As a child caught up in B.C.’s child-welfare system, Mary (a gender-fluid teen whose real name we’re withholding to protect their identity) wants to be at the table when decisions are being made about their future.
“Of course I want to be involved. If you’re making plans without me, I feel like I’m just pushed aside and, like, not wanted. I want to be involved. I want my voice heard,” says the Indigenous 16-year-old. “I might not understand what’s happening, but I still want to be involved.”
Mary was speaking at a training session packed with parents, Indigenous elders, youth workers, doctors, lawyers and counsellors at the Creekside Community Recreation Centre in Vancouver on Nov. 23, 2018. They’d gathered to learn about a model for addressing complex child-welfare cases that places children at the centre — a model aptly dubbed “Circle of the Child.”
The model was developed in Quebec by Hélène (Sioui) Trudel, a lawyer and mediator with expertise in conflict resolution, a member of the Wendat First Nation, and a recipient of the National Order of Quebec in 2016. Communities in Quebec have been using her model since 2007, according to Trudel and her partner, Dr. Gilles Julien, a community social pediatrician.
It’s a model rooted in Indigenous perspectives that child-welfare advocates in East Vancouver have been pushing to implement here for years.
How the circles work
Trudel described the circle model as a mediation tool that can be used when a child’s family, social workers and others invested in the child’s future are at an impasse about what’s in the child’s best interest. In a child-welfare system where distrust and adversarial relationships between parents and social workers can sometimes get in the way of children’s rights, the goal is to centre the child’s needs, strengths and objectives.
The process is very different from the family case conferences used to mediate child-protection cases in B.C., Trudel told the training. For starters, she said, the child designs the circle, instructing the mediator on who to invite, how to arrange the seating plan, and even who they’d like to sit beside.
Typically, circles include the child’s extended family, social workers and professionals from health and medical sciences, like doctors, nurses and counsellors.
Unlike case conferences, lawyers and judges are not part of these circles. And the process takes a lot longer. Before the circle, Trudel spends about 25 hours preparing everyone, letting them know what to expect.
The circle itself takes about eight hours. “We talk about the needs of the child, the anxiety, why people feel worried about the child and… the strengths of the child,” Trudel said.
Sitting down for a meal together is an important part of the circle, she added. And so is naming the participants’ strengths.
As a mediator, Trudel supports the group to develop an action plan that lays out the child’s needs and objectives, and who will do what to support those objectives. Everyone gets a copy of the plan, and two months later they reconvene for a follow-up circle.
According to Trudel, Quebec judges have been receptive to these collaborative plans “because there’s consensus.”
Does B.C. law support this model?
Children’s lawyer Suzette Narbonne calls the Circle of the Child a “perfect model for representation for children and empowerment for children.” She works for B.C.’s Child and Youth Legal Centre.
During a panel conversation at the training, Narbonne said she doesn’t see any legislation that would limit the model’s implementation in B.C. In fact, she believes the Circle of the Child model reflects the guiding principles in B.C.’s Child, Family and Community Service Act.
Still, she’s concerned that some judges might be reluctant to embrace this model. She said judges tell her “all the time” not to get kids under 12 involved because they want to shield them from the proceedings.
But the Act doesn’t say that children’s views should be taken into account only if they’re over 12 years old, she said; it says a child’s views should be considered.
“The reality is their views are supposed to be taken into account from the get-go,” she said.
But buy-in from the courts isn’t the only barrier to implementing this model in B.C., according to parents, youth workers and social workers at the training.
It’s hard to collaborate without trust, advocates say
Gina Hawkins sees fear as a big barrier to implementing this collaborative model. “We’re afraid to tell somebody we need help because you’re going to come take our child,” the Indigenous mother said. “Some of us parents just need help.”
Robin Garcia sees trust as another barrier. She was raised by her grandmother, a residential school survivor, and she says her kids were taken away when she moved from Chehalis reserve to Vancouver.
“I’ve been through trauma. I don’t trust people,” she said. “I used to tell my children not to answer the door, don’t talk to the social workers, don’t talk to the schools. I never went to school meetings.”
Scott Clark, acting president of the North West Indigenous Council, which represents off-reserve Indigenous people in B.C., said this mistrust is deeply rooted in Canada’s colonial history.
“When you’re Indigenous and you live with Indigenous peoples and their friends, you live the experience of the pain, the suffering of the systems that have been built up since Canada became a country, since the province joined Confederation, since the city was incorporated.”
“You learn to fear professionals,” he said, despite some professionals’ potentially good intentions.
Karen Zilke is one of those professionals. As an outreach social worker, she works with a police officer on a special intervention team for high-risk youth. She too sees fear as a barrier for social workers. Inexperience, too.
“They’re just so freakin’ fear-based right now, it’s unreal,” she said. “As we try to build capacity, can we look at how to bring those young workers who are absolutely terrified, deer in the headlights… How can we bring them in, train them and mentor them?”
There’s also the legitimacy piece. Alex Vasiljevic is a youth worker at Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre in East Vancouver. When they tried to pilot the circle model with a family there, he said, they had trouble getting the social worker to buy into the collaborative plan and follow its terms.
“They didn’t take us seriously,” he said. “We were basically placated… and we had no mechanism to push.”
At the training, participants talked not only about the barriers, but the strengths already in place that would support a more child-centred, collaborative approach like the Circle of the Child in complex child-welfare cases.
Grace Tait, associate director of YWCA Crabtree Corner Community on East Hastings, said Indigenous peoples are already skilled in circle models.
“Some of us, in our teachings and in our communities… have been practicing and living by [this] for thousands of years,” she said.
The knowledge is there; what’s needed, she said, is allyship and accountability.
“The value that unfortunately we don’t have is privilege as Indigenous people, especially women,” she said. Allies can help by empowering people in the communities who are doing the work, who are primarily women, she added.
Beyond allyship, participants said there would need to be a full-time coordinator in place, someone who can educate families, social workers and other stakeholders about the model and legitimize it. And at least one trained mediator who can implement and build on the circle model Trudel has developed in Quebec.
Looking around the room, Dr. Julien and Trudel said the community already has all the pieces. Someone just needs to pull it all together in a pilot project.
Editor’s note, Nov. 30, 2