(Watch the full story above. Minister Jane Philpott already has. See her response and what the government is doing to address the child welfare crisis.)
Nation to Nation
When her son started talking about suicide while living in a group home this mother decided she needed to do something.
Emails between her and the child welfare agency show she pushed to get him help while being kept at a distance.
Then during an unsupervised visit in April she didn’t return him to his group home.
She just kept her son at home.
“I had already made the decision that my child was not going to go back into harm’s way,” said the mother that Nation to Nation is not identifying due to legal restrictions around privacy in child welfare.
“I was not going to allow my son to have another serious occurrence because I did not want that serious occurrence to be a suicide.”
Her son had been in child protective services for almost a decade.
But he was removed from his mother with her so-called consent, which is a key word used over and over in the system.
He was one of many kids removed from their homes in Ontario through what’s known as kinship or customary care agreements in the child welfare system.
Sometimes they’re called private arrangements.
It means parents giving consent to the state to take their children without a court forcing them.
But does that mean a parent can just take back consent from the child welfare agency and bring their kid home?
That’s exactly what they can do according to Marco Frangione, a child welfare lawyer in Thunder Bay.
“There is a right to revoke private arrangements, customary care agreements, temporary care agreements. All agreements for that matter, that are done outside of court,” said Frangione.
He’s revoked these agreements many times, which often means going to court.
But Frangione has noticed a startling trend.
“It seems to be common practice with many children aids societies across the province that these agreements are being entered into with huge power imbalances, no interpreters, when needed obviously, so they don’t necessarily have capacity at the time of signing,” he said.
He said parents often don’t have legal representation when signing.
“Far too many and that is one of the hidden secrets from those seeking veritable child welfare reform, not just in Ontario but across Canada,” he said. “I receive calls time and time again from parents who have signed agreements without legal advice.”
Frangione thinks that’s what happened with Kanina Sue Turtle who died by suicide in Sioux Lookout in 2016 after spending several years in foster care.
An APTN News investigation in February revealed that she filmed her suicide inside a child welfare agency operated home.
She was suicidal, self-harming but was left alone for 45 minutes the day she died.
Only after her death did Frangione become the family’s lawyer.
“Had the family had legal advice from beginning to end they would have been able to keep the society in check. They would have had proper checks and balances to ensure their child was being properly cared for,” said Frangione.
But the case involving the mother and her son didn’t happen in northern Ontario.
It unfolded in Toronto.
She remembers signing an agreement inside the courthouse on 311 Jarvis Street and avoided going before a judge.
“I felt I wasn’t listened to, I felt invisible … being in the basement of 311 Jarvis was really hard because I was alone and I was pretty much alone through the whole process for this,” she said.
About two years ago she had another son. She said the agency put a birth alert on the child, meaning they would be notified by the hospital once he was delivered.
But she fought to keep him, while her other son remained in child welfare.
Things would soon change when she met another mother earlier this year.
That mother had defeated a different a child welfare agency in northern Ontario just to keep her daughter.
She did it by teaching herself the law and learning what consent meant in the child welfare industry.
She refused to give it.
Because the agency opened a file Nation to Nation is not identifying her either due to legal restrictions.
But she had advice for the mother trying to get her son back.
“I said withdraw your consents. I just felt it in my bones (the agreement) was illegal,” said the second mother.
She helped the first mom write letters that used legal language informing the agency she was not returning her son to a group home.
It appears to have worked.
She’s had custody of her son for over a month – with little interaction between the agency.
While elated to have her child back she also felt crushed not knowing that she could take back consent she gave away under duress so many years ago.
“When she realized that, she fell to her knees in my kitchen. She bawled her eyes out from her soul, man. Because all she had to do was withdraw her consent and she missed her child’s entire childhood,” said the second mother.
Nation to Nation had Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott in studio earlier this week to preview the mother’s story.
“It’s a devastating story and the worst part of it is that these kind of stories are taking place all over the country. Families that have been separated in cases where the parents did not have their rights respected,” said Philpott.
“The incentives are wrong in the system, the policies need to be changed, we need to get families reunified and we need to prevent severe over-apprehension of Indigenous children.”
Tens of thousands of Indigenous children are in the system but provinces like Ontario just started keeping track of exactly how many are taken last February.
The mandate all these years has been to remove the child from the home and the funding has been based on that.
Philpott said the government is trying to shift that policy and earmarked $295 million for this fiscal year that is for prevention. In fact, the feds expect to pay nearly $1.4 billion over the next five years on prevention, instead of apprehension.
In February, a letter went out to Indigenous child welfare agencies asking them to outline what the actual costs would be for prevention.
“We recognize this represents a significant shift in approach and that your agency will need support to understand and implement these changes,” the letter stated.
Figures are still being worked on and the money hasn’t started to flow to the agencies.
“We are changing policy to make sure that agencies are funded for preventing the apprehension of children, rather than (incentivizing) agencies to apprehend children,” said Philpott.
As for the mother and her son she got him in a new school.
His first class was on the Ojibwe language.
“I never thought I would be able to get my son back,” she said. “It is very surreal that I do not need to fight anymore.”
But she has a message to share about a mother’s consent.
“Just take away your consent, exert your sovereignty in a matriarchal way. You have the right to your children,” she said.