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Sharing child-welfare system stories helps women heal

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This collection of 10 women’s stories is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one.

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This collection of 10 women’s stories is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one.

In their own words and with unfaltering honesty, each of the women in Overcome: Stories of Women Who Grew Up in the Child Welfare System details their childhoods and their time in and out of Manitoba’s child-welfare system — some of it lifesaving, much of it horrific.

The compilation of interviews by three-time social justice author Anne Mahon, current chancellor of the University of Manitoba, features several well-known Indigenous community members and longtime advocates, some of whom are telling their stories in print for the first time.

Each of the women — an artist, a tech industry professional, university professor, federal government employee, an aspiring social worker, two sisters with a special bond as well as frontline workers pushing past their own trauma to help other families — talk about their lives with emotional vulnerability and courage in a way that underlines the double meaning of the book’s title.

Like Mahon’s previous books (The Lucky Ones: African Refugees’ Stories of Extraordinary Courage, 2013; and Redemption: Stories of Hope, Resilience and Life After Gangs, 2017) all of the proceeds from sales of Overcome are going to charity. In this case, the funds benefit the non-profit Voices: Manitoba’s Youth In Care Network.

The trust Mahon built with each of the women is evident in the highly conversational, oral-history-style narratives, portions of which read like a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of personal divulgences. These are not profiles; the women share what they want to, from their perspectives only. Each of the narratives ends with a short note from the author reflecting on what it was like to meet and talk to each individual.

Though each is unique, the women’s stories are often similar. Their recollections make it impossible to ignore overlapping outcomes of colonialism, poverty and domestic violence in Manitoba’s child-welfare system.

The women’s memories shed light on ways in which the system has changed over time, how slow that change is and, in some ways, how stalled. Their anecdotes illuminate paths between residential schools to foster care to the youth criminal justice system. They examine complicated mother-daughter relationships with hard-won tenderness, and delve into shadowy practices such as vindictive calls to Child and Family Services, overmedication of kids in care and the struggle to obtain and piece together accurate records from their years in the system.

The women’s experiences are not all bad; in every story, there are bright spots and, often, positive recollections of some foster parents, social workers or authority figures who changed things for the better. But the book begins with a trigger warning for good reason; it contains awful truths and heartbreaking details of child abuse and neglect, too often at the hands of those who were supposed to protect.

All of the stories are distinctly hopeful, but none are comforting. Nor should they be.

Whether they embrace or reject the title of “survivor,” whether they love or loathe the “resilient” label so often pinned upon those who grew up in care, the women invariably describe the healing power of sharing their stories. They are all breaking the cycle of abuse, trying to make things better for their kids and for all children.

In the book, after recounting long-buried or blocked-out stories with her older sister Melissa, Rachel — one of the book’s interviewees — explains the value of sharing, and of realizing “I survived what I had to.”

“These memories trigger me, but at the same time, I look at myself and I know where I am today and I know how loved the next generation is in our family,” she says.

“Talking about my struggles without holding it in and having it eat away at me — that’s a gift.”

Katie May is a Free Press reporter who is interested in learning more about the child-welfare system.

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Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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