Breaking the cycle

The Winnipeg Foundation

Angeline Spence and family
Angeline Spence with son Mitchell and daughter Jade.

Angeline Spence became a ward of CFS at the age of eight. At 16 she got pregnant. Against many odds, she was able to break the cycle of CFS involvement in her life, thanks to support she received through Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre’s Family Group Conferencing program.

Ma Mawi provides an Indigenous solution to supporting and rebuilding families. Family Group Conferencing empowers families whose children have been, or are at risk of being, taken into care. The Indigenous-based and Indigenous-led process shifts decision-making to the family and community by gathering a large support system around the children.

I believe Family Group Conferencing can give the voice back to the family,” says Ms. Spence, 32, who today is the proud mom to 14-year-old Jade and nine-year-old Mitchell.

As a pregnant teen, Angeline decided to move into Isobel’s Place, a home for young mothers run by Ma Mawi. A stipulation of moving into the facility is having a Family Group Conference.

Angeline connected with Family Group Conferencing Coordinator Jackie Anderson, who asked her to look around her support system to see who could help when baby arrived. Angeline could name just three people: her sister, a support worker, and the father of her child. Jackie asked if she could branch out and ask for more supports on Angeline’s behalf.

“I just didn’t think it was going to be possible,” Angeline says, of finding more people to support her.
To her surprise and delight, she was wrong.

“In the end, the day I moved into Isobel’s place, it turned out my daughter’s family was there too, I think there must have been 17 of them at the Conference… It made me feel good. I guess I wasn’t used to that family unit.”

For most of the people in the room, it was the first time they were meeting. And although the Family Group Conference took almost an entire day, by the end, everything was figured out; from who would be with Angeline at the hospital, to who would teach her to budget and help grocery shop, to who would provide breastfeeding support.

“Their plan was extremely powerful, everything was looked at,” says Ms. Anderson, who today is the Children in Care Coordinator at Ma Mawi. “To look at Angeline at the end of that [session]… the stress and anxiety of becoming a young mom was completely gone because she knew she had all of these people that were going to be here to help her.”

Without that support, there’s a good chance the lives of both Angeline and her children would be very different today.

“You have more success if you have more supports in your life when you have a child,” Angeline says. “When my daughter was eight-years-old, I looked at her and I thought to myself, ‘I’m so glad that she doesn’t know that [other] way.’”

Today, Angeline works at Isobel’s Place, helping young women in the same way she was helped.

“I kind of got drawn to the field where I wanted to make sure our young people were keeping their kids, especially our young Aboriginal women, because I feel where you came from doesn’t mean you can’t succeed and accomplish things, and also, you break that cycle.”

The Family Group Conferencing model was passed to Ma Mawi from the Maori of New Zealand in 2000. Based around traditional ways of life, it primarily focuses on the children.

“It gives more personal accountability to the parent or participants and the family because they’re now empowered and committed to a process when it’s focusing on the children,” Jackie says of the model. “So regardless of what’s happened in the past, it’s about moving forward to make sure they have a strong support system and a strong care plan to be able to have children back with family.”

There are currently about 11,000 kids in care in Manitoba, 90 per cent of which are Indigenous.

When my daughter was eight-years-old, I looked at her and I thought to myself, ‘I’m so glad that she doesn’t know that [other] way.’

Angeline Spence
Family Group Conferencing participant

Family Group Conferencing rates of reunification are very high. According to Ma Mawi, of the 62 admissions of children in 2014/2015, 49 were reunified with family – a reunification rate of 79 percent and an annual cost savings of $1.16 million.

Family Group Conferencing is currently available to young moms in Isobel’s place, and to those in Community Lead Organizations United Together (CLOUT), a short-term foster care program.

Thanks to a $1 million grant over three years from The Foundation, Ma Mawi anticipates being able to work with more than 1,100 children between 2017 and 2021, resulting in a savings of more than $26.5 million.
Additional support can’t come soon enough, Jackie says.

“Right now we’re getting almost daily phone calls from different agencies or family themselves or grandparents that need some advocacy, need some help.”

Ma Mawi is looking to hire six additional staff, for a total of nine devoted to Family Group Conferencing.

“Our vision is to strengthen families and build their capacity, because we know they have the strength. They know what it is their family needs,” Jackie says. “Families sometimes struggle, but that shouldn’t dictate the rest of their lives or their children’s lives.”