March 8, 2023
Fed. Govt., ON
‘A better way’: An Indigenous alternative to Ontario’s faltering child-welfare system
Global News: Ethan Pokno’s knee shakes nervously as he recalls the moment he says his whole life flashed before him.
He was 12 years old. He and his three younger brothers were sent to foster homes and — for Ethan and the second-oldest brother — ultimately a group home a 10-hour drive away. “Still scars me to this day,” he says.
There, Ethan says, he experienced violence, trauma and racism. And any connection to his Indigenous roots was severed. “You weren’t allowed to talk in your tongue. Staff would get mad, send you to your room, restrain you,” says Ethan, whose father and stepfather are both from Batchewana First Nation.
Indigenous kids and youth are vastly overrepresented in Ontario’s child-welfare system and often leave it more traumatized than when they entered it.
Mainstream children’s aid societies sometimes place kids wherever a “bed” is available — and that can be hundreds of kilometres away from a child’s community and culture. Until recently, babies were apprehended at birth, right from the hospital.
But an Indigenous organization called Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services has put a stop to that and has radically changed what child welfare looks like for their communities. At the helm, CEO Kerry Francis. “Our youth deserve to have a home instead of being shipped out down south and sitting in institutions,” Francis says.
Nogdawindamin petitioned the provincial government to take over child protection services for seven First Nations along the north shore of Lake Huron and — in 2017 — won. Its first order of business: to bring their children home.
READ MORE: Reports, inspections, a death: Red flags raised for years inside kids group home chain
Ethan had been living at a group home in eastern Ontario for two years, a place he was initially told he’d only be for a couple of months. But disappointment became a bedfellow. He says he couldn’t even see his brother when he asked. The two were placed in separate buildings and could only visit during designated outside time.
The more his requests to return home went unanswered, the angrier he became — hardened by sorrow and loneliness. “I thought I was never going to come back.”
The day Ethan learned Nogdawindamin had taken over his case is etched in his mind.“I remember that day perfectly clear,” he says, a slight grin crossing his face. “Almost like I was getting out of a prison.” On the long drive back to Sault Ste. Marie, Ethan and his brother sat in the car’s back seat and turned to each other. “We both said, ‘It’s over. We don’t gotta worry about it anymore.’”
Building ‘something out of the box’
In the years that followed, Nogdawindamin grew with incredible urgency — from 115 staff in 2017 to 380 today. The leaders of the First Nations met with Francis and were clear about what had to be done. He had to build something new, “something out of the box.”
Culture would be its foundation.
Children were to be raised in the community and provided services grounded in Anishnawbek values. Immediately, kids who had been placed in group homes were returned to live with relatives or community members. Ethan, then 15, was given a new home with his uncle.
READ MORE: How one Ontario child-welfare agency is fighting to fix a broken system
Nogdawindamin developed an ethos based on a “circle of care” — a belief that a healthy child flows from a healthy family and a healthy community. The circle had to support all three simultaneously.
High-needs youth with developmental or behavioural challenges are now given therapy to help develop coping and social skills. Their caregivers are supported by parenting coaches. Children are offered mental health services with a blend of western and traditional healers. Since 2018, nearly a thousand children have received such support.
Nogdawindamin provides mental health services to adults as well.
New moms struggling with substance abuse are given help at Nogdawindamin’s “neonatal hub” to prevent babies from being apprehended from the hospital. Workers there assist mothers with parenting skills, accessing addiction programs, and finding stable housing.
There are even volunteer “baby cuddlers” who provide infants exposed to drugs in the womb with skin-to-skin contact and give respite to their mothers. “It’s all about children, youth and families here on the North Shore,” Francis says. “Everybody deserves wellness.”
Reconnecting with their roots
Nestled among the towering pines of Batchewana First Nation is Nogdawindamin’s teaching lodge, snow camouflaging its white canvas roof, which sits low to the ground. Inside the lodge, a gentle dusting of snow from an advancing cold front drifts through a square cut-out air vent in the canvas ceiling, falling onto a fire below.
A fire-keeper places tobacco and cedar in the flames as an offering to the Creator. This lodge is sacred.
READ MORE: Inside Ontario’s ‘scary’ child-welfare system where kids are ‘commodities’
Families experiencing hardship come here to find wellness. Kids in care come here to find healing. There is no judgment here. And it took the community coming together to create it. When they built the lodge, Francis explains, men bent maple saplings to form the arches of the roof while women secured the branches with ties. It is a “mother’s womb,” he says.
There are six lodges like this one across Nogdawindamin’s region, with plans for a seventh this spring.
These lodges are one piece in Nogdwadmin’s journey to help its people reconnect with their roots. “I was never brought up with my culture. I was never raised on the reserve,” says Francis, who is from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. He’s the son of a residential school survivor, though his mother never spoke of her time there.
“Nogdawindamin has helped me on that personal journey — and I’m saying personal and not professional because it’s really helped me to understand my identity, who I am as an Indigenous person.” At Nogdawindamin’s core is a belief that a sense of identity and culture will strengthen individuals and families.
A key part of that is the restoration of their language, Anishinaabemowin.
But Nogdawindamin’s staff aren’t teaching from a textbook. In a hotel conference room in Sudbury, they’re playing Jeopardy! “Numbers for 500.”
Seventeen-year-old Chance Neil from Mississauga First Nation slaps the bell first. Ding! “Wegnesh Na Niizh?” — “What is number two?” Chance is one of more than 100 people who have gathered here at an Anishinaabemowin language conference hosted by Nogdawindamin.
In the next room, two 13-year-olds from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation are learning how to bead. The teenagers painstakingly thread each “manidoomenens” (bead) to make a red and black dress in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“In this time of truth and reconciliation, we are bringing our younger generation back to instil that strong sense of identity,” says Marlene Syrette, one of 39 people on Nogdawindamin’s cultural team. “When you have a strong sense of identity, it creates pride in who you are.”
An increase in kids in care
Despite all of Nogdawindamin’s efforts to restore culture and support families, the number of kids in care is growing. It’s not what they wanted to see.
In 2017, the agency had 109 kids in care. Today, there are 274. “Am I concerned about that? Yes. Is my team concerned about that? Yes, we’re very concerned,” Francis says. “But I think it has a lot to do with the systemic issues that Indigenous people have been exposed to: Indian residential schools, day schools, the Sixties Scoop. We’re dealing with that right now.”
Also, the opioid crisis is eviscerating Northern Ontario. In the last three years, there have been more opioid-related emergency room visits in the North East health region, which includes Nogdawindamin’s communities, than anywhere else in the province. Francis says that without his team’s prevention work, he believes the number of kids in care would be much higher.
“You can’t expect us to recover over five years from years and years and years of trauma and harm that’s been caused on Indigenous people.”
However, some see those numbers as a positive sign: a sign of trust. People are coming to Nogdawindamin for help who may have been hesitant to reach out to a non-Indigenous child protection agency. For a time, there was so much tension between the First Nations on the north shore and the local children’s aid society that one community, Mississauga First Nation, passed a band council resolution banning Algoma CAS from coming onto its territory.
Algoma CAS says that since then, it has worked hard to mend those relationships.
A fight for funding
The greatest source of friction for Nogdawindamin today is one that many Indigenous organizations struggle with: the government. It claims the province is underfunding Nogdawindamin by $18 million annually. “Our funding shortfalls are phenomenal,” Francis says.
Under an agreement with the federal government, Ontario is supposed to pay for child welfare services on reserves and be reimbursed. Last year, the province provided Nogdawindamin with $25 million in funding.
But Francis says that doesn’t come close to covering their “true child welfare costs.” The federal government has stepped in to bridge the gap. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canada was discriminating against First Nations youth by underfunding on-reserve services, forcing Ottawa to contribute more.
READ MORE: Canada accused of continued short-changing of First Nations kids, despite order to stop
And so, Nogdawindamin got another $30 million directly from Indigenous Services Canada. But there’s no guarantee that federal money will keep flowing, leaving the agency in a precarious position. “Ontario needs to wake up,” Francis says.
Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services says Nogdawindamin needs to work “within their allocated budget” and should “continue working with the federal government and other partners” for additional support. The ministry also says it’s making adjustments to its funding model to be more equitable toward “Indigenous, remote and northern societies.”
But funding is only one challenge. Provincial legislation hems in their dreams. “Those processes don’t work for us,” Francis says.
