Indigenous infants in Manitoba have exceptionally high CFS contact: study

First Nations infants in Manitoba have an “exceptionally” high rate of contact with Child and Family Services (CFS), a new study revealed this week.

Results from a study published Wednesday in the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect show that more than one in three (36%) First Nations infants in this province in the 20-year period between 1998 and 2019 had an open CFS file, a rate more than four times higher than for non-First Nations infants.

The study, which was co-led by University of Manitoba (UM) researchers, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and the First Nations Family Advocate Office (FNFAO) also showed that about 9% of Manitoba’s First Nations infants experienced placement in CFS custody, a rate nearly seven times higher than for non-First Nations infants.

Removal (apprehension) of a newborn from its parents at birth was about six times more common for First Nations newborns in Manitoba than for non-First Nations, according to the study, and about 5% of First Nations infants experienced legal termination of parental rights before turning five years old, a rate nearly eight times higher than for non-First Nations infants.

The organizations said while the numbers are “staggering,” the disparity between First Nations and non-First Nations infants is also growing rapidly when it comes to CFS involvement, as the study shows that the rate of CFS contact increased by 22% over the study period for First Nations infants while increasing by just 2% for non-First Nations infants.

“We knew before the study that First Nations children and families face vastly disproportionate involvement with Child and Family Services. We also knew that Manitoba has the highest rate of child removal and out-of-home placement in Canada – in fact, one of the highest in the world,” Dr. Kathleen Kenny, a postdoctoral fellow at UM’s Max Rady College of Medicine and the lead on the study said in a media release.

“Our study is the first to quantify the staggering rate of CFS involvement among First Nations infants at the whole-population level, and show how it has increased. Our results support calls to develop First Nations-led services to address this extreme inequity.”

The researcher’s joint recommendations now include ending the practice of infant apprehensions, and funding First Nations-led models that support “the preservation of family and cultural bonds.”

The study also calls for the empowerment of “First Nations-led customary systems of care” so that children grow up connected to their culture, and for the establishment of community-based, supportive spaces outside of CFS.

“It is heartbreaking to learn of the high rate of involvement of First Nations infants with the CFS system,” AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in a media release “The first year of life is so critical in terms of the bonds built between parents and their children.

“This study highlights the urgent need for culturally sensitive solutions that prioritize the well-being and preservation of First Nation families. We must work together to address the root causes of this concerning trend and ensure that First Nation children are supported, nurtured and empowered to thrive in safe and loving environments.”

But increasing First Nations control over CFS systems in Manitoba is a cause for concern for one backbench MLA, who said during a meeting at the Manitoba Legislature in April that her own experiences dealing with an Indigenous-led CFS agency leaves her with “serious concerns,” as more Indigenous communities in Manitoba look to take control over CFS and move away from oversight from the provincial government.

NDP MLA for The Pas-Kameesak Amanda Lathlin said while speaking at a legislative affairs committee meeting that “as an Indigenous woman, and as a former Indigenous band council member I can say this, I’m really worried about the First Nations handling this authority.”

Lathlin, who is a mother to one child, said she had previously raised her sister’s three children before they were apprehended in 2017 and said she had been dealing primarily with the Opaskwayak Child and Family Services, an Indigenous-led agency.

She said her experiences with that organization coupled with her previous work in band politics has her concerned about the possibility that more Indigenous-led agencies and communities in Manitoba are working towards complete jurisdiction over CFS.

“I’m worried about the nepotism that’s currently going on in every office that I can see, and I’m worried about the unqualified workers that are currently there, such as the ones that have not returned my phone calls for two months,” she said. “Because of all this chaos I am seriously concerned.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun