‘We Help Parents to No Longer Be Afraid’
Mary Burton, Winnipeg, Canada
Mary Burton never thought she’d help to start an organization. After she successfully fought the child welfare system for custody of her own children and grandchildren, she spent the next 20 years helping friends and families from her living room do the same.
But roughly ninety percent of children in the child welfare system in Winnipeg, Canada, are indigenous. And in 2014, Burton joined forces with other grandmothers and a local activist to form FearlessR2W to give members of her community power to fight for their families.
Where My Advocacy Began
When I was 10 years old, I was apprehended along with my six siblings. We were separated and put into different foster homes. I spent the next eight years in care, moving from foster home to foster home to foster home, getting into drugs and alcohol, and being a stupid teenager.
At 16 I got pregnant. During my pregnancy, they put out a birth alert on my unborn baby. The only reason was because I had been a child in care. Because the government raised me they thought I wouldn’t be a good parent. A year later I got pregnant with my second child, and they tried to apprehend her. Both times, I successfully fought Child and Family Services. When my third child was 2 years old, they apprehended my girls for ten days, and they tried to take my son from me. They couldn’t. They had no grounds.
In 2012, my daughter’s two baby sons were both apprehended. This time the system had just cause. My daughter did something stupid. She admitted it and was working toward getting them back. It just took too long. After my daughter lost custody, her sons came to me. I was a place of safety for them. But when my daughter got pregnant with a little girl, they immediately apprehended her right from birth. I said, “No, no, no,” and I started advocating again. I won again and got custody of my granddaughter.
That’s where my advocacy began.
‘Stop them from taking our children’
I never thought that I would help to start an organization. I spent the better part of 20 years advocating for people from my living room: family, friends, neighbors who were having problems with CFS. I’m a legislation geek. I read legislation like it’s a novel. With that knowledge, I’d help them along.
But I live in the North End of Winnipeg, where 1 in 6 children is apprehended from their families. We have the worst child welfare ratio in all of Canada. The North End is predominantly First Nation, and roughly 90% of kids in care are Indigenous; 60-70% of them are permanent wards. That means they’ve been in care for at least two years. After two years, the agency is legally entitled to put them up for adoption.
It’s a broken system that needs to change. It’s also a continuation of the residential school system and the ’60s scoop. I am a survivor of the ’60s scoop. In the 1960s, I was apprehended from my parents and put into non-Indigenous homes.
Michael Champagne is an activist in Winnipeg who runs an organization called The Bell Tower. Every Friday, he invites community members to come up with solutions for how to curb violence here in Winnipeg. In 2014, a bunch of grandmothers, including myself, kept showing up at the Bell Tower. For about four weeks, we went to his meetings and said, “You’re all about stopping violence but you’re not stopping CFS from taking our children.” That’s how FearlessR2W began.
At Fearless, we educate and advocate for parents to the point where they’re no longer fearful of the system. We educate families on legislation, on system literacy. We also educate them on other systems that are within CFS: housing, addiction support, education. We work within the system to equip our families with the tools to succeed.
We have as many learning circles as we possibly can. We also have a large social media presence. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We have a website. We post everything we do across our social media sites.
On average we have six to eight people who come regularly to our meetings on Wednesday nights. Right now we’re advocating for about 10-14 families. Usually, the agency has two to three people on their side of the table against one parent. So we go to meetings with them as informal supports and to let CFS know that we’re here.
We also do a lot of education with parents about how to be assertive without being a bitch. That’s how we get results.
I have a family I work with. The mum came to us in October. At that point she had been fighting the agency for over a year. They had taken away all visits with her four kids. As of two weeks ago, she now has two of her children home and supervised visits with her other two kids. Before she came to Fearless R2W she was yelling and swearing all the time or just shutting down. When we worked on how to be assertive, the agency started to look at her a little differently.
Families Should Be Together
I am motivated to do this work because I believe that families should be together. When we take away the only family a child knows, that causes serious trauma. Then when children start to act out, the first thing agencies want to do is medicate them. They say: “These are behavioral issues, let’s get them to a psychiatrist. Let’s get them on medication. Let’s keep them calm as long as they’re with foster parents.”
They make children feel like there’s something wrong with them when there’s not anything wrong with them, they’re just hurting, and that causes even more trauma. They don’t want to deal with the complex trauma that happened when they removed those kids from their homes.