READ MORE: ‘Like a zombie’ — Ontario group home chain accused of overmedicating kids in care
The answer, Nogdawindamin believes, is for the First Nations on Lake Huron’s north shore to create their own child protection laws. In 2019, the federal government passed Bill C-92, which recognizes First Nations’ right to self-governance over child welfare.
Empowered, Nogdawindamin and the First Nations it represents are in the second year of a five-year plan to develop and implement their own laws. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s a better way to provide child welfare services, ” Francis says.
Today, Ethan Pokno is 21. He fidgets with the few hairs on his goatee that show he’s a man — though in so many ways, he’s been robbed of the childhood that led him here. He still has nightmares from his time at the group home in eastern Ontario and deep wells of anger that make him snap quickly.
Nogdawindamin has given him therapy, but the damage runs deep. “I don’t try to process it. I just bottle it — try and stuff it as far down as I can.” Ethan thought that once he turned 18 and “aged out of care,” he’d be on his own. But he’s reconnected with Nogdawindamin as part of a program that helps youths who’ve transitioned out of the child-welfare system.
His support worker, Katilin Whitely, has created a plan with him listing goals for success in adulthood and has put in an application with the federal government to fund it. It was just approved. “A cellphone plan, a bus pass so you can get to and from work,” itemizes Whitely.
He’ll need a housing subsidy. Dishes. Cutlery. He’s four credits shy of his high school diploma. He needs internet access.
It’s been eight years since Ethan was dropped off at that group home, where he felt abandoned. Today, he looks down at his new plan with Nogdawindamin and says something you don’t always hear from kids in care: “They’ll stay with you as long as you need.”
—with files from Maggie Feldbloom
May 5, 2022
All funding to support at-risk Indigenous families awarded to non-Indigenous agency
Toronto Star (Windspeaker): After 12 years of successfully supporting at-risk Indigenous families in the Grande Prairie area who have interactions with Alberta’s child welfare system, Mamewpitaw has not received the provincial dollars to keep operating. Worse than that, says Grande Prairie Friendship Centre (GPFC) president Leonard Auger, the money to support Indigenous families has gone to a non-Indigenous organization.
Mamewpitaw, operated by the GPFC, offered culturally focused intervention support and re-unification programs for Indigenous families at risk. It was the first time GPFC had to respond to a request for proposals to get funding for Mamewpitawn. In previous years the province had not requested proposals from contract holders for family intervention services, says program coordinator Abby Bourque.
“There were other friendship centres in the communities that we collaborated with in the writing of this proposal. So they were writing proposals for their communities,” she said.
Proposals went forward from Peace River and High Level, with High Level servicing both that community and Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement. While the Mamewpitaw program would have been new to the others, says Bourque, the proposals saw the friendship centres, including Grande Prairie, sharing Elders, land resources and other supports. She stressed that all the friendship centres had built strong relationships in their communities and had strong foundations.
None of the proposals from the friendship centres were approved. Instead, all of the region’s funding for family intervention services went to PACE, a non-Indigenous organization in Grande Prairie that focuses on sexual assault and trauma.
“Our program was unique in that everything was embedded in culture. Our participants felt like they belonged here. They felt that connection. We used wholistic approaches to healing and to giving them strategies for parenting and stuff, which is going to be that missing component with that other agency because they just aren’t equipped for that,” said Bourque. “We were shocked and surprised and quite honestly heartbroken because we just really believe in the work that we do.”
Now GPFC is scrambling to access other funding, both federal, through Jordan’s Principle, and provincial. They had applied for $700,000 through Alberta Children’s Services. “Whatever fits into what our vision is, we’ll be providing proposals for,” said Bourque.
In a news release from GPFC board, Children’s Services was called out for implementing an adjudication process for the Family Intervention Services funding that “did not include Indigenous representation as decision-makers, nor did it address factors and programming necessary for Indigenous people in its scoring criteria.”
June 14, 2022
Anishinabek Nation response to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child report on welfare of Indigenous children
ANISHINABEK NATION HEAD OFFICE (June 14, 2022) – On behalf of the Anishinabek Nation, Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe and Children’s Commissioner Ogimaa Duke Peltier have issued a statement in response to the recent report released by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressing deep concerns about the welfare of Indigenous children in Canada.
“All children deserve equal opportunity and access to adequate health care, education, nutrition, and shelter, surrounded by their family, community, culture, and history. In this era of truth and reconciliation, Canada must step forward to fulfill its obligation to the many Indigenous children who suffered and continue to suffer as a result of discrimination,” states Grand Council Chief Niganobe.
In 2021, the Parliament of Canada passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDRIPA), committing the Government of Canada to “take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).” The Government of Canada has since committed to implementing Article 14 of UNDRIP, honouring the rights of Indigenous peoples to “establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning”.
“Almost all First Nation children are still required, by law, to attend schools where they do not learn to speak their own languages. This amounts to the ongoing, forced, assimilation of these children. The perilous state of most First Nation languages makes the need for the implementation of Article 14 pressing and urgent. The implementation of Article 14 can be achieved through amendment of the Indigenous Languages Act, making it enforceable in Canadian courts,” states Commissioner Ogimaa Peltier.
Released on June 9, 2022, Concluding observations on the combined fifth and sixth reports of Canada recommends that Canada “put an end to structural discrimination against children belonging to Indigenous groups, and address disparities in access to services by all children, including those in marginalized and disadvantaged situations”. The report also raises concerns that Canada’s “child welfare system continues to fail to protect Indigenous children and adolescents from violence.”
“The Anishinabek Nation has been working tirelessly to advocate for and protect the rights of Anishinaabe children and youth. Through the Anishinabek Nation Child Well-Being Law, the Anishinabek Nation Child, Youth, and Family Well-Being System, and the Anishinabek Nation Children and Youth Bill of Rights, we are exercising inherent jurisdiction over child welfare to protect and promote the well-being of Anishinaabe children, youth, and families. We must honour each and every child to ensure the success of our future generations and to create the best future for our Nations,” adds Commissioner Peltier.
- Backgrounder: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act
- Backgrounder: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People
- Concluding observations on the combined fifth and sixth reports of Canada
- Draft Anishinabek Nation Child Well-Being Law
- Anishinabek Nation Children and Youth Bill of Rights
May 26, 2022
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs challenge Bill C-92 jurisdiction and provincial amendments to Child and Family Services Act
NationTalk: Treaty One Territory, Manitoba – The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) calls on the provincial government to work with First Nations before any amendment to the Child and Family Services Act (CFS Act) related to First Nations’ jurisdiction.
“The AMC has been clear and direct; government officials must support First Nations led jurisdiction over children and families. To be legislated under the realms of the provincial government only provides an illusion of First Nations jurisdiction. We refuse to continue taking on an oppressive system and genocidal policies that have destroyed our families, lands, and Nations,” said AMC Acting Grand Chief Cornell McLean, Lake Manitoba First Nations.
The proposed amendment to the CFS Act includes providing information for Indigenous Governing Bodies (IGB) and Indigenous Service Providers (ISP); authorizing the transfer of responsibility to IGB; accessing the Child and Family Services Information System (CFSIS) and Child Abuse Registry and protecting certain information under the CFS Act.
“Reconciliation is not about dictation and permitting First Nations to have access to their citizen’s information. As First Nations, we have the inherent right to care for and provide for our children in ways reflective of our laws and ways of being. To continue a piecemeal approach under the federal legislation, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis children, youth, and families, only further empowers the provincial government to control child welfare service for First Nations families,” said Acting Grand Chief McLean.
Since enacting the 2019 federal legislation, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children, youth, and families, the AMC has been advocating for a Manitoba First Nations specific approach to reforming the child welfare system. “When the Act was first introduced, we knew there were going to be challenges because First Nations are to enter into coordination agreements with both levels of government. If the federal government wants to honour its nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations, there is no need for provincial influence,” said Acting Grand Chief McLean.
“With the highest number of First Nations children in care, it is imperative that First Nations guide the process of restoring jurisdiction and reclaiming our inherent laws respecting children and families. We call on Manitoba to fulfill its commitments to First Nations self-determination by supporting our Nations as we lead the way forward,” said Acting Grand Chief McLean.
