Maori program helps Manitoba
IN a province where removing Indigenous children from their families and putting them into care has often been disastrous, any proposed alternative should be considered.
Any alternative with a proven track record of success should be cheered.
We can thank the Maori people of New Zealand for a program that, in Manitoba, has a 70 per cent success rate in keeping Indigenous children out of government care. Sixteen years ago, the Maori gifted the program to Manitoba’s Indigenous people though the organization Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata (an Ojibwa expression for
“we all work together to help one another”).
The model is called family group conferencing and, as well as saving an average of 45 Manitoba children a year from leaving their families, it’s saving Manitoba millions of dollars by keeping children out of government-run foster care.
“The Maori gifted their model to us, they consider us their Canadian Indigenous brothers and sisters,” Jackie Anderson, Children in Care co-ordinator at Ma Mawi, said in an interview. “It’s an honour and a responsibility, and their gift to us will not be changed.”
At the core of the program’s success is a conference where family and community members who care about a vulnerable child meet alone to devise a plan to help.
Family meetings are common in the world of counselling and therapy, of course. But a different twist with family group conferencing is that the supportive plan is developed without professionals such as social workers or counsellors. The purpose of excluding outsiders is that the family network buys into the solution because they created it, as opposed to having instructions imposed on them.
Here’s an example: an unmarried teen gives birth and, before her baby goes into foster care, her extended family and community members are invited to a meeting to create a plan to keep the baby out of the system. An auntie might offer to share items like a crib and stroller, a grandmother might offer to care for the child while the young mom continues to attend school, the father of the child gets a special invitation to the meeting.
Meetings last from four hours to 12 hours, and typically involve about six people.
How can meetings run successfully without trained facilitators? The answer seems to rest on dynamics among the people in the child’s circle, who already know each other and step up in their roles because they have a personal stake in the well-being of the vulnerable child.
“The community is empowered,” Anderson said. “It’s how our ancestors did it. When there is an issue in the community, we look to the community for support.”
After the door opens, professionals such as social workers evaluate the plan and monitor its implementation, with safety of the child as the top priority.
The success rates of reunification are encouragingly high. Ma Mawi statistics show that of the 62 children involved in family group conferencing in 2014-15, 49 were reunited with family. It’s estimated these reunifications saved $1.16 million by keeping the children out of government care.
The good news got even better earlier this month when Ma Mawi successfully patched together a deal that obtained $2.5 million in funding from three sources, consisting of $1 million from the province, $500,000 from the federal government and $1 million from the Moffat Family Fund administered by the Winnipeg Foundation.
Ma Mawi currently has three facilitators who arrange the conferencing, but the increased funding will allow it to hire seven more facilitators who could steer about 350 Indigenous children away from government care every year. Any such help is welcome in a province where 11,000 Manitoba children, 90 per cent of them Indigenous, are currently not living with their families.
Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding supports the conferencing program, saying at the funding announcement, “We believe that reuniting children with their parents, when safe, is an appropriate step and we obviously want to do as much as we can to reunite children with their families.”
But he was more cautious during a meeting last week with the Free Press editorial board, when he was pressed on whether Manitoba will emulate New Zealand, which has made family group conferencing a mandatory first step when a child with any Maori blood is in danger of being removed from their family.
Fielding said he hasn’t considered making such conferences mandatory for Indigenous children in Manitoba before government care is considered, but is interested in monitoring the results that Ma Mawi will achieve with its increased funding.
Hillary Clinton titled her 1996 book It Takes A Village, which borrows part of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Clinton didn’t invent the concept. Long before she wrote the book, Indigenous people were relying on their community when a child needs help.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of government getting out of the way.