Indigenous-led program unites families, diverts kids from child welfare system in 98% of cases

There was a moment in Cara Courchene’s life when reuniting with her children seemed out of reach.

The child welfare system seems stacked against parents like her, but one Indigenous-led program has had remarkable success in trying to change that.

In 98 per cent of cases, the Family Group Conference program either reunited children with families who love them, or prevented a child from entering the child welfare system in the first place.

Courchene is one success story. She credits her mentor through the program of never giving up on her. 

“What stuck with me was the way my mentor would come and check up on me, and there was a lot of times where I felt completely alone, and she wasn’t worried about who would be there or anything like that,” said Courchene, a member of Sagkeeng First Nation who lives in Winnipeg.

“She would come just knock on my window or my door and say, ‘Hey, are you hungry?’ or ‘You need someone to talk to?’ — and I think that’s what helped me get through some of my hard times.”

Hundreds of children removed from welfare system

The Family Group Conference program at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre will publicly release a report on Monday that illustrates the program’s success in reducing the number of Indigenous children in a child welfare system where Indigenous people are overrepresented. 

Over the course of three years, 655 children took part in the FGC process. More than a third of the children (263) are living with their families and another 139 were waiting to return home, as of March 2020. The program also diverted 141 children from ever becoming a ward of the province.

Some families hadn’t completed the program when the statistics were tallied, but the evaluation found FGC had a consistently high — 98 per cent — success rate in family reunification and diverting families from becoming involved with Child and Family Services.

Having all of those children living with their families and in their home communities would reduce government foster care costs by $15 million annually, according to an Indigenous-based evaluation of the program from 2017 to 2020.

Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, said the report into the Family Group Conference program put into numbers how successful the program has been in getting people out of the child welfare system. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, an Indigenous-led family resource organization, said the glowing review backs up what she already knows.

“We have been saying to everybody, since the birth of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in 1984, that investing into Indigenous-led strategies to care for our own and to ensure that our families are on the path of healing from colonization, generally speaking, that there’s power in that and those are where the solutions lie.”

The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre has facilitated the FGC program for more than 20 years, but in 2017 the Winnipeg Foundation, provincial and federal governments committed $2.5 million to triple the number of eligible families over a three-year period.

The centre sought out an Indigenous-led evaluation to ensure the program was meeting its goals.

The report’s findings “highlight the important ways that the program works as an antidote to many of the vulnerabilities that colonial systems have created and perpetuate.

“By supporting the rebuilding of the ‘family’ and its relationships and structure, the program works to celebrate Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous sources of strength and safety,” it reads.

Families can be referred to the program through CFS agencies, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata and others in the community. It typically takes between three to five months from referral to resolution.

Redsky believes the evaluation of the program, which typically lasts between one week to three months, is “promising news” for how a child welfare system should be modelled.

“The evaluation proved that when you can shift the power to families, you can have incredible impact on reducing the trauma in the lives of families who are interacting with child welfare,” she said.

Courchene, who spent time in the foster care system growing up, said she was trying to juggle two lives once she became a mother: her family life and her party life. “Obviously, the drugs took over,” so her children were removed, the 36-year-old said.

She was referred to the FGC program while her kids were at a foster home run by Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. 

The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre is an Indigenous-led family resource centre that has been running the Family Group Conference program for more than 20 years. (Warren Kay/CBC)

She said her mentor made her feel like a member of the family.

“They don’t leave you, even when you’re at your worst like I was, they saw me in situations where I had a black eye, or I was fighting, or I was in psychosis from drug use.

“They never gave up on me and that’s what I loved about them.”

Courchene eventually went into detox and has been sober since 2019.

Becoming a social worker herself

She said staff with the FGC program act as a support for parents whose children are in the welfare system, including in their interactions with their family’s CFS case worker.

Her FGC mentor “actually cared about us coming home, and I never had that with a social worker.”

Inspired by the help she received, Courchene is currently finishing her schooling to become a family support worker. She wants to help people like her realize they can walk away from their addictions and get their children back. 

“I think a lot of people need that regardless of how low they feel.”

The report recommends the program be provided with sustainable funding to support the growing demand.

Redsky would like to see the program become such a normalized part of the child welfare system in Manitoba that it becomes entrenched in legislation, which happened with a similar program in New Zealand.

View original article here Source