A First Nations woman who waged a social media campaign in 2017 in a bid to regain custody of her children is now suing the Manitoba child and family services agencies involved in the case.
Three of the woman’s children were apprehended by CFS in 2007 after an instance of abuse by their father, who was her partner at the time, the lawsuit says. The man later pleaded guilty to assaulting one of the boys.
The woman separated from her partner and then spent more than a decade trying to get custody of her boys. In 2015, the oldest of the three left the home where he was placed and travelled by bus to another community to live with his mother, the lawsuit says.
The woman found that “her efforts to regain care and custody of her children were obstructed by a lengthy pattern of omissions, inaction, and discriminatory and bad faith behaviour by the defendants,” the court document says.
“It took 11 years for (the plaintiff) to be reunited with all three of her sons.”
Her statement of claim filed in Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench June 4 seeks $5 million in general damages, plus $1 million in punitive damages and another $1 million in aggravated damages. The claim also seeks the same damages for two of her children.
Claim illustrates ‘casual indifference’ to Indigenous suffering: lawyer
“Nowhere is systemic racism and discrimination more apparent in the justice system … than in child welfare, when it comes to Indigenous children and families,” the plaintiff’s lawyer, Katherine Hensel, told CBC News.
She said her client believes what happened to the family is “an everyday occurrence” that is representative of a “casual indifference” to the suffering Indigenous children and families endure in the child welfare system.
“So part of the objective in bringing this claim is to bring an end to that indifference,” Hensel said.
Claim says woman stigmatized as ‘unfit’
The lawsuit alleges “the obstruction, intransigence, discrimination, and bad faith” of the defendants caused the plaintiff’s children to lose their family and each other for most of their childhood, and “to suffer extreme emotional, physical and psychological harm.”
It says the mother was never alleged to have engaged in abusive behaviour toward any of her children, and did not suffer from any mental health disorders nor substance abuse. Yet the CFS agencies caused the stigmatization of her as “unfit”, the claim says.
The woman is a member of a First Nation in Manitoba and currently lives with all of her children at a First Nation in Ontario, the claim says.
The agencies named as defendants in the lawsuit include the All Nations Coordinated Response Network (ANCR), Winnipeg Child and Family Services, West Region Child and Family Services and the CFS authority Southern First Nations Network of Care.
Woman posted about struggle on social media
After the woman made social media posts in 2017 about her decade-long struggle to regain custody of her children, she was threatened with potential legal action by CFS for publicly identifying her children.
It’s an offence under Manitoba’s CFS Act to publicly identify children who are involved in proceedings under the Act.
The social media campaign wasn’t the first time the woman had taken action publicly about her problems with the child welfare system.
Frustrated with refusals by West Region CFS to help with reunification of her family, in 2009 the plaintiff embarked on a 1,681 kilometre walk from Winnipeg to Ottawa, the claim says.
The goal was to draw attention to the experience she and her sons were having with West Region CFS, as well as “the general damaging and negative experiences of Indigenous parents and children within the child protection system.”
Lawsuit alleges abuse in foster homes
The lawsuit also names the governments of Manitoba and Canada as defendants, as well as two foster parents and two other individuals allegedly known by CFS agencies as posing a risk to children.
Two of the boys were sexually and physically abused while living in foster homes, the lawsuit alleges.
It says the boys were not placed in Indigenous foster homes during the decade they spent in CFS care, other than a period of less than a year for one of the boys.
They were “denied access to their culture, language, history, community, extended family, and to each other and their brother,” during their 10 years in care.
“Not only has the breakup of the family unit inflicted significant mental suffering on the plaintiffs,” the claim says, but the two boys “suffered abuse within Manitoba’s foster care system and were disconnected from their Anishinaabe identities, heritage, culture, language, and community, as well as their extended family.”
The repercussions of that will be felt by the children and their mother throughout their lives, the claim says.
Plaintiff seeks to prevent similar experiences
While the monetary damages sought in the lawsuit can never adequately compensate for what happened, the court document says, the plaintiff seeks remedies to prevent similar conduct from happening again by those with responsibility for the care and protection of Indigenous children and families.
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the plaintiff’s right to life, liberty and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was breached.
It also seeks a declaration that her inherent and treaty rights under the Constitution Act 1982, as well as those of the children, were also violated.
The allegations have not been tested in court and the defendants have not yet filed statements of defence. CBC News is not naming the plaintiff in order to protect the identity of the children.
A spokesperson for the Manitoba government said it would not be appropriate to comment at this time because the case is currently before the courts.
The West Region CFS agency and the Southern First Nations Network of Care also declined to comment. CBC News has not had a response yet from Winnipeg CFS, ANCR, or the federal government.