June 15, 2020
CTV News – The Province of Manitoba has announced it will end the controversial practice of birth alerts on June 30, 2020 and will instead refer vulnerable mothers and their children to social services and programs. Under the new system, Stefanson said Manitoba Child and Family Services (CFS) agencies will now be able to refer more women to programs, which will allow for the shift away from the birth alerts. The province announced it is investing $400,000 to double the capacity of the Mount Carmel Clinic’s Mothering Project (Manito Ikwe Kagiikwe) which helps connect vulnerable mothers with services and programs to support health and wellness for themselves and their children.
March 28, 2020
Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stephanson announced that there will be a delay in ending the controversial Birth Alert practice due to COVID-19. On Jan. 31, 2020, the government had announced that child welfare and public health systems in Manitoba will no longer issue birth alerts for high-risk expectant mothers as of April 1, 2020. In Manitoba, 282 infants under four days old were taken into care in 2017-2018. Roughly 90 per cent of children in care in Manitoba are Indigenous.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO) Grand Chief Jerry Daniels stated: ”Today, I stand with our southern First Nation CFS service providers as we turn the page and begin to implement a culturally-appropriate alternative to Manitoba’s Birth Alert practice, beginning on April 1, 2020.” In September of 2019, the SCO Chiefs-in-Summit issued a Directive to the Southern First Nations Network of Care (SFNNC) to develop a culturally-appropriate and safe alternative to Manitoba’s Birth Alert practice.
March 15, 2023
Changes needed to cutoff age for Child and Family Services support, Manitoba youth advocacy network says
Too many Manitoba kids aging out of care into homelessness every year, says director
CBC News: Every year, hundreds of children in Manitoba age out of the child welfare system, and advocates say too little is being done to offer early transitional support.
Now, some want the age cutoff for kids in care scrapped entirely.
In Manitoba, youth aging out of care are required to live on their own when they turn 18, except in special circumstances. “Many of those young people we have lost,” said Marie Christian, director of Voices: Manitoba’s Youth in Care Network.
“I’ve attended too many funerals for young people who grew up in care and either felt hopeless and decided to take their own life or fell into addictions,” she said. “Let’s just get rid of age-based transitions from care. Eighteen is an arbitrary number.”
There are about 10,000 children in care in Manitoba, around 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous. The province says 625 kids will age out of the system this year.
- Manitoba youth aging out of CFS care to continue receiving support during pandemic
- Advocates call to extend support for Manitoba youth in foster care beyond an age cut-off
Christian wants to see a system that takes into account the relationships youth in care have, the connections they have made, whether they have housing in place and whether they are ready to be on their own when they turn 18.
Some youth in care have their files closed immediately when they turn 18, whether they are prepared for it or not, she said — a system that sets young people up to face unnecessary challenges with everything from paying rent to finishing school or getting a job. “We also see young people who are put into a position to be exploited,” she said. “They’re vulnerable because they need a roof over their head. They need food.”
Instead of being able to access healthy forms of healing, many end up with addictions as they try to cope with the trauma they have encountered, she said, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Roughly half of those kids will continue to receive support through what’s called an agreement with a young adult, which provides continued funding to help them become independent — but too little is being done to help the rest, Christian said.
“We are definitely leading them to gaps and expecting them to navigate those gaps on their own.”
Putting youth at risk
Dysin Spence was just eight years old when he first encountered the child welfare system. He was apprehended while living on Peguis First Nation and placed in the care of his grandmother. His younger brother was placed with a non-Indigenous family they didn’t know, he said. “That really had an affect on me,” said Spence.
There was too little support to help him and his brother during their difficult youth years, he said, and his life started to spiral out of control. “I started to commit crime, started stealing and getting into negative peer groups,” said Spence. “I was sexually exploited. I would be, like, selling myself.… I was just trying to make money.”
By the age of 13, he had become a permanent ward of Child and Family Services. “I would just commit crimes again and go down the same cycle, and so I went back to jail for a really long time,” he said. “By the time I got out I was turning 18 … [and] there was little support from CFS.”
As a permanent ward of the province, Spence, now 20, is able to receive support through a young adult’s agreement. But not everyone in care is eligible. Spence said too many of his friends have fallen through the cracks of the system and ended up incarcerated or living on the street.
According to the 2022 Winnipeg Street census, 50 per cent of homeless people surveyed were involved in the child welfare system. Two-thirds of those people experienced homelessness within one year of leaving care.
“It’s a long-standing issue,” said Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Sherry Gott. But it’s one that doesn’t appear to be getting any better, she said. “That is not acceptable. You know our children deserve better than that.”
‘I’m sorry:’ families minister
Manitoba’s minister of families said the province is in the beginning phase of transforming the welfare system and acknowledged there is an opportunity to work with community members, leaders and people with lived experience to make it better. “We know that it takes a village to raise a child, and that village certainly needs to even be more solidified as kids become young adults,” Rochelle Squires said in a Tuesday interview with CBC.
“It’s also dealing with a system that has historically not been there to support them.”
Squires said she knows there are kids who feel like they’ve fallen through the cracks of a system that failed them. “I’m sorry,” Squires said in response, pledging to do better for those kids. “This has been a system that has had many, many instances where families have not been supported, children have not been supported, family reunification has not been paramount — and we’re changing that.”
Squires said the province is trying to help youth access resources more easily when they age out of the system. The province currently has four mentorship hubs, with six others planned, designed to support youth exiting care by providing outreach, case management and support services, and making sure they’re aware of benefits they are entitled to.
Too many resources are going underutilized, Squires said, such as a shelter benefit (increased to $350 from $250 in last week’s budget) available for youth exiting care. Only around 20 per cent of youth take advantage of the benefit, she said. “We must do a better job of informing them, and I think these youth hubs will do a really key job in connecting them with resources.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brittany Greenslade, Reporter
Brittany Greenslade is an award-winning journalist who joined CBC in 2023. Prior to that she worked with Global News for 11 years, covering health, justice, crime, politics and everything in between. Brittany won the RTDNA Dan McArthur In-Depth Investigative award in 2018 for her stories that impacted government change after a Manitoba man was left with a $120,000 medical bill. Share tips and story ideas: email@example.com
February 22, 2019
Child Welfare Funding Objections
The government of Manitoba met with the Indigenous Leadership Council (Manitoba Métis Federation, Southern Chiefs’ Organization and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak) for first time in over two years despite a previous commitment to meet every quarter. The heads of the Indigenous Leadership Council met again with Minister of Families Heather Stefanson on Apr. 3, 2019 over concerns with the province’s block funding for child welfare that is still based on the old funding formula that rewards removing children from homes. There is no room in this block funding for prevention, no support to keep our families together. Right now, the proposed changes amount to $41.66 a month or a $1.39 per day for each child. Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand
By relying on the federal Children’s Special Allowance (CSA) program to offset maintenance costs, the province is forcing our children to pay for their own care.” Under the federal government, the Children’s Special Allowance program is administered on a per-child basis and is equivalent to the combined maximum of the Canada Child Benefit (CBA) and Child Disability Benefit (CDB). These payments are meant for children in care. However, Manitoba is reducing child maintenance against the CSA funding. The Indigenous Leadership Council stands united in the fight for our children and families.”
January 4, 2023
Cree girl who died should never have been taken by Children’s Services, Alberta judge finds
Fatality inquiry examined the circumstances of 4-year-old Serenity’s death
Warning: This story contains a graphic image.
CBC News: The death of a four-year-old Cree girl in 2014 was the result of her being taken away from her mother by Children’s Services years earlier, an Alberta judge has found. The young girl, Serenity, was living with her great aunt and uncle in a kinship care arrangement in Maskwacis, Alta., when she sustained a major head injury on Sept. 18, 2014.
She died in hospital after being taken off life support on Sept. 27, 2014.
When details of her death became public — along with photos of her bruised and emaciated body in hospital — a wave of public outrage prompted several investigations, lawsuits and ultimately reform of provincial child welfare laws.
In 2017, the caregivers were charged with a single count of failing to provide the necessaries of life. That charge was withdrawn in 2019 when Crown prosecutors said there was no longer a reasonable likelihood of conviction.
A public fatality inquiry was held in 2021, overseen by provincial court Judge Renee Cochard.
CBC is not publishing Serenity’s surname, or identifying her mother or her caregivers, in order to protect the identities of Serenity’s siblings.
More than eight years after Serenity’s death, Cochard’s 117-page report was published Wednesday. It concludes that despite numerous investigations, there are still many unanswered questions about what happened.
