SIX Winnipeg children, whose mother is in jail after being accused of running a child prostitution ring, are in danger of being yanked from their long-term foster home and moved to a reserve where they have never lived.
They're the latest pawns in a child welfare system that seems to put culture and "family" ahead of the needs of the child.
When they were seized at the end of 2005, the youngest child was still in diapers. The eldest was a pre-teen.
It's alleged the children, along with a score of others, were being sold for sex. Their mother has been charged with numerous offences, including living off the avails of prostitution, corrupting children and procuring children for the purposes of prostitution.
Winnipeg Child and Family Services took custody of the kids when the mother was arrested. They have different fathers, none of whom are part of the kids' lives.
CFS placed the siblings in an emergency shelter.
Then the agency searched for a foster family who could cope with the seemingly endless ways the children would act out their pain, mistrust and anger. It's a big job to handle this many children, especially kids who have been this damaged. The harm done to these innocents is incalculable.
Still, Winnipeg CFS found an experienced set of foster parents.
The foster mother, while eager to discuss what she sees as a clear case of putting culture before children, insisted on anonymity in telling this story. She's afraid speaking out will lead to the children being immediately snatched from her home by the aboriginal agency now in charge of their file.
Elsie Flette, CEO of Southern First Nations, could not be reached for comment, nor were messages left for other staff members returned
The birth mother is aboriginal. The foster parents are white.
For two years, the foster couple have worked with therapists, schools and CFS to help the kids recover. There's still bed-wetting, food hoarding by kids who aren't used to having enough, head-banging and frequent tantrums.
Even the youngest kids, little more than babies, refused to shower in front of the foster mom. They remember being naked in front of strangers who had hurt them unspeakably.
"There is no case worse than this," says the foster father.
There have been challenges all the way along. The kids weren't attending school before they were saved. There was a lot of catching up to do.
But there have been great victories. Two of the boys are involved in hockey. One child runs on her school track team. One girl is on student council. Swimming lessons start soon. They spend summers at the foster family's cottage.
The kids now seem to be thriving. The couple has nothing but praise for Winnipeg CFS.
"They gave us respite, cleaning, in-house support," says the foster mom. "They really didn't scrimp. It's a huge job to look after a family this size."
But much went wrong in this case, too.
The foster parents allege the birth mother, who was out on bail, went to the school where one of her daughters was a patrol. They say she threatened to kill all the children and the foster parents if the kids continued to talk about what had happened in that raided West End home.
She described the foster home down to the colour of the front door.
The foster parents called the police. The mother was arrested and jailed. The family moved for its own protection.
They now live in a sprawling three-storey house, a beautiful place with room enough for the entire family. Three dogs pad around the hardwood floors. There are aquariums for the kids to enjoy, all measure of toys and rooms for the children to share. The boys are still afraid to sleep alone.
The situation seemed to be working out as well as could be expected but, just before Christmas, it fell apart. The mother decided to make her children permanent wards of the province. This is her right.
Because she is aboriginal, the children's case was picked up by the First Nations of Southern Manitoba CFS. New agency, new social worker, new rules.
"Immediately we're suspicious," says the foster dad. "We knew they'd come after the kids. We even thought about moving out of the province. They call us mom and dad. We're their family."
But the foster parents are not aboriginal and that's the heart of the matter. There were some early clashes over culture when the birth mother was still out on bail. The children came infested with lice. The birth mother, through a social worker, insisted their hair not be cut.
"She said it was a cultural issue," says the foster father. "We're trying to get rid of their lice and help them recover from everything they went through and this is the most important detail?"
They admit they have done very little to teach the children about aboriginal culture.
"We can do it later," says the foster father. "Right now we're dealing with kids who have been raped. You want me to take them to a pow wow? Fine. I'll take them every Saturday. But that's not what they need most."
Anisihnaabe CFS (part of Southern First Nations) took over the children's case. The parents, the Winnipeg CFS worker and the new worker met. It was agreed the children would continue therapy. The new agency, say the parents, insisted it wanted stability for the kids.
Last week, the foster parents got a phone call from their new worker. She said the community of Fairford was holding a feast for the children on Saturday and they had to attend. The foster mother refused.
"We've been challenged because we aren't 'an appropriate home,'" she says wearily. "The worker said they have a lot of relatives in Fairford. Why haven't we met them before now? Where have they been all this time? We have one meeting with the grandmother."
She says she was told the children belong to the community.
"Are you kidding? These are kids who have had an enormous amount of physical and sexual abuse. They need security. They need to continue their therapy. They don't need to be moved to the homes of strangers.
"I don't believe the cultural piece is the most important among children who have been this abused."
The Children's Advocate has agreed to become involved in the fight and is meeting with the foster family this week.
This could go a couple of ways. The agency has the right to take the six children and move them to their mother's home reserve, a place they have never lived.
Or the Southern Authority can heed the words of Children's Advocate Billie Schibler quoted in the recent inquest into Tracia Owen's suicide. That girl was also in the care of CFS.
"Recognizing that children need to be in a safe environment, I think it is really important that while the whole philosophy in child welfare supports or should support that the primary focus should be on preservation of families," Schibler said, "at no point should a child's safety and well-being be compromised in order to have that happen."
For the sake of these children, let's pray the well-being of the children takes precedent in this case.