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Program helps alleviate family child welfare issues.

THUNDER BAY

"If your child is apprehended in Fort Hope (Ontario), your first appearance in court is not going to be in your community," said Ellaree Metz, manager for the Talking Together Program run by the Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation. Metz discussed what it's like for First Nations parents living in a northern Ontario community who have had a child removed from their family.

"Both parents have to come out of the community for the court date. In many circumstances the child is placed out of the community." Metz continues, "How do you facilitate meaningful access?"

These types of questions and situations spurred the legal services corporation to create and refine the Talking Together Program, which provides parents involved with child welfare with an alternative way of resolving conflicts.

The program is unique, being one of only two "alternative dispute resolution" programs available to parents with child welfare issues in all of Ontario.

Suzanne Withenshaw, acting executive director of the corporation, said the program "can alleviate the need for the often costly and adversarial family court system."

Once a child is removed from a home, he or she can spend only 12 to 24 months in "care" until a children's aid society has to request a Crown wardship. Once the Crown has wardship, the parents no longer have any legal rights or responsibilities to the child.

With the wait times for court dates, especially in northern communities, the months can pass by too fast. While a parent may wait for a first appearance in court, their child may be in care for six to eight months.

Along with having to wait months for a court appearance, Metz said, "the availability of lawyers willing to work in the area of child protection is pretty tricky. There are no lawyers taking on this issue in the Thunder Bay area right now."

Recognizing the challenges of the judicial system, the legal services corporation is helping more First Nations families access the Talking Together Program through its recent partnership with Dilico Anishinabek Family Care.

After four and a half years of talking about protocols, the two organizations signed an agreement in June. The Talking Together Program is now available to NAN community members (Treaty 9) under Dilico's jurisdiction. Approximately 160 of the children in Dilico's care are NAN-affiliated.

Treaty 9 members can access a culturally sensitive approach to dealing with child protection matters that arise from Ontario's Child and Family Services Act. Agencies, outside organizations, or parents can refer themselves to the program at any time during a child protection matter. Parents refer themselves to the program by filling out a form and having their needs assessed.

"We offer a traditionally appropriate medium for parents to have a voice and for children to have a voice in the process, to have a voice in what solutions can be created," said Metz. "The program gives you the opportunity to create workable solutions, keeping in mind the best interest of the child."

Terry Waboose, the Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said the program "will empower our people to avoid the courts and deal with local issues at the community level."

The program is based on traditional circles. All players meet on equal grounds to develop, by consensus, a plan to resolve child protection concerns. Using a more cultural approach helps empower families to heal themselves.

"We've had many success cases," said Metz. "We have a high level of satisfaction among clients who use the program. We have facilitated apprehensions not going forward by having the participants together coming up with a plan."

People involved in a circle could include the mother, father, child, the child protection workers, external service providers, probation workers, school teachers, grandparents, neighbours, and so on. The benefit to having so many people involved, according to Metz, is that "Solutions are a lot more creative. The process is faster, the process is cheaper, the process is more humane."

"When you're in the circle you can have grandparents involved in making decisions, or both sets of grandparents involved," said Metz. "This [circle process] can go on for a period of months or longer and that affords the parent the opportunity to address outstanding matters."

"Basically within two weeks you have the ability to be sitting together to come up with solutions, occasionally I have a referral coming into the office (apprehension) and so we may come up with a circle within the week. It can be quite fast, at least the initial circle."

The Talking Together Program recognizes the unique needs of First Nations families living in remote communities.

"Many of our communities are fly-in communities; their access to services is limited," Metz explains. "The services you can get in Thunder Bay you can't get in Attawapaskat. Parenting classes may not be available in the community in which they reside."

"A lot of those folks require a lot of support in order to heal the integrity of the family. Parenting skills have been fractured by their experience in residential schools. You're looking at some long-standing issues, so we offer a best-case scenario."

Metz also explains that the program helps pregnant women in jail, as there are no systems in place to help women parent babies in this setting.

"Many parents are not going to be able to negotiate handling child aid on their own," Metz states. "Children's aid has a lot of resources compared to the parents who may not have the same level of resources."

By Melanie Ferris

Windspeaker Writer
COPYRIGHT 2008 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:Ferris, Melanie
Publication:Windspeaker
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:920
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