Still, Cochard points to failings by Children’s Services and other agencies and officials that Serenity encountered in her short life. “What led up to her death started the day she was removed from the care of her mother,” Cochard wrote in her report.
Cochard found that Children’s Services was on a quest to prevent Serenity’s mother from regaining custody of the little girl and her two older half-siblings, who were also placed with the great aunt and uncle. “The entire system appears to have worked against this goal, despite [the mother] maintaining a strong involvement with her children throughout and making best efforts to meet the demands of Children’s Services,” the judge said in the report.
Cochard cites the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which found that the apprehension of Indigenous children from their families is a form of discrimination that is incentivized by state funding. “As the report found, apprehension is a form of violence against the child and mother,” the judge said in her report. “In this case, the result of that violence was Serenity’s death.”
Cochard makes 20 recommendations to help prevent similar deaths in the future. A list of the recommendations, the majority of which are directed at the Children’s Services ministry, can be found at the end of this story.
Minister of Children’s Services Mickey Amery’s office did not respond when asked if the ministry will adopt the recommendations, but said in a written statement said that substantial changes have already been made. “We will continue to make and support improvements going forward, including reviewing the fatality inquiry judge’s recommendations with all of the seriousness this death deserves,” Amery said.
In an interview with CBC, Serenity’s mother said she thinks the recommendations are good but worries they won’t be acted upon. “I’m glad that child welfare is being outed for their mistakes and their wrongdoings, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there was not justice for Serenity,” she said.
How did Serenity die?
Cochard found that the cause of Serenity’s death was a serious brain injury sustained when she fell from a tire swing in her guardian’s yard, and that the death was accidental. “We will never know exactly what happened on that day except that Serenity was on the swing, fell and hit her head causing massive brain damage,” Cochard said.
The finding is difficult for Serenity’s mother because the medical examiner who did the autopsy originally reported that while it was possible a fall caused Serenity’s injury, the exact circumstances could not be determined.
Cochard was also struck by the evidence that Serenity was severely emaciated at the time of her death, and noted that a specialist who examined the child while she was in hospital wondered if the child’s poor condition played a role in the fall. “Would she have been able to hang on to the swing to avoid falling had she been stronger?” Cochard wrote.
The final report from the medical examiner wasn’t completed until 2016 — the inquiry heard that was because of difficulty in finding a neuropathologist to examine Serenity’s brain due to understaffing in Alberta.
Cochard found that the delay in a report being produced caused unnecessary and prolonged stress for the family. According to the inquiry report, medical notes made during Serenity’s hospitalization indicated evidence of possible sexual abuse, but during the autopsy the medical examiner determined there were no signs of it.
“This has caused the family a great deal of anxiety and could have easily been avoided if the report had been completed on time,” Cochard said. “A preliminary report produced without the neuropathologist’s report would have alleviated the family’s uncertainty.”
Findings about Children’s Services
Cochard’s report details the actions of the various child welfare workers that Serenity and her mother dealt with over the years, and finds that the “default position” of Children’s Services seemed to be to take the children away from their mother. In-depth reporting from CBC on the details of how Serenity and her siblings ended up in the child welfare system, and how their mother tried to get help when she believed her children were mistreated, can be read here.
Cochard found that an affidavit sworn by Serenity’s mother’s longtime caseworker Leanne Worthington, made in support of the great aunt and uncle’s private guardianship application, was “filled with, at best, misinformation and omissions, at worst, deliberate misleading statements.”
The judge found Worthington’s case notes painted a picture of Serenity’s mother trying hard to follow through on all directions given to her, while receiving nearly no help or support from Children’s Services.
Serenity’s siblings lived with their mother until they were apprehended in 2010. Serenity was taken in 2011 when she was six months old, after her mother made a report about being a victim of domestic violence.
Cochard found that the reasons for apprehending the children did not meet the high bar that warrants separating a family. “In this case, I do not find these concerns existed and if they did, they could have been addressed in a manner to ensure the children remained with their mother,” the judge wrote.
The judge was critical of how Children’s Services workers rushed to place Serenity and her half siblings first in a permanent guardianship, and later a private guardianship placement with the great aunt and uncle, despite objections raised by Serenity’s mother and others.
Cochard noted that caseworker supervisor Pamela Orr’s testimony left the impression that Children’s Services was more concerned with process than with the welfare of the children. “When asked about that short transition process, Ms. Orr’s response was that of a person whose interest was not of the best interests of the child, but the best interests of the adults involved,” Cochard said.
During the inquiry Lise LaPlante, who was a caseworker trainee at the time she worked with Serenity’s family, defended how Children’s Services responded to allegations of neglect and abuse in the kinship home in 2013.
Cochard found that many red flags were missed that should have been better investigated. “Overall, Ms. LaPlante’s testimony left me with the impression that she was trying hard to protect herself and Children’s Services from wrongdoing,” Cochard said.
Cochard was also critical of many other workers, agencies and figures — including the special investigator who admitted to rushing the investigation of abuse allegations and a doctor who didn’t follow up when Serenity was never brought in for follow-up appointments about her weight.
The inquiry report also found that a Children’s Services visit supervisor who raised concerns about the children being placed with the great aunt and uncle was fired shortly after, in April 2013. In October 2013, once the private guardianship order was made, Children’s Services closed its files on Serenity and her siblings.
Jurisdiction over the children was transferred to Akamkisipatinaw Ohpikihawasowin Child and Family Services (AKO) — an on-reserve child welfare agency at Maskwacis. It no longer exists.
But Cochard found that neither Children’s Services or AKO took steps to ensure that important information about the children was transferred between the two agencies.
Cochard noted that AKO also failed to properly follow up on a report to RCMP about how thin the children had gotten when they were seen wandering alone in West Edmonton Mall by security in June 2014 — just a few months before Serenity’s death. The inquiry also heard about policy and practice changes that Children’s Services has made since Serenity’s death. Cochard found that while there have been improvements, further work is needed.
Findings about the kinship caregivers
Serenity’s great aunt and uncle have previously denied all allegations that there was abuse and neglect in their home. While giving evidence during the inquiry, the great aunt said they did not have a lawyer and believed they didn’t have all the information they needed about Serenity and her siblings before they gained custody of them.
“It is most unfortunate that [the great aunt] believed she was lacking information regarding the children, responsibilities regarding kinship care and obligations of private guardians. All of this could have been easily provided by Children’s Services and a lawyer should have been appointed to advise her,” Cochard said.
Calls for change
Serenity’s mother gave evidence during the inquiry that left Cochard with the impression of an intelligent, concerned parent devoted to her surviving children’s well-being. The mother, now in her 30s, lives in British Columbia. She and her partner have five children.
Cochard found that even though Serenity’s mother was struggling as a young person, she had bonded with and cared for her kids when they were apprehended. “She never lost sight of wanting to get her children back. She could have walked away, but she did not. Children’s Services has spent thousands of dollars keeping these children away from their mother,” Cochard said.
“Had this money been spent on providing services to [the mother], such as childcare support, a home, proper financial help … the inquiry’s view is that the end result would have been much different.”
Serenity’s mother said she appreciates that Cochard acknowledged what her family has gone through, but is skeptical that there is a willingness in Alberta to change the system. “Our younger generation — they aren’t going to do better if the system doesn’t do better,” she said.
Based on her findings, Cochard makes 20 recommendations for changes that she believes could help prevent deaths similar to Serenity’s in the future:
- Ensure broad supports for Indigenous mothers, and make every effort to keep mothers and children together. If an apprehension takes place, children should be returned to their mother at the earliest possible date.
- Medical examiners’ reports should be completed in a timely manner, no later than six months.
- All permanent guardianship orders should specifically address the issue of access by the biological parents.
- Biological parents should be appointed a Legal Aid lawyer as soon as their child is apprehended.
- Biological parents and their lawyers should be granted access to all relevant documents related to apprehension and guardianship.
- Home studies for potential guardians must be done no earlier than two months before the application is heard in court.
- Home study reports for potential guardians must address information about both biological and foster parents.
- When a complaint is made regarding children’s care after a permanent guardianship order has been made, it must be fully investigated by a person qualified to investigate abuse and neglect cases. Any investigative reports must be considered as part of a private guardianship application.
- A person applying for kinship or private guardianship should have independent legal counsel.
