When the Toronto-based Aboriginal Legal Services decided to offer an aboriginal approach to child welfare, it turned to an elder for a name, offering tobacco.
A ceremony was held and the elder announced the program would be called Giiwedin Anang, meaning north star. Like the north star, the Giiwedin Anang program is meant to provide direction and guidance to people who are lost.
“We are trying to help families, child welfare agencies and other people find their way out of the thicket that child welfare can become and try to find a route out that everyone can be happy with that will actually lead to healthy children and people growing up in places where they are loved and families who are able to have input into what happens to their children,” says Jonathan Rudin, a lawyer and Aboriginal Legal Services program director.
“Our program works in that we allow parents to come to us . . . and we will work with parents, regardless of what the child welfare agency wants to do.”
Currently, the organization handles about 50 to 60 child welfare files per year under what it calls AADR — aboriginal approach to dispute resolution.
The approaches differ in different areas of the province. Giiwedin Anang involves the parent meeting with elders to discuss the issues and a circle is held in which all concerned, including the child welfare agency, participate.
A volunteer “auntie” works with the child to identify their needs and may take part in the circle. Teenage children may participate, too.
Together, and through a series of circles, they work toward a resolution, which usually involves helping to mend relationships.
Rudin says the program, the first of its kind in an urban setting, has been quite successful in diverting cases from the court system.
He stresses the need for a different approach to child welfare involving aboriginal children.
“In Canada right now, there are more aboriginal kids in care than [there] are not aboriginal kids in care, which is staggering, given that aboriginal people are four per cent of the population,” he says.
Usually, he adds, when aboriginal children are removed from the home, it is not for abuse but rather neglect — the child is not being cared for properly. Some of the issues, he adds, are tied, historically, to intergenerational impact of residential schools and people growing up not having known parents or parenting.
Thunder Bay, Ont.-based Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation operates a similar program it calls Talking Together, although it is very rural, taking in communities across northern Ontario.
Lawyer Celina Reitberger, executive director of the firm, says the challenge is magnified by the vast number of aboriginal children that are apprehended and the limited resources available to employ alternative approaches.
She points to a recent case of a woman two days away from giving birth who was told that the child would be apprehended shortly after birth, following its two elder siblings into other homes.
“To me, this is one of the most cruel things you can do to a mother,” says Reitberger. “We immediately sprung into action.”
Following a Talking Together Circle, it was decided that the mom and her baby would go to a facility away from the father and his history of spousal abuse.
Four Talking Together facilitators cover 45,000 people in 49 communities in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory, which stretches across much of northwestern Ontario from the Manitoba border north to Hudson Bay and James Bay.
Reitberger hopes to secure funding to double the number of facilitators.
“We do a lot, but there’s more,” she says.
Within that area, there are a variety of alternative approaches to keep the child in the community.
One involves the use of customary care, considered a traditional way of dealing with child/family issues where the child isn’t taken away.
Instead, workers go into the community to find someone who can help, which may involve taking the child into their home without going through the formal fostering process.
Kinship is a co-parenting approach for households experiencing problems that don’t call for the removal of the child. That sees another member of the community help the parent within the home.
But Reitberger is concerned that children continue to be apprehended from some northern communities and sent into foster homes in Southern Ontario, never to return to their home communities.
“We feel that every case should go to ADR, and it’s not happening,” she says.
University of Ottawa law professor Sébastien Grammond focuses on aboriginal issues, and he says aboriginal child welfare diversion programs often allow communities to return to more traditional ways or be inspired by them to resolve conflicts.
“The traditional system has produced an overrepresentation of aboriginal children in the child welfare system.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a way the current system is replicating in some aspects the residential schools insofar as it is a tool for removing aboriginal children from their families and from their communities,” he says.