WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Mary Burton knows it’s critical to support parents after their kids are taken by the child welfare system, as her organization has worked for years to help make those connections and get families back together.
She also knows how few supports there are for parents in that situation, and how many are left completely alone to figure out what happens next.
“You don’t have anybody to help you understand why your children were taken,” said Burton, the executive director of Fearless R2W, a Winnipeg non-profit that works with families involved with the child welfare system.
“And that’s incredibly traumatic, when your children are literally ripped from your arms and you have no one to talk to about it.”
It’s an issue that came up recently in Manitoba, after an Anishinaabe woman died by suicide after posting a live video on social media in late January saying she was a victim of domestic violence and sharing her struggles trying to get her children back from the province’s child welfare system.
It’s unclear which supports, if any, that woman was receiving.
A provincial spokesperson said while they can’t comment on specific cases, there are services offered to domestic violence victims in Manitoba whenever a call is made to police.
Burton said her organization works to help set up resources in similar cases — from therapy and parenting programs to help with food and money. And most importantly, she said they help parents connect with child welfare agencies to start setting up visits.
“It’s imperative that the parents know that they can see their children, that they’re not being kept away from their kids,” she told CBC’s Information Radio host Marcy Markusa this week.
Information Radio – MB8:51Family advocate says therapy for children and parents needed to help families survive the trauma a CFS apprehension
“Because that is the biggest fear that a parent has when they’ve been ripped away from their children: that they’ll never see their kids again.”
In Manitoba, it’s an issue that disproportionately affects Indigenous families. Of the 9,196 kids in care as of March 31, 2022, 91 per cent were Indigenous.
Apprehension leads to ‘dark’ position
Once the province’s child welfare agencies get involved with a family, a “strength and needs assessment” is done to identify supports needed, a government spokesperson said in a statement. Protecting children is a primary goal of their response, which the spokesperson said is adjusted on a case-by-case basis but prioritizes keeping children with family.
These child welfare systems need to do a better job of supporting parents whose children are taken from them, particularly when the parent is the victim of domestic violence, said Kendra Nixon, a professor in the University of Manitoba’s faculty of social work.
Nixon said there needs to be a shift from thinking only of the child’s immediate safety to knowing how important the well-being of their parent — often, their mother — is in the situation.
“We need that, if you want to call it a paradigm shift, a mandate shift. But it’s this false disconnect between children’s safety and mothers’ safety. They are inextricably connected,” said Nixon, who’s also the director of Resolve, a research network focused on issues involving violence against women and girls.
Nixon said there’s also a pervasive assumption that needs to be challenged: that a parent who is abused is automatically incapable of protecting their own children. In fact, often that role helps them move forward, she said.
“For women, mothering is a major source of strength and joy, and they get power out of that,” Nixon said.
“So when you remove that from a woman who’s been already traumatized because of intimate partner violence, you’ve really put them in a very, very bad, precarious and dark position.”
Crisis supports needed for ‘different kind of grieving’
One of the biggest pieces missing across the country is crisis support for parents in that situation, said Lynne Marshalsay, founder of Preserving Families, a support group for families in child welfare systems in Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario and B.C.
“What we need is something specifically focused for parents when dealing with an apprehension, because that’s a different kind of grieving,” Marshalsay said from Medicine Hat, Alta., last week.
But those supports would need to happen in a way that couldn’t later be used against the parents as they fight to get their kids back.
“That’s a big thing, right, is that people need to feel safe that they can say, ‘I’m hurting, I’m angry, I’m frustrated,’ all of that stuff, and not have that used against them [because they shared it] in the heat of the moment when they’re in crisis,” she said.
And for families that do end up reuniting after an apprehension, the journey can’t stop there. Winnipeg advocate Burton said that’s the key to her organization’s nearly 100 per cent success rate at getting families out of the child welfare system — and keeping them out.
“We don’t leave them alone after the children are placed in their care,” she said.
“I don’t care if the child was gone for six months or six years — that parent’s going to need to learn how to be a parent again. So we need to give them the tools that they need to stay together.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
Anyone needing help can contact the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides immediate, toll-free telephone and online-chat emotional support and crisis intervention to all Indigenous people in Canada.
It’s available 24/7 in English and French, and upon request in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut. Call the toll-free Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.
Support is available for anyone affected by intimate partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visiting this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact 911 or emergency services in your area.
Other available resources include: