12/20/2015 05:09 EST | Updated 12/20/2015 07:59 EST

Manitoba First Nations Take Action After Staggering Amount Of Kids In Care

"It's giving them a voice.''

WINNIPEG — When Angeline Spence got pregnant at 17, she was determined her child wouldn't end up being one of Manitoba's 10,000 kids in care.

Spence was taken from her parents when she was eight. She became a permanent ward of Child and Family Services, separated from her siblings, her extended family and her indigenous culture.

"My main goal growing up was not ever having my child go through that ... to try to get out of that cycle of my kids being in care,'' Spence said.

Angeline Spence spent much of her childhood under Manitoba's Child and Family Services, and vowed her children wouldn't have to do the same. (Photo: David Lipnowski/CP)

She was lucky enough to get into a program run by Winnipeg's Ma Mawi Wi Itata centre. A case worker brought her social worker, friend and her baby's father's family together in one room where they worked out a support plan for Spence and her daughter.

Spence lived in supported housing while she finished school before coming back to work for Ma Mawi Wi Itata to help other young mothers keep their children from becoming wards of the province.

"Just because you were in care, it shouldn't limit you to what you can do.''

Manitoba has among the highest number of children in care in Canada. Statistics show the province seizes an average of one newborn baby each day. The vast majority are indigenous.

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In the face of such daunting numbers, indigenous people are offering their own solutions to try to keep their children out of the system.

Ma Mawi Wi Itata runs two family group conferencing programs — based on a model from the Maori in New Zealand — that place indigenous children in care in specialized, culturally appropriate foster homes.

Their parents are brought together with child-welfare workers, family members, addictions counsellors and anyone else who can help address the reasons why the children have been apprehended.

"My main goal growing up was not ever having my child go through that ... to try to get out of that cycle of my kids being in care."

Executive director Diane Redsky said the vast majority of children in care are seized because of poverty masking as neglect.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as buying a family a washer and dryer and providing some extra food bank donations. Other times, working out a family plan is more complicated.

But through it all, the children in care maintain contact with their parents and extended family.

"The bond between family and child hasn't been broken,'' Redsky said. "There's little disruption for the kids.''

"Our primary goal is to keep kids out of care.'' — Kerri Irvin-Ross, Family Services Minister

It costs about $500,000 to run two of the programs, but Redsky estimates they save child welfare well over twice that annually. Of the 62 kids one program worked with last year, all but 13 stayed out of the system.

"It saves spirits and it saves money.''

The centre wants to expand and work with families before their children are taken into care. The problem, Redsky said, is that funding only starts to flow once children are officially seized.

Provincial government working towards prevention

Manitoba's NDP government has said it's shifting its focus from apprehension and toward prevention. Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross recently announced the province will give First Nations greater control over caring for their children as an alternative to formal apprehension.

She said programs like the one run by Ma Mawi Wi Itata are a vital part of the mindshift, but it's up to individual child-welfare agencies to decide whether to use their funding to support such initiatives.

"We're not seeing it throughout the agencies and authorities as much as we would like,'' she said.

Leaving the decision in the hands of child-welfare agencies whose funding is partly contingent on the number of kids in care is "not a conflict of interest,'' Irvin-Ross said.

"Our primary goal is to keep kids out of care.''

First Nation launches its own care program

The Sagkeeng First Nation started the Circle of Care program just a few months after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found wrapped in a bag in Winnipeg's Red River.

Tina's guardians, struggling with her behaviour, voluntarily placed her in care. She was taken from the reserve to Winnipeg, where she was killed a few weeks later after running away from foster care.

Harold Fontaine, who runs the program, works with about a dozen families. Like Ma Mawi Wi Itata, Circle of Care brings parents together with social workers, family members and any other community supports. Their apprehended kids stay on the reserve and can see their parents. For the first time, he said, parents don't feel like they are alone.

Tina Fontaine, 15, was found dead in Winnipeg's Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. She was killed after running away from foster care.

"There's hope for them,'' Fontaine said. "It's giving them a voice.''

First Nations children's advocate Cora Morgan said these programs must be expanded — and fast. There are about 600 kids in care on the Sagkeeng First Nation, she said.

Indigenous-led programs need to be available on a wide scale to make Manitoba a leader in child-welfare innovation rather than apprehension rates, she suggested.

"It's First Nations helping their own people,'' said Morgan. "It offers hope to families that are struggling to know that those services exist.''

Read more:Manitoba First Nation's Solution To Foster Care Crisis: Remove Parents, Not Kids

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