry to operate without unfettered.
Métis CFS Authority sent a statement to APTN.
“Our Metis CFS system prides itself on the work we do … not only to preserve families wherever possible, but to help families to strengthen by supporting them to build capacity and skills,” said the statement.
It goes on to say parents who disagree with the processes should contact the Manitoba Children’s Advocate or the Ombudsman.
Michael Redhead Champagne is a volunteer with Fearless R2W, a volunteer group that does child welfare advocacy for parents in Winnipeg.
“I’m really disappointed that it feels like from our perspective in community there’s less and less evidence needed on the child protection side before the agency will step in (and apprehend),” he has said.
The Brandon couple will return to court March 6 trying to get their son back. He’ll be 11 months old by then.
Both have said they’ll take parenting courses they don’t feel they need, to appease demands of the agency who is keeping their son.