Cowichan Valley advocates are working to make sure newborn babies are allowed to remain with their First Nations mothers. (submitted)

Cowichan advocates say taking newborns from First Nations mothers tearing community apart

Although the issue is complex, all of Cowichan Valley needs to get behind this initiative

“What we said in January was that no more babies were going to be removed from their mothers, ever.”

A group of health care providers, including Patricia Dawn and Nejma Belarbi of Red Willow Womyn’s Centre and Kate Coyote of The Matrea Centre, say the caring people of the Cowichan Valley must help stop First Nations babies from being taken from their mothers.

According to Dawn, they had been at Cowichan District Hospital twice already recently advocating for two aboriginal mothers.

New directives from Katrine Conroy, minister of Children and Family Development, have asked for creative measures, so that families stay together, and that social workers utilize measures to support families, but this is not working well in practice, she said.

“On Sunday, I was advocating for a mom to keep her baby, and on Monday, I was advocating for another aboriginal mother, who was threatened with having her child removed if she didn’t sign [some] documents,” she said.

“What we’re saying about the legislation is that it’s kind of like Las Vegas: it seems to stay there in government while down on the ground we’re not getting anything happening that’s supporting families’ wellness. So Red Willow advocates have been working with the Matrea advocates in supporting mothers and their babies.”

The effect on the overall populace of taking newborn babies away from their mothers has a wide effect, and can end up in depression or worse, she said.

“In our community, we have a very strong consciousness around colonization and the hundreds of years of impacts. And non-native people are just as concerned about the safety and wellness of our families. Dealing with this system, we’re watching people’s lives being destroyed and children’s lives are being lost.

“It’s become a great business. It’s an economic driver because MCFD funds a lot of the services. It’s a real imbalance of power. In the spirit of truth and reconcilation, how we get to balancing services for our families is a great quest. I have no ideas if we can’t change the consciousness within that MCFD office,” she said.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, said the ministry is changing its policies and practice to be “culturally safe and trauma-informed”.

“We are implementing a strategy to hire more Indigenous social workers,” the spokesperson said. “We are supporting and honouring the cultural practices of the many Indigenous communities in the province, and we offer staff training to increase their cultural awareness, sensitivity and ability to provide culturally safe services. All staff in the Duncan LSA have received the cultural sensitivity training.

“This government is committed to meaningful reconciliation and a collaborative approach with Indigenous communities. Locally, we are working with the Cowichan Tribes on Cowichan-specific child welfare legislation as part of our goal to support Indigenous communities to have greater responsibility and autonomy over child welfare matters,” the ministry spokesperson said.

But harmful old practices still remain, local advocates say.

Belarbi said advocates are “still on the front lines, fighting to keep mothers and babies together. The damage done to a child that’s been separated from its mother is life-long. The costs are exponential and they ripple out into the community.”

Asked why the babies being taken away, the three women said the issues are complex.

“A lot of it stems from mental health issues, so: violence, depression, which leads to questions of capacity in the parents,” said Coyote. “Housing is another one. They’re very common issues.”

Sonia Furstenau, Cowichan Valley MLA and B.C. Green Party spokesperson for children and families, said that the breastfeeding action plan released by government recently will help but should be backed up by more resources.

“[That] action plan is a step forward, however much more is needed, including funding for programs that will keep mothers and infants together,” she said.

“This announcement is focused on directives and research. What’s needed is funding to be provided so that mothers are given all the support necessary to ensure the bond between them and their infants is established and maintained.

“In too many cases, poverty is a root cause for removal of children. There were 500 infants taken from 2013-14 to 2017-18; 70 per cent were Indigenous. This is absolutely unacceptable and ministry needs to work diligently to change this. The trauma created when an infant is removed can create impacts for parents and the children that affect them for the rest of their lives. Hospitals need to be safe havens for mothers giving birth — the practice of removing an infant from a hospital needs to end in B.C.,” Furstenau said.

A spokesperson from ministry said the safety of the child is the top priority, and issues such as those above must be taken into consideration.

