Inside one family’s case: Why child welfare feels like a losing battle

Manitoba’s Child Welfare System appears to form an impenetrable wall between parents and their children.

This tidy, well-kept suite is Ground Zero for an emotional child welfare battle. Melissa Ridgen photo

The smell of fresh coffee fills the air of a sunny apartment in Winnipeg’s middle-class North Kildonan neighbourhood. It’s a modest but charming space – one that a 43-year-old Métis mom can afford on disability pay.

You can tell she takes care to make it welcoming. It’s tidy and there are lots of signs that love lives here – actual signs on the walls about cherishing family.

This mother looks like most others you’d see picking up kids from school or eyeing up sales in a grocery store. You probably know dozens like her — articulate, passionate about her kids, and a caring ease when you chat with her about anything at all.

Nothing about her or her home would make you imagine child welfare workers coming to remove her children from abuse or neglect – or being at risk of such.

But that’s what happened here.

COVID-19

APTN News first told you how she was battling to reunite her family during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She’s still struggling to understand why her kids were apprehended – her son back in April 2019 and her daughter in February 2020. Even harder is comprehending why the system expends so much time and energy fighting to keep the 12- and 9-year-old.

On this day, she has a lengthy and emotional virtual meeting about her case. APTN can’t name anyone involved, but can share parts of the story.

Under the Manitoba Child Welfare Act, apprehension is supposed to be a last resort.

Section 7 of the Act says agencies must work to resolve problems that would place children at risk. They’re to provide “counselling, guidance and services” to prevent circumstances that would require kids to be placed in care. They’re to offer the same to help families protect their children and “re-establish and support parents’” abilities to care for their children.

Section 10 says agencies must offer supports to prevent family disruptions and restore family functions.

Virtual court 

Yet on Sept. 3, in her well-kept home, the mother was back in virtual court for a determination hearing where Winnipeg General Child and Family Services (CFS) argued for a judge to grant a permanent order to keep her son. The agency also argued for an extension on the temporary order to keep her daughter.

Two lawyers representing CFS, three Legal Aid lawyers (one for her, one for her ex-husband, and one for her son), along with two CFS workers and a judge – eight people in all – are paid by the taxpayers of Manitoba to be there. The mom is not.

But if she doesn’t attend it will be used as evidence that she doesn’t care about her children. So, as she’s done for countless court appearances and meetings over the past year, she’s there.

On this day, a judge refuses her request for the matter to go to trial, feeling the case presented by CFS is enough for him to use his power to grant a permanent order for the son, who is in a group home for high-needs adolescents. The judge extends the temporary order that keeps the daughter with an older family member.

At the same time. the judge reduced mom’s visits with the girl to just one hour a week while increasing visits with the boy to two hours a week. The same day the CFS agency denied her request to have her file transferred to a culturally appropriate Métis child welfare agency.

Non-Indigenous workers and supervisors will continue to decide the fate of her and her Métis children.

Why do this?

Why would child welfare workers and a judge do this? Pages and pages of documentation compiled by CFS and filed in court attempts to explain.

Mom has learning disabilities including Asperger’s. Her son has an assortment of needs as well, including global developmental delay. And the daughter has extra needs, too, but to a lesser degree. Dad is largely disengaged and defeated. It led the couple to split.

Among the evidence used to take and keep her children was a parental capacity report that includes entries like: “She is unable to complete long division or mental math. Her multiplication skills are questionable. She uses a calculator in her daily life.”

It was documented that she “struggled” with having a high-needs toddler and the arrival of a new baby when the kids were small. The report said she was struggling to “maintain a clean house” – something not uncommon for any new mom with a toddler, much less one with additional challenges.

How does CFS even become involved in one’s life to get to know someone’s math skills and whether your floor was recently mopped?

Knowing CFS has a mandate to help families, mom requested services years ago to help her cope with the challenges in her home that arose from everyone’s high-needs. Middle-class families might seek out and pay for such services – like a nanny or counselling or life skills coaching. But low-fixed income people often turn to child welfare for help its mandated to provide.

CFS

The Winnipeg General Authority’s website promises to do just that.

“The General Authority is committed to helping parents and families receive the support they need through its child and family services agencies. Its fundamental goal is to work with families to keep children safe. The General Authority works with its agencies with the aim of strengthening family networks through guidance and support,” the website reads.

Sounds helpful when you’re in need of help.

But what she found left her feeling like the victim of a bait and switch. And that asking for help amounted to a foot in the door she would never be able to close.

Reports viewed by APTN describe her as being “hostile and disagreeable” in her dealings with the agency as its workers laid out an agenda for her. She makes “comments that refute agency position, dismiss(es) concerns raised” and doesn’t “follow agency directives.”

These are all black marks in the eyes of a judge. Language agencies know gets results in their favor.

Piles of these notes and reports were used to seize the children and convince a judge to keep them away from their parents.

Dad gave up the fight months ago. That’s also documented. The parental capacity assessment says he’s “acknowledging an inability to cope with basic parenting.” Or he stopped trying to jump through the ever-changing, never-ending hoops laid out by a Winnipeg caseworker in her early 30s who has read a pile of textbooks on what kids need and how to parent to get her social work degree. Case closed for dad.

But mom’s continued fight is framed in court as her being “hostile and disagreeable.”

‘Failed system’

“It’s a failed system in Manitoba,” she says, weeks after struggling with depression and anxiety over the Sept 3 hearing.

“It’s corrupt and it’s harmful to the welfare and safety of children. And judges have the ability to remove your right to a trial based only on documentation CFS files and they can say whatever they want. Legal Aid lets it all happen because they aren’t being paid enough of a monetary incentive to truly fight for families. So there’s no hope.”

Instead of working like it should – to build stronger families – mom says the system works to keep itself in the business of child welfare.

The budget for this in Manitoba, according to the government’s own website, was $514 million in 2016-17.

That’s $46,800 per child in care: spent on feeding and housing, paying staff or foster families, legions of lawyers, and tens of thousands of child welfare workers to compose reports and others to read those reports filed in the system and with the government.

If, in the end, it resulted in better care for her kids than she could provide, it might be a silver lining.

But the special services CFS promised they could give her son in a group home – she says has not happened. No counselling. No specialized services for his multiple needs.

Mom isn’t just defeated and exhausted. She looks like she’s survived war. A war we all pay for, and choose to see as a necessary expense to protect at-risk kids from monsters.

It’s not lost on mom that that’s how most people feel – that she must be a monster if she doesn’t have her children. She sips coffee in her empty home filled with unused clothes and toys and books her children are rapidly out-growing.

“I give up,” is a message she types too often to her support system of other frustrated parents living in similar hell. But she always comes back to fight another round.

It’s unclear if that will continue – she’s not ready to say.

 

 

 

Host/Producer - Winnipeg

Melissa is a proud Red River Metis and award-winning journalist who has spent more 14 years covering crime, courts, politics, business and entertainment for newspapers in four provinces.
She then joined APTN Investigates in 2009 and APTN National News in 2018 and in that time has garnered numerous awards and nominations including from the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network (2013), Canadian Association of Journalists (2016, 2019) and Canadian Screen Awards (2018, 2019).