- Private guardianship should not be granted if there are outstanding medical or psychological issues until a court is satisfied they have been addressed.
- If children in care are moved to a new jurisdiction, Children’s Services must notify the new jurisdiction and supply complete case files.
- All foster parents and guardians should receive all past medical records of children in their care.
- Children should be assessed to see if any supports are required when transitioning between foster and kinship care.
- During abuse investigations, the investigator must have access to Children’s Services cases files, interview all members of the household and perform a home visit.
- Proper transition time should be allowed for children moving from a long-term foster placement to kinship care.
- During death review investigations, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate must interview all persons who were involved with the child, even those who left their position after the child’s death.
- All employees of Children’s Services and delegated First Nations agencies working with children in care should complete the foundations of caregiver support upon commencement of their employment.
- The kinship assessment and support for kinship caregiving model should be implemented throughout Alberta.
- Children should have a lawyer appointed for them in any application for private guardianship status.
- Cochard endorsed the strategies related to child welfare outlined in a 2021 report by the Alberta Joint Working Group on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, specifically those that focus on reducing the apprehension of Indigenous children.
The fatality inquiry office has sent requests for responses to the recommendations to Alberta Health Services, Children’s Services, the deputy minister of Justice, Legal Aid, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paige Parsons is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has specialized in justice issues and city hall, but now covers anything from politics to rural culture. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 9, 2021
Cuts to Child Welfare Budgets
Southern Chiefs Organization (SCO) – criticized the 2021 provincial budget cuts for foster care and child protection, with the budget dropping below $500 million for the first time in four years. The province claims that efficiencies are the reason for the decreasing budget, but for too long, children in care, 90% of whom are Indigenous, have received inadequate support and investments from the province.
“I’m completely astounded that the provincial government is making cuts to children in care at this time,” stated Deborah Smith, Chair of the Chiefs’ Standing Committee on Child Welfare and Chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. “They already illegally claw back the Children’s Special Allowance payments, money that comes from the federal government meant for children in care, in order to balance the budget. Now they are further undermining these children’s wellbeing and future opportunities by cutting the budget to its lowest in years.”
September 25, 2019
Fed. Govt., ON
Deaths of Indigenous Children in Child Welfare
72 Indigenous children connected to child welfare died in northern Ontario, where three Indigenous agencies covering most of the territory were underfunded approximately $400 million over a five-year period. The number of deaths jumps to 102 Indigenous children when looking at the entire province between 2013 to 2017. Almost half of the deaths, 48 in total, happened in the two years it took Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to respond to multiple orders made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that first found Canada guilty of purposely underfunding on-reserve child welfare in its historic decision on Jan. 26, 2016.
Suicide = 38; Accident = 24; Undetermined = 22; Natural = 17; Homicide = 1 (APTN)
But while the federal government may be the bagman, funding at least 93 per cent of on-reserve child welfare, the Ontario government created the system where these children died and provides the law within which the child welfare agencies operate. It’s a system that has been found to be a complete failure over and over up until just last year when the chief coroner of Ontario released a special report into the deaths of 12 children who died in care, eight of whom were Indigenous. During the five-year period between 2013 and 2017 the coroner lists 541 deaths involving child welfare and 102 were Indigenous. Indigenous people represent less than three per cent of Ontario’s population.
“Safe with Intervention” – Report of the Expert Panel on the deaths of Children and Youth in residential Placements September 2018. Office of the Chief Coroner
To the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario:
- Immediately provide equitable, culturally and spiritually safe and relevant services to Indigenous young people, families and communities in Ontario.
To the Ministries of Children, Community and Social Services, Education, Health and Long-Term Care, and Indigenous Affairs:
- Identify and provide a set of core services and support an integrated system of care for young people and their families across a wholistic continuum to every child in Ontario.
- Services must include health, mental health and wellbeing, education, recreation, child care, children’s mental health, early intervention services, prevention services and developmental services. Service provision should be geared to the needs and intensity of needs, of each young person and family.
- Develop a wholistic approach to the identification of, service planning for and service provision to high-risk young people (with or without child welfare involvement) that supports continuity of care to age 21 years.
- Strengthen accountability and opportunities for continuous improvement of the systems of care through measurement, evaluation and public reporting.
To the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services:
- Immediately enhance the quality and availability of placements for young people in care.
May 12, 2023
First Nations mothers allegedly told babies died shortly after birth in Saskatchewan hospitals
APTN News: The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) in Saskatchewan has asked the RCMP to investigate a pair of cases from 1967 and 1982 involving allegations that hospital staff falsely told mothers their babies had died shortly after birth to possibly facilitate a deceptive adoption scheme.
“The cruelty that was shown is just unthinkable,” says FSIN 4th Vice Chief Heather Bear, “as a mother, as a grandmother, I’m very disturbed.” In both cases, Indigenous mothers were allegedly told by staff at hospitals their babies had died shortly after birth, but years later there are indications both of these infants may have lived.
The RCMP began looking into the FSIN’s files on this in 2021, but as of now, the investigation seems to have stalled. The RCMP declined an interview with APTN Investigates but issued a statement indicating no charges have been made, and that the “RCMP is committed to following up on any new information received for either file and to keeping the families informed of any potential future developments.”
Melvina Bear – originally from Witchekan Lake First Nation – was 16-years-old and unwed when she went into Battlefords Union Hospital in North Battleford, Saskatchewan She was complaining of abdominal pain and didn’t know she was pregnant, but soon found herself giving birth to a baby boy. “And then the doctor right away, he said, ‘If your baby survives the night, we’re going to send them to Saskatoon,’ says Bear, “And they basically after he was born, they basically just like took him right away.”
Next, Bear says she was given medicine to put her to sleep. “I’ve had seven other kids and I’ve never been given meds just to help me sleep,” says Bear. Bear says at some point she was awakened and asked to sign forms.“This could have been done at discharge night, not in the middle of the night after they said, ‘here’s your baby, he died.’, says Bear.
Bear was never given a body to bury, and was only given a baby to hold momentarily in her groggy, medicated state. Years later, Bear was upset to discover her son’s name – Lawrence Joseph Bear – was on the band member’s list at Witchekan Lake First Nation.
To have her son’s name removed from the membership list, because as far as she knew he was dead, Bear attempted to obtain proof that he’d died. Her first call was to Saskatchewan’s Vital Statistics department. “I explained everything and then she goes, ‘I’ll put you on hold,’” says Bear. “It was a little bit of quiet and she comes back and she goes, ‘as of today as we are speaking right now, there is no record of your son’s death.’”
Next, Bear inquired with the federal government’s Indigenous Services department, and that’s when things got even more interesting.
On the phone, a staff member searching the status number her son was born with found a record indicating he’d applied for status card in 2000 when he would have turned 18 years old. Indigenous Services confirms that this person has the same birthdate as Lawrence, but a different name. A name that the department has so far refused to reveal to Melvina Bear.
Weeks later, Melvina Bear is still waiting for an answer or any significant help – and a recent email update from Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller’s office doesn’t offer much hope the mystery will be solved soon. The message from a press secretary and communications advisor to Miller’s office reads: “…there are sensitivities, including privacy laws, surrounding Melvina’s issue which require us to take the appropriate steps in gathering the necessary information. Officials have been in regular communication with Melvina so they can assist in the search for her son.
“As of April 25, 2023 they have found a name match for the date of birth. However, there is no contact information associated with this name. They will continue working with Melvina and supporting her, to the best of their abilities, until she has answers. As the conversations between Melvina and officials are personal, we will not disclose their contents.
“It is not up to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations to decide whether Melvina and her son should be reunited. Crown-Indigenous Relations’ role is to support Melvina by providing information and explore options – which takes time – to ensure it is done accurately and in a sensitive way, to avoid retraumatization. If Melvina’s son is located, it will be up to him to decide whether he wishes to proceed with next steps in contacting his mother.”
It is noteworthy that although the minister’s office says it is not up to them “to decide whether Melvina and her son should be reunited,” they are the only government entity that APTN is aware of that possesses a record connecting Lawrence Joseph Bear’s original status number and his date of birth, with his post-apprehension name.
APTN asked the RCMP if they asked Indigenous Services for the name of the man in their files who may be Melvina Bear’s son, but they declined to answer. Nor would they give us any details about their investigation into a similar case also passed on to them by the FSIN.
