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This article was published 10/12/2018 (611 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As reported in the Free Press, Manitoba’s Child and Family Services Act is being amended to state explicitly that poverty cannot be the sole reason for taking a child into protective custody.
This is an important move to decriminalize poverty, and NDP MLA Bernadette Smith is to be congratulated for introducing the amendment.
However, based on my research on Indigenous-child-welfare provision in Peru, I worry that it still doesn’t go far enough.
While living in Winnipeg a decade ago, I wrote a book on child fostering and adoption in Peru — a predominantly Indigenous nation.
Under Peruvian law, "under no circumstances should the lack of material resources lead to a finding that a child is abandoned." But what I found was that poverty was often just one step removed from the reasons cited.
As I carried out ethnographic research, spending time in a Peruvian adoption office and getting to know individual children’s cases, I was surprised at how often food was mentioned in case files.
One baby was placed in a children’s home because health-care workers became concerned for his health after taking turns providing food to his mother. He was described as "mildly malnourished," but otherwise healthy.
Another pair of siblings, who lived with their grandmother and accompanied her to sell fruit in the market, were placed in a local children’s home after authorities were concerned that, on a fruit seller’s income, their grandmother would have a hard time meeting the children’s support needs. They were described as slightly underweight. Their file notes that their grandmother continued to visit them after they were sent to the children’s home, bringing them gifts of fruit.
At the time of my research, more than a quarter of Peruvian children were malnourished (that rate has been halved in recent years thanks to smart policy). Most of them weren’t subject to removal from their families — but some child removals were justified by pointing to malnutrition.
Rather than tackling the conditions under which so many Peruvian children came to be malnourished, a law that refuses poverty as a reason for the intervention of child-protective services paradoxically ends up encouraging authorities to say that poor parenting is the cause of malnutrition.
In other words, even if children cannot legally be removed from their birth families simply on the basis of poverty, the many forms that poverty takes are nonetheless routinely used to claim that a child is ‘‘morally and materially abandoned’’ by a parent.
The result was a sense that poor parents alone bear responsibility if their children are not receiving adequate care.
A legislative review committee report released in September noted, "Among Canadian provinces, Manitoba has the highest rate of children in care" — nearly 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous. This overrepresentation is not new — the Pe-kiwewin Project, led by Prof. Raven Sinclair at the University of Regina, examines policies from 1945-85 that lead to a "system of Indigenous child removal."
In Manitoba, similarly to Peru, the Child and Family Services Act offers examples of when a child might be found in need of protection. For example, a child might be "in the care, custody, control or charge of a person… who is unable or unwilling to provide adequate care…." An "inability" to provide care may stem directly from poverty.
Another example, which I also saw in Peru, was that a child’s caregiver "neglects or refuses to provide or obtain proper medical… treatment." Those in poverty may be far more likely to need medical treatment — but also, they might have a more difficult time accessing it because of long distances to health services in rural communities, or a job that doesn’t easily allow time off for medical treatments.
To be sure, Child and Family Services are still needed. In the words of one community advocate and former child in care quoted in the legislative review committee report, "I’m not anti-CFS; it is needed. However, I don’t believe that all apprehensions need to happen."
The new amendment offers room for considered reflection on some of the reasons for taking children into custody, stating, "A child must not be found to be in need of protection only by reason of their parent or guardian… lacking the same or similar economic and social advantages as others in Manitoba society."
But a lot of the rest of the reasons for taking a child into custody, offered in the Child and Family Services Act, look like poverty by another name.
With Peru’s child-protection law as a cautionary tale, Manitoba legislators should treat this amendment as a first step of many in a long path toward making child protection law more culturally sensitive.
Jessaca Leinaweaver directs the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University’s Watson Institute in Providence, R.I.
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