Foster parents and aboriginal leaders say it's difficult to get foster homes licensed on First Nations communities, forcing workers to send vulnerable at-risk children to cities like Winnipeg.
"The thing that was keeping me back from becoming a foster parent was we didn't have a home. We were living in and out of [my husband's] parents' home and in and out of my parents' home, taking turns finding a place to sleep," said Laurie Ferland of the Misipawistik Cree Nation near Grand Rapids, Man.
"I asked for some help because I really wanted this little girl" — an extended family member for whom she has been caring, she said — "to have a home to grow up in, and I was very lucky that our band here helped me with a home."
It's a problem many potential foster parents face. Even if they're not that far from major cities, some reserves are on bad roads or are fly-in only.
Some don't have running water. Most face housing shortages and overcrowding.
That's a huge roadblock, said Terri McNaughton-Wright, a mentorship trainer with the Manitoba Foster Family Network.
"Our standards for licensing are based on basic middle-class homes, so if you're living in a home with three generations of people and you're already crowded and you need to bring a niece or a grandchild into your home, that makes the system shiver," she said.
"The authorities are bound by the Child Welfare Act, which states all kinds of expectations — everything from the size of your room and the bedding and the safety blinds and all that stuff. So if you don't have running water and you don't have a clear road in and you don't have an opportunity to get clothing … those basic things preclude you from moving forward with providing care."
A former foster parent, McNaughton-Wright said that's a failure of the system.
"They lose tradition, they lose culture, they don't even have similar faces to look at," she said.
"We can find [the] Franklin [Expedition's] remains. Why can't we keep children in their own communities? Why can't our kids stay close to home?"
That's not all.
"There is a possibility one of the family members may have a criminal record that may prevent the agency from being able to license that home," said Ron Monias, CEO of the Northern Authority of Child and Family Services, which is responsible for children in care in Manitoba's north.
"You have a situation there where the foster care applicant has to make a decision. Do they ask the family member to leave so they can license the home?"
Placed in hotels as a last resort
The Northern Authority, one of the three groups that handle aboriginal child welfare cases in Manitoba, has approximately 3,019 children in care, with 45 per cent of them in foster or group homes off-reserve.
The Southern First Nations Network of Care, also known as the Southern Authority, has about 4,490 children in care, 72 per cent of which are in foster or group homes off-reserve.
However, that's partly because they and their families don't live in First Nations communities; They live in cities or towns. Or, they've run away from home and end up in Winnipeg.
The goal is to find culturally appropriate care, said Southern Authority CEO Bobbi Pompana. If that's not possible, a group home.
As a last resort, Pompana concedes, some children are placed in hotels, supervised by sometimes untrained people who work for private companies.
"Very rarely do we move children from a reserve to Winnipeg to be placed in a hotel," Pompana said.
"They just sometimes end up there because there's no other resource or no other home available to them. We have lots of children with complex needs. They're high-risk children."
New residential schools?
Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, compares the current child welfare system to Indian residential schools.
"The thinking and idea that we're not good enough and have to be taught or trained to be better or different finds its roots in the residential school system," he said.
"It's certainly racism and is now systemic through many of these institutions, and CFS [Child and Family Services] being the most prevalent being that it carries on the tradition of taking children away from their network, from their parents and their community network, and imposing a different way of thinking."
Nepinak said many native leaders are working hard to make families on-reserve more healthy and to bring houses up to standards so children can stay closer to home.
"We have to stop allowing our children to be shipped out of the community and brought to the urban centres," he said.
This summer, the assembly presented the Manitoba government with a report and recommendations on how to do just that. But a big problem is that the government controls all the money, Nepinak said.
"I think we're now building enough momentum to deconstruct this monstrosity of a bureaucracy — this child apprehension industry — recognizing changes need to be made in how it's funded," he said. "Communities definitely have a role to play."
Manitoba's Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said everyone is doing what they can to keep children safe, and that she is reviewing the AMC's report.
"There are a number of recommendations that align with the direction we want to go," she said.
"Our number one priority is access to culturally appropriate placements, whether in foster care, but also ensuring those placements can be closer to home."
Meanwhile, the Southern Authority's Bobbi Pompana said Manitoba should be looking at a program in Alberta that has created a different licensing process for kinship homes, for families wanting to care for their extended relatives.
"If a grandmother wants to keep her grandchildren but her housing isn't up to par according to the regulations, why can't we do that anyway?" Pompana said.
"The focus should be more on family, not removing children from the family. How do you keep a family together?"
Back on the Misipawistik Cree Nation, Laurie Ferland has applied to adopt the little girl she has cared for for nearly four years.
Then, she's going to give up her foster care licence.
"It's just too much," she said. "It's like we're living in a glass house and there's always going to be someone that's going to complain about you and how you do your job and they want to get you fired."
Ferland would like to see foster parents offered more training, resources and help in meeting all those provincial standards.
She believes children in care do better when they can stay closer to home.
"I think that's really important," she said, adding that being apprehended and put in care is traumatic enough for a child.
"It will make them feel a little bit more comfortable than sending them to Winnipeg or something like that where they don't know anybody. They don't know the streets. They don't know the people and the kind of lifestyle they live in the city compared to a reserve."