In March of 1967, Georgina MacDonald came into the Uranium City hospital from her home in Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan. She gave birth and the baby was quickly taken away by a nurse.
MacDonald – who is from Lac Du Fond First Nation and whose first language is Dene – described to APTN how she gave birth without any assistance from hospital staff. “I was ringing that bell but there’s nobody,” says MacDonald, “So, a baby born on my back. And then what happened was nurse and doctor came in, the baby moving lots and she put her on her shoulder. I heard the baby cry. So she went out the hallway and I heard the baby still crying.”
Later, after awakening from sleep, MacDonald was allegedly told that her baby had died. She pressed to see the body, but was, she says, told that it had been sent elsewhere for an autopsy. Days later when speaking to a doctor at the hospital, MacDonald continued to ask to see her baby’s body. Joan Strong is MacDonald’s daughter and tells the story of what happened next.
“Finally, the doctor said to her, ‘Your baby died because you’re an alcoholic,’” says Strong. “My mother has never drank in her life. I grew up with a sober, sober mother.” Strong is assisting her mother in making inquiries related to what might have happened to her mother’s child born in 1967. A sense that something was amiss prompted her to make some calls.
Oddly, Strong says Saskatchewan Vital Statistics told her they have no record of birth or death from March 1967 when MacDonald went into the hospital in Uranium City. She says she was also told by health officials that no records exist from Uranium City’s hospital – that they had been destroyed.
But then, there was a breakthrough.
Someone anonymously sent Strong a photo of her Mom’s hospital record, a file listing her Mom’s visits – including the one when she gave birth in March of 1967. In another odd twist, an original entry for the 1967 visit has been covered with correction fluid and written over by hand.
But it indicates that Georgina was there for OBS, that is, an obstetrics-related visit. Later, when the RCMP investigated Georgina MacDonald’s case at the request of the FSIN, Strong says they were able to subpoena the same document she’d been sent a photo of.
Naturally, MacDonald and her family would like to know what happened to that baby – and why there is no record of death or birth. APTN asked the RCMP whether any attempt had been made to determine what was written under the correction fluid on Georgina MacDonald’s chart, but they did not provide an answer.
The RCMP did however issue the following statement: “Saskatchewan RCMP has fulsomely investigated both files, with the assistance of agencies including the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, Saskatchewan Health Authority, the Alberta Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons, Athabasca Health Authority, Indigenous Services Canada, Vital Statistics, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services.
“Investigators have provided updates to the families through this investigational process. No charges have been laid. Generally speaking, Saskatchewan RCMP does not comment on the specifics of its investigations to protect the privacy of the parties involved, and to preserve the integrity of any potential resulting court process.”
In the meantime, Joan Strong is going to keep pushing for answers. “I’d like my parents to have closure – I want my parents to know where their baby is,” she says, “I don’t know if this child is ever going to want to know us. The saddest thing I heard my mother say was what if my child doesn’t want to be with us. What if my child doesn’t like us. No mother should ever ask that. We come from a loving mother.”
“My mother wasn’t even given the honour to even touch her child,” adds Strong. “This is totally not a sixties scoop. This is friggin’ abduction. This is criminal negligence. This is right from her womb. I don’t even like to describe what this is. This is not right.”
Her Mom’s story – and Melvina Bear’s too – is now on the radar of Métis academic Allyson Stevenson, faculty member in Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Intimate Integration: A History of the Sixties Scoop and the Colonization of Kinship. “I did not come across any of those types of stories in the records that I reviewed, but it’s not to say that I haven’t had people share similar types of concerns with me about experiences in their family that they’re looking to find more information about them,” says Stevenson.
As the title of her book indicates, Stevenson sees the policies of apprehending Indigenous children and giving them up for adoption to white families as the “colonization of kinship.” “Colonization is often seen in terms of land and resources, perhaps health and legal and governance structures, but looking broadly at various ways in which the Indian Act specifically targeted gender relations, marital relations and child-rearing, I saw this child removal adoption as a form of colonization of specifically kinship, Indigenous forms of kinship and caring that were deeply embedded and important for Indigenous nations,” says Stevenson.
But Stevenson says that schemes like the ones MacDonald and Bear may have been victims of, are especially awful. “It’s appalling. It’s criminal, actually. It’s a criminal offense,” says Stevenson, “So I think it requires follow-up. And I think we need to really understand what’s happened with these children and what’s happened to these women.”
Heather Bear with the FSIN agrees and she is hoping more women come forward. “I look at the forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls,” says Bear. “We started with a handful of ladies, women. And I think we’re nearing 100, you know, in terms of a class action…. We don’t know who, how many, but we know there’s stories of others.”
And Bear doesn’t stop at invoking the possibility of a class action lawsuit. “We call on the province, the federal government, whoever it may be, to have an inquiry,” says Bear.
APTN would like to hear from women who think they might have experienced something similar too.
In researching this story, APTN found a published account from 1989 about a Mom who was lied to by social workers and told her baby had died 39 years previously, in order to clear the way for an illegal apprehension and adoption of her son.
Edna Carnell was joyously reunited with her son Warren Clark, and APTN is hopeful it can put a spotlight on this phenomenon and ultimately assist in reuniting other mothers with their stolen children – starting with Melvina Bear and her son, Lawrence Joseph Bear.
If you have a similar story to share, please reach out to reporter Christopher Read.
April 19, 2022
Indigenous Youth Care in Montreal
NationTalk: Exactly six months after it asked the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission to launch an inquiry on its own initiative into systemic racism in employment and service delivery at Batshaw Youth and Family Centers, the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) still has not received any response.
The silence is treated as the Commission’s failure to live up to its national commitment on Reconciliation and the Viens Commission’s calls to action on access to justice for Indigenous people. Last week, NWSM called on Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière and the Minister responsible for Youth Protection, Lionel Carmant, to intervene.
On October 19, 2021, NWSM in cooperation with CRARR asked that the Commission examine barriers to the equitable representation of Indigenous people in all job categories at Batshaw and the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, which manages Batshaw. NWSM has been concerned about staffing practices that discriminate against Indigenous people, such as filling designated Indigenous positions with non-Indigenous people, and job requirements that exclude Indigenous candidates.
NWSM also asks that the Commission examine systemic racism in services for Indigenous families at Batshaw, including problems with accurate data collection on Indigenous status resulting in misidentification of Indigenous clients; racial profiling of Indigenous children and mothers, and perpetual lack of culturally adapted services.
In November, NSWM’s request received official support from Quebec Native Women and the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL). In fact, AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard wrote to the Commission Chair Philippe-André Tessier himself in support of the request.
Six months later, the Commission has yet to respond. In the meantime, other incidents involving Batshaw’s treatment of Indigenous children continue to raise concerns.
Despite CRARR’s request for an update on March 17, 2022, the Commission has never replied.
November 19, 2019
Indigenous Youth Care in Montréal
APTN: Release of “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Child Welfare Services for indigenous clientele living in Montreal” presents a scathing analysis of Indigenous youth care in the Montreal area. Assembled over three years by stakeholders from the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, Concordia University, Rising Sun Daycare, and the Youth Department of the public health network, Centre Integre Universitaire de Sante et de Services Sociaux Ouest de l’ile de Montreal (CIUSSS-ODIM), the goal of the project was to “gain a better understanding of the ways Indigenous children and families are responded to by the child welfare system in Montreal.” Some of the issues identified in the report include:
- Children from Nunavik were told to stop speaking in Inuktitut
- all Inuit children were placed with non-Indigenous foster families
- apprehended children wished to remain in contact with their family but were denied access by social workers or foster families.
- Children removed from home are not offered any emotional support and siblings are often denied contact or access to each other
- Foster families lack of knowledge and sensitization has resulted in racist comments and prejudice towards the children’s parents
At the time of the report’s publication, Batshaw “did not employ any Indigenous people.” Of the health network’s estimated 10,000 employees, there are less than 10 Indigenous employees. Even the network’s sole “Indigenous liaison” is non-Indigenous.
