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‘They’ve grown up disconnected’: Saskatchewan programs aim to reunite Indigenous families, support vulnerable mothers-to-be

Birth alerts, a decades-old practice that has seen child welfare agencies flag expectant mothers as unfit to care for their babies, have separated hundreds of newborns from their parents, with a disproportionate number of them Indigenous and Black.

But some Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan are fighting to get back the children it lost and leading the way in developing programs to support vulnerable mothers-to-be.

Exercising newly acquired legal powers, the Cowessess First Nation in 2021 became the first Indigenous community to take control of its child welfare system. Under a $40-million deal with the province, it is building a family care system that reunites Indigenous parents with their children, restoring cultural connections, and it is helping expectant and new mothers gain labour skills and financial literacy, as well as find housing.

Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge is Canada’s first self-governing child and family prevention and intervention service. It supports all 4,306 Cowessess citizens across the country, many of whom have never been on the reserve.

The Lodge has been working with child welfare partners across the country and estimates there are 150 to 200 Cowessess children in the foster care system today. The team plans to review all files and travel to meet with children and their caregivers, starting with Saskatchewan and Manitoba next month.

“They’ve grown up disconnected,” says Eva Coles, chief executive officer at the Lodge. “Cowessess has had residential schools and their families left and never came back. There’s bad memories.”

‘We hear their needs and then we form a team around them.’

The Lodge has developed a five-year plan that focuses on prevention of harm before birth rather than apprehension of babies once they’re born. The team works on a case-by-case basis with hospitals, the social workers and the family to come up with plans to keep babies safe and with their mothers.

“We hear their needs and then we form a team around them,” says Coles.

The need for a new care approach arose after every province (Quebec excepted) banned birth alerts in the wake of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which called the practice “racist and discriminatory.” Indigenous children make up about half of the children in foster care in Canada, despite census data showing that they make up less than eight per cent of the country’s overall child population.

Many of those separations came about because of birth alerts, notably in Saskatchewan, where the proportion of Indigenous foster children once topped 80 per cent. That number fell by 20 per cent in the first year after birth alerts were banned.

In its place, the Lodge has designated three units on the reserve where women can live temporarily and access any support they need, including a kokum (Cree word for grandmother), a mushum (the Cree word for grandfather), a counselor and cultural and housing support services. Families in the program also have a circle coordinator, who helps them connect regularly and talk about their healing.

“In our minds, prevention and healing is 75 per cent of what we’re going to do and maybe 25 per cent will be child welfare. And less as we go along,” says Coles.

Separate from the Lodge, the province also funds care programs for expectant mothers who are managing HIV, substance use, mental illness and homelessness.

One of these programs is Sanctum 1.5, a 10-bed prenatal care home run by the Sanctum Care Group in Saskatoon. It launched in October 2018 to support HIV-positive and high-risk pregnant women who were at risk of having their children apprehended.

“All of the women who come into our program are struggling with substance misuse,” says Katelyn Roberts, executive director of Sanctum Care Group Inc. “Eighty per cent of them leave sober with their infant.”

More than 65 per cent of women in Sanctum 1.5 had been in the foster-care system as children. “The government does not do a good job of raising children and they should not be in the business of raising children,” says Roberts.

The care home is a safe environment for both mother and baby, providing access to physicians and programs to deal with substance use and mental health issues. They also provide parenting and housing supports, as well as spiritual care and Elder support.

‘Women get to bond with their infants and that is a huge motivator.’

From the 77 women who have graduated Sanctum 1.5, only two children have gone into the foster care system. Since its start, the program has reunited or prevented the apprehension of 133 children.

“I’m really proud to say that 1.5 has outcomes that I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere else in Canada,” says Roberts. And that’s largely due to their ability to keep mothers and babies together.

“Women get to bond with their infants and that is a huge motivator,” says Roberts.

Roberts says demand for their services has never been higher, a consequence of the COVID pandemic, high rates of crystal meth and opioid use and homelessness.

The group is expanding its impact with a newly created prenatal outreach and resource team, with $500,000 in annual funding from the provincial Ministry of Social Services. The team provides intensive support, including transportation to medical appointments, access to addiction treatment and housing, and contacts moms about 15 times per week. It also has a partnership with the police, which it uses to help manage legal problems.

The program launched in Saskatoon three months ago and has already reached capacity. It is set to launch next month in Prince Albert, followed by Regina.

“There needs to be significant investment from the government,” says Roberts. “You can’t just remove birth alerts and think that you’re going to remove the problem. It’s not that simple.”

Photo courtesy of Eva Coles, CEO of Chief Red Bear Lodge.

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Meghan McGee

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Meghan McGee is a Toronto nutrition scientist and is currently a participant in the Certificate in Health Impact program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto

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