“No one wants to separate a mother from their child — and this is only ever done if the child is assessed as being in immediate danger or if there are no other measures available and adequate to protect them,” the ministry spokesperson said. “In assessing the potential risk to an infant, social workers must act on a balance of probability. Their decisions are made in consultation with health care providers and are informed by an assessment of the parent’s previous child protection involvement, mental health or substance use history, experience with domestic violence and other relevant factors that could pose a risk to the child.”

But Coyote says there’s a better way.

“Instead of actually supporting the mother and the child as a unit, put them in the same place and treat them together, what has historically been the process is to remove the child and put the child into a foster situation,” she explained.

“There have sometimes been efforts to put the child with family but that doesn’t always work. Or they go to foster homes, and those placements are not culturally sensitive.”

“This is mirroring the residential school situation; it’s your modern day residential school system,” Coyote said.

But the ministry is attempting to treat the family as a whole, the ministry said, starting even before birth.

“Social workers can be involved at the early stages of pregnancy, helping expectant mothers to access prenatal care and other services and resources to ensure a healthy pregnancy and child,” the ministry spokesperson said. “Where needed, the ministry provides funding to families to help them maintain housing or pay bills, so they can remain in their home and safely provide care for their children. We also contract with a wide variety of service providers and make referrals to services that fit the family’s need, including: counselling, respite, addictions and mental health treatment, parenting programs, family preservation services, and culturally specific services such as knowledge keepers, sweats and elder-led healing services.”

If a child has to be taken into care, extended family members are the first choice, according to the ministry.

“Where that isn’t possible, the priority is to protect and support their cultural identity. Our government is working with our Indigenous partners to keep children connected to their families and communities.

“We encourage clients to have advocates of their choosing attend their meetings with MCFD. We are also working on setting up an Elders Advisory Council to assist in case planning with Indigenous families,” the ministry said.

There is some hope, Coyote said.

“In the beginning of this year in Cowichan there was an intervention. There was a situation with a mom and a baby, and there was a plan to remove the baby. They were surrounded by advocates, surrounded by people who had some creative thinking and a lot of determination to re-write the future who stepped in and went to work with the agencies to create a different outcome for that woman.”

That crisis forced a door open, and there are new possibilities, Coyote said.

“These situations we are now facing in the hospital are the same. What has happened is that we have had a lot of movement. We’ve been able to create and implement some strategies. We’ve had a lot of challenging and charged conversations with the different agencies to try and create some mutual understanding and agreement about how we want to go forward.”

“They are removing the most vulnerable people, the children, out of their comfort zone, out of their homes, rather than working with the problem,” Belarbi said. “A child who is put into such a situation doesn’t know who he or she is,” adding that she was also worried that children were being moved from home to home.

And hurdles remain, Coyote said.

“It has been hard because we are locked into what has been history, and how things have been done for so long. In a government process, that’s really hard to change. We have a community of members who have come together, though. It’s a combined culture, not First Nations, not white: just humans who have decided that this is not OK and that it’s not going to keep happening in our community anymore.

“What we said in January was that no more babies were going to be removed from their mothers, ever.”

Dawn said the hard part is watching babies, in the first hours of these babies lives, “having to fight for their lives.”

The mothers are being forced to become advocates almost as soon as giving birth.

“There are no balloons, no celebration. It’s, ‘here’s the safety plan and if you don’t do this, we’ll remove [your baby].’ That’s what it is this modern society. Part of what that works out to is we’re literally human trafficking newborn babies and children through this colonial system and this government’s insistence on the conquer and divide model. We are in need of our local community to come and stand with us on this. There’s no way that the good people of Cowichan are OK with this. For years, we’ve had the highest rate of removal for years in all of B.C. Somewhere this has to bother us,” she said.

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Cowichan Valley advocates are working to make sure newborn babies are allowed to remain with their First Nations mothers. (submitted)

Cowichan Valley advocates are working to make sure newborn babies are allowed to remain with their First Nations mothers. (submitted)

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