The “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” report identifies 22 Recommendations under the following themes:
- Education for Non-Indigenous Staff, Leaders and Decision-Makers (3 aligned with 8 Viens Commission Calls for Action)
- Representations (7 aligned with 4 Viens Commission Calls to Action)
- Policy Level Changes (12 aligned with 10 Viens Commission Calls to Action)
- CIUSSS-ODIM is to deliver an annual progress report with the first report due in Dec 15, 2020
May 3, 2021
Laurent Commission Final Report
The Special Commission on the Rights of the Child and Youth Protection (Laurent Commission), released their Final Report. The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) and the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission (FNQLHSSC) would like to thank the commissioners, …for their openness to including a chapter dedicated to First Nations and Inuit and recommending changes to Quebec legislation based on the needs expressed during the hearings. However, the time has come for our nations to determine the future and wellness of our families and children through child and family services that are designed and administered by our own governments. “For a long time, Canada and Quebec have acted as if they knew better than us for what was good for our people. Clearly, they were wrong. For example, data shows that First Nations children are six times more likely than non-Indigenous children to have their security or their development deemed by the youth protection system to be compromised. Thanks to An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families (Bill C-92), we have the opportunity to regain control over our lives, and that’s exactly what we intend to do,” said Derek Montour, President of the FNQLHSSC Board of Directors.
“We welcome the efforts of the Laurent Commission on improving the application of the Quebec Youth Protection Act but our primary focus, as First Nations Chiefs, will be to continue focusing our efforts on supporting First Nations jurisdictions exercising their inherent rights in child and family services, which includes legislative authority in relation to those services and authority to administer and enforce laws made under that legislative authority,” continued Richard O’Bomsawin, Chief of Odanak, political representative of the regional Committee of Experts and member of the Chiefs Committee on Child and Family Services and Self-Determination.
“First Nations have the right to self-determination, including the inherent right to self-government, which includes jurisdiction over child and family services. We reiterate that we will never accept that our rights are subordinated to those of another people, especially when it comes to the wellness of our children, youth and families. We believe that reforming the legislative framework for youth protection in Quebec, in a complementary fashion with and in support of the governance and laws of the First Nations, is a fundamental matter. We are counting on the full cooperation of the Government of Quebec in this regard,” concluded the Chief of the AFNQL, Ghislain Picard.
February 12, 2020
Laurent Commission Final Report
The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) and the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission (FNQLHSSC) – presented a joint brief to the Laurent Commission (Special Commission on the Rights of Children and Youth Protection) aimed in particular at reaffirming the rights of First Nations to decide on the future and education of their children. The two organizations made recommendations that affect Act C-92, Bill 31, which aims to authorize the communication of personal information concerning certain missing or deceased Aboriginal children to their families, and the Youth Protection Act (YPA). The AFNQL and the FNQLHSSC have reiterated their constitutional right to manage family support and youth protection services, according to Act C-92, and are asking the Government of Quebec to withdraw its dispute and negotiate coordination agreements in good faith with First Nations governments and Canada. With regard to the YPA, they are also calling for:
Indigenous children to be exempted from the application of the maximum periods of foster care and
that the regulation on financial assistance to promote the adoption and tutorship of a child be amended.
More generally, the two organizations recommend that Quebec implement measures that respond appropriately to the calls for justice of the “National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” and the calls to action of the “Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Québec“.
November 28, 2022
Mother of Cree teen who died in B.C. group home testifies at coroner’s inquest
In the days after her son disappeared, Samantha Chalifoux said she knocked on doors and windows of the British Columbia group home where he was living, only to learn later that his body had been found hanging in closet of the same house.
Chalifoux was the first witness to testify Monday at the BC Coroners Service inquest into the death of 17-year-old Traevon Desjarlais, whose body was found in the Abbotsford, B.C., home on Sept. 18, 2020.
Her son had been reported missing four days earlier, and Chalifoux told the inquest a staff member called to ask if she had seen him, telling her that his room had been checked.
The Cree teen had been living in the home operated by the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society under contract to the provincial government.
- Teen was found dead in B.C. care home days after reported missing, chiefs group says
- Family, First Nation leaders want public inquiry into death of Indigenous teen found in group home
- Care agency launches internal probe into 17-year-old’s death
- ‘Unprecedented’: B.C. Human Rights Tribunal awards Indigenous mom $150K in discrimination case
Throughout her testimony, Chalifoux asked where those who were supposed to care for her son were, including social workers and staff at the group home. “How is it that my son goes missing for four days in their care, when they’re supposed to be there to support him and care for him?” she said, crying.
“Even though I banged on the door, called, nobody was there,” she said. “During these four days, my son was hanging in his own closet in the bedroom.”
The five-member coroner’s jury will hear evidence from witnesses under oath, but the inquest is not a fault-finding inquiry. A statement from the coroner said the jury will make recommendations on ways to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.
In a voice filled with emotion,Chalifoux described Desjarlais as “outgoing,” saying he was happy spending time with his younger brother and he wanted to secure a good job.
She said her son had been apprehended from her at birth, and he had grown up living with aunts and an uncle before coming to stay with her in his early teens.
Chalifoux testified her son would call her in the weeks after he arrived at the group home, saying he was hungry, but was told he would have to wait for food. She said he also told her he was denied clean bedding and wanted a new mattress but never received one. She was later shown text messages suggesting a social worker had shared those requests with staff at the home.
Coroner Margaret Janzen asked Chalifoux whether her son was “fussy” about food when he lived with her. She said he was not.
Desjarlais’s physician, Dr. Andrew Johnson, later testified that he saw the teen around 2018 when his caregiver at the time, his uncle, said he was a “picky” eater. “I noticed he was of small stature,” said Johnson, adding subsequent blood tests did not show any abnormal results.
The second witness called Monday was Rubina Dhaliwal, a crisis counsellor with the Fraser Health Authority. She appeared at the inquest via video conference.
Dhaliwal testified she first met Desjarlais in September 2017, when he was in Grade 9. She said staff at his school had requested a risk assessment after he attempted suicide.
During the assessment, Dhaliwal said Desjarlais denied making an attempt to end his life but told her he “wanted to feel better” and he was open to counselling.
Dhaliwal said she worked with the teen on a safety plan, outlining steps to recognize “warning signs” and coping mechanisms that he could employ to help him regulate distress. They also listed people he could trust and talk to, as well as “reasons worth living for,” she told the inquest.
The counsellor said she followed up with the teen’s social worker and recommended that he be supervised at school and at home.
Dhaliwal testified that she went on to have half a dozen sessions with Desjarlais between that fall and January 2018. She said he appeared “low” at many of their meetings. He told her he was remembering negative experiences from childhood, and he’d had thoughts of hurting others, but she said he denied having any intent or plan to do so. Rather, he was “venting,” she said.
Desjarlais also told Dhaliwal he had been hearing different and unfamiliar voices, but he had a hard time going into detail about it, she said.
The teen expressed that he had a hard time trusting people, Dhaliwal said.
Questioned by Sarah Rauch, a lawyer for Chalifoux, Dhaliwal agreed that Desjarlais had disclosed to her that he had experienced sexual abuse as a child, although she said he had not wanted to talk about it.
She said she told one of Desjarlais’s social workers at the Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society about his disclosure of childhood sexual abuse.
Dhaliwal testified she stopped seeing him in January 2018 when Desjarlais moved to longer-term counselling with an Aboriginal youth mental health outreach worker.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.
May 15, 2023
Mother of teen who died in Sask. ministry care still begging for accountability, action a year later
Ministry admits it took 29 days before caseworker went looking for teen, despite warning she was in danger
CBC News: Almost one year ago, 14-year-old Stellayna Severight was found dead of a drug overdose in what the coroner’s report describes as an “unkempt” apartment building “with drug paraphernalia found scattered in the living room area.”
The teenager, who was in the care of the Ministry of Social Services at the time, was pronounced dead on May 30, 2022. She had methamphetamine, fentanyl and other drugs in her system, according to the coroner’s report provided to the family. Stellayna was also suffering from pneumonia, which the coroner said likely contributed to her death.
On Thursday, Stellayna’s mother Angela went to the Saskatchewan Legislature to beg Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky for transparency about why her daughter died while his ministry was acting as her legal parent. She also wanted to know what the government will do to make sure it never happens again. “I don’t want her to die in vain,” she told the media after question period. “I’m not going to let this go until there’s some kind of accountability, some change.”
Last year, CBC reported that on April 28, one month before Stellayna died, the ministry was warned that she was living in a dangerous, drug-infested apartment in the inner city.
