Indigenous Success Stories

Child Welfare (1-5)

Opting out of a broken child-welfare system in Winnipeg to build something better

January 5, 2024
Kendra Inglis, executive director of Makoon Transition Inc., at the Winnipeg transition centre’s office on Dec. 20, 2023.SHANNON VANRAES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail: Kendra Inglis worked in social services in Winnipeg for two decades, and what she saw bothered her more with every year that went by.

Children would be drawn into the child-welfare system, and then their parents would do what was required to regain custody, but too often, those reunions came to unhappy conclusions that surprised no one.

The parents were often ill-equipped because their own upbringings had been disrupted, or because they struggled with substance use, domestic violence and poverty. Ms. Inglis and her colleagues would know things were going badly, but protocol or lack of resources limited what they could do to help. She was watching children slip through cracks that everyone could see, but no one could fill.

“There needed to be a radical approach, because we can’t keep walking into the same wall and getting a different result,” Ms. Inglis said. “That’s exactly the way I felt that I was working. Yes, I was making differences in people’s lives, but not enough – not enough to genuinely break that cycle.”

Eventually, she couldn’t do it any more. So she opted out of what looked to her like a broken system and built a new one from the ground up.

In 2020, Ms. Inglis received a financial settlement as a survivor of former day schools for Indigenous children and decided to use that money – together with her line of credit and countless hours of DIY labour alongside her family and friends – to make real an idea that had been percolating in her head for a long time.

What she built is Makoon Transition Inc., which now occupies most of a low-rise apartment building just off Pembina Highway. Staff work out of 10 cheerfully crammed apartments and client families occupy the rest, some of which have been renovated to create larger apartments. The program is for Indigenous families who have been reunited after involvement with the child-welfare system, and parents self-refer as clients, which means people are there because they want to be.

Makoon staff provide support with addiction, parenting skills, healthy eating, even fundamentals such as building a routine for getting kids to school on time or how to be a good renter. There is on-site child care, Addicts Anonymous meetings, grief and loss groups, Indigenous cultural teachings, all-family barbecues in the summer and a Christmas party. Attending a program is mandatory, but residents pick what they want that to be.

In other words, Makoon provides a place for families to live, surrounded by the supports to help them re-establish life as a family. “The needs of the families, they just keep teaching us every single day that there’s a gap and we need to fill it,” Ms. Inglis said. “No one’s ever going to come to Makoon and say that it looks good on paper and they didn’t get the services that they needed.”

The building is distinctly humble, but it was equally clear that enormous effort had gone into making it as bright, clean and welcoming as possible. Every possible surface was festooned with something cheerful or meaningful: inspirational posters, pragmatic tips and information, bright tinsel things as the holidays drew near.

In the hallways, the apartments of Makoon families were indicated by tiny cedar boughs above the doors. Staff walk the halls around the clock and do check-ins where they must personally lay eyes on each child three times a day, so they can catch small problems before they become big ones.

“You hear kids freaking out, you walk in and check in with the family, and you see mom or dad’s overwhelmed, and it’s like, ‘What do you need from us?’ ” Ms. Inglis said. “What’s going to make a big deal, too, is respecting that this is their home.” For staff serving clients who have often not been given a choice about who helps them or how, asking permission to help was a useful lesson, she explained.

Many of the thoughtful gestures at Makoon stand as stark reminders that the ordinary milestones and rituals of family life are rare and precious if you don’t have the resources or stability to easily make them yours.

In one staff office, a door frame marked the heights of growing Makoon kids, and during renovations, they made sure that strip of wall and history was preserved. On the central bulletin board, the sign-up sheet for Santa photos was completely full by mid-November, with extra names scrawled at the bottom.

The day the child benefit payments go out, staff post a sign-up sheet for a Costco outing, so everyone can buy in bulk and make their money go further. The same central bulletin board also lists food banks, parks and walking trails in Winnipeg, COVID and flu shot clinics, yoga and tai chi registration, and all sorts of self-development and mental-health workshops.

Makoon is an alcohol- and drug-free program, and when an apartment is available for the next family on the waitlist, they used to do a urine test at intake. But they found some parents could maintain sobriety for the five days that test would cover, but would then falter, after the children had been uprooted from stable long-term placements. Now they use a hair follicle test that detects drug use in the past 120 days, one of many things they’ve learned as they went along.

“They need to be somewhat stable so that they have a head start to parent their kids,” Ms. Inglis said.

After her initial investment of money and elbow grease, Makoon is now funded through Jordan’s Principle, a legal framework that ensures that Indigenous children receive the same services as non-Indigenous kids. The program employs 70 staff, half of whom are Indigenous. They often get inquiries from would-be volunteers, but Ms. Inglis sticks with paid staff because these families have had enough people drift in and out of their lives.

“A lot of our babies have been the product of birth alerts, so there’s been no bonding. So they’re getting their kids back at four, five, six years old, and this is what they worked so hard to do, but they grew up in care and don’t have the skills,” Ms. Inglis said. “So it’s a lot of role-modelling that happens in this building.”

Families stay as long as they need to; residency of more than a year isn’t uncommon. In the three years since Makoon was founded, 117 families have been accepted, 50 have successfully completed the program and 32 have been unsuccessful, with 35 families currently enrolled. The 50 successfully reunited families represent 128 children who are no longer in the care of Child and Family Services, but back with their parents.

The bulletin boards and shelves in Ms. Inglis’s office overflow with letters, cards and handmade gifts from clients expressing how Makoon has changed their life. “You picked me up at my lowest and saved me,” one letter says. “The new things I’ve done, the future I’ve created for me and my kids, I would [have] never thought I could go on this way,” another parent wrote.

One woman went even further and tattooed the Makoon logo of a mother bear with three cubs on her arm. “To me, that’s crazy, I would never do that,” Ms. Inglis chuckled, plainly delighted.

Another mom was living in the program when her ninth child was born. And that is why there’s now a little girl out in the world named Makoon.