- Mother demands answers: teen dies in care 1 month after Sask. social services was warned she was in danger
Bonnie Ford, who at the time worked for a street outreach program, said she contacted Stellayna’s social worker and reported that the teenager was in severe danger, and should immediately be picked up and placed in a youth detox.
That didn’t happen.
In an email to Angela last year, the ministry said that in the weeks following Ford’s warning, the social worker sent a few texts inquiring about Stellayna’s whereabouts, but failed to locate her. Then on May 27, almost one month after Ford’s initial warning, the ministry reported Stellayna missing to police. Officers found her dead three days later.
Ford said she and Stellayna’s family are baffled that it took the ministry so long to act. “Why did they not listen to what I was saying?” Ford said to the CBC during its investigation. “I thought maybe they would have done their job — maybe Stellayna might have had a chance.”
‘They hide behind privacy’: Opposition
Angela’s pleas for information were echoed by Opposition NDP social services critic Meara Conway in the legislature Thursday, in an emotional series of questions to Makowsky. “What does the minister have to say to Angela about the ministry’s failure to keep Stellayna safe?” asked Conway. “What will the minister do to fix this broken system?”
“Unfortunately, current legislation prohibits me from speaking to situations of this matter,” Makowsky replied. “However, I know that there’s a process that the ministry takes to ensure that there’s a thorough investigation.”
Conway pointed out that the government is investigating itself, and said it may be inclined to hide facts from the family and the public. She said Makowsky owes a public explanation for why his ministry waited so long before reporting Stellayna missing to police. Conway said Stellayna’s death points to systemic problems. “There’s many things about this case on the public record which he could now talk about,” she said. “I’m very concerned at the lack of transparency. I think it’s something this ministry hides behind. They hide behind privacy in order to avoid accountability.”
Ministry operating under a ‘veil of secrecy’: privacy commissioner
Saskatchewan’s information and privacy commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski has not offered any direct comments about Stellayna’s case. However, he levelled sharp criticisms at the Ministry of Social Services in a 2021 investigative report on a case where another woman was seeking information about her family. He concluded the ministry had an “arbitrary secretive approach to providing information.”
In that case, the complainant was looking for records about how social services treated her now deceased Métis mother. She wanted to know why her mom was taken into the care of the ministry decades ago when she was a child. She also wanted details about sexual assaults she said her mom reported suffering while in care.
According to the commissioner’s report, the ministry repeatedly denied her requests for any information without explanation, other than to say it lacked the “legal authority to release the requested records.” In correspondence, the complainant reminded the ministry that its own legislation, the Child and Family Service Act, says that the minister has the discretion to provide any information held by the ministry. That act says those records “may be disclosed if, in the opinion of the minister, the benefit of disclosure of information clearly outweighs any invasion of privacy that could result from the disclosure.”
She argued that having access to this information would provide her and her family insight into the circumstances of their mother’s childhood, which have deeply affected the entire family. The woman asked whose privacy the ministry thought it was protecting by refusing disclosure, especially given that so many of the people involved in her mother’s life and care are now dead.
“My question is benefits who? My deceased [mother]? My grandparents? The social worker my [mother] said made advances on [her]? Or does it benefit the ministry itself because of the manner [my mother] may have been placed?” she asked. “I feel [the ministry holds] all the power and there is no checks and balances regarding this denial for access to information.”
- Retired doctor did not protect medical records, notify of breach: Sask. privacy commissioner
- Sask. privacy commissioner calls health authority’s response to faxed data breaches inadequate
The commissioner said the ministry’s handling of that case shows it has an “arbitrary secretive approach to providing information,” adding that, “Social Services makes its decisions under a veil of secrecy with no ability for an individual to question its practices.” He said that needs to change and pointed out that some change was on the way. He said recent revisions to the Child and Family Services Act will provide more opportunity for the minister to share information more freely. Those changes are still awaiting proclamation.
But, he pointed out, the minister already has the discretion to share some information under the current rules.
Minister meets with Angela
Makowsky said that while the information is generally kept confidential, the ministry does share the findings of its investigations with the province’s advocate for children & youth and the chief coroner. In his report about Stellayna’s death, written after CBC’s investigation highlighting the long delay in Stellayna being reported missing, the coroner concluded, “I am of the opinion that a public inquest is not necessary.”
CBC asked the office of the children’s advocate for its view of Stellayna’s death and the ministry’s investigation. The advocate said they are bound by confidentiality rules and can only release information in “rare circumstances and at the advocate’s discretion.”
Sask. woman says province failed her daughter
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Makowsky also said that sometimes his ministry provides information to families. On Thursday following question period, Makowsky and his officials met with Angela, Bonnie Ford and others to talk about Stellayna’s case.
Ford said they made it clear that “there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered still.” “This is not going to be swept under the rug. Absolutely not,” she said. She said no new information was provided in that meeting, but that the government has scheduled a follow-up for Tuesday. Ford said government officials indicated they will share some findings of their investigation at that meeting.
Angela said transparency is just the beginning of what she wants to see from the ministry. “I’m looking for change and action. That’s what I want,” she said.
Ford is hopeful but not optimistic. “How many more are going to die in their care before they realize there’s something wrong here?” she said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Geoff Leo, Senior Investigative Journalist
Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001. Email Geoff at email@example.com
April 30, 2021
Report on Child Abuse and Neglect
“Mashkiwenmi-daa Noojimowin: Let’s Have Strong Minds for the Healing” is the first report of the First Nations Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2018 (FNOIS-2018). Objectives and Scope
The primary objective of the OIS- 2018 is to provide reliable estimates of the scope and characteristics of child abuse and neglect investigated by child welfare services in Ontario in 2018. Specifically, the FNOIS-2018 is designed to:
- examine the rate of incidence and characteristics of investigations involving First Nations children and families compared to non-Indigenous children and families;
- determine rates of investigated and substantiated physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment, and exposure to intimate partner violence as well as multiple forms of maltreatment;
- investigate the severity of maltreatment as measured by forms of maltreatment, duration, and physical and emotional harm;
- examine selected determinants of health that may be associated with maltreatment; and
- monitor short-term investigation outcomes, including substantiation rates, out-of-home placement, and use of child welfare court.
Comparison between First Nations and non-Indigenous:
- child welfare investigations approximately three times more likely for a First Nations child
- Greater incidence of physical abuse (.5x), sexual abuse (3x), neglect (4.5x), emotional maltreatment (2x),
- exposure to intimate partner violence (3x) , risk of future maltreatment investigation (3.5x)
- Transfers to ongoing services: 6 x greater
- Out-of-home placement is 12.4 x greater
- Household risk factors: Social Assistance, Employment or other benefit (2 x);
The differences in rates between First Nations and non-Indigenous children and investigations must be understood in the context of understanding the impact of colonialism and the resulting trauma to children, families and communities.
March 21, 2023
Saskatchewan First Nation comes to B.C. to talk about taking over child welfare
The Globe and Mail: Leaders of a Saskatchewan First Nation are in Vancouver to launch plans to take over control of child welfare services for its members.
It comes as the Key First Nation sent a letter to Premier David Eby expressing “heartbreak and outrage” at the loss of one of its teenage members while she was in British Columbia’s child welfare system.
The nation says it chose to start consultations in Vancouver to honour Noelle O’Soup, a 13-year-old member of its nation who disappeared from a B.C. group home in 2021 and whose remains were found in the city nearly a year later. The letter says the nation has grave concerns about the B.C. government’s inaction on the teen’s disappearance and death, and it calls on the government to address systemic failures that compromised the girl’s safety and her family’s access to information.
The girl’s body was found inside a Downtown Eastside rooming house and while the tenant of the room was found dead inside in February of last year, officers initially missed the remains of O’Soup and another woman, who were also in the room.
The letter to Eby says the disparity between outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in government care that led to this tragic outcome needs to be identified and changed.
The federal government changed the law in 2020, allowing Indigenous communities to exercise jurisdiction over child and family services while Ottawa established national minimum standards.
Indigenous children are disproportionately overrepresented in B.C.’s child and family services system, comprising less than 10 per cent of the child population yet representing 68 per cent of the children in care.
The letter says there was a concerning lack of transparency from law enforcement and the BC Coroners Service, leaving O’Soup’s family and the nation with many unanswered questions.
“As Chief and Council, we are taking our first steps to assert our natural jurisdiction of our children,” the letter says. “We no longer have faith in (the ability of governments across Canada) to protect our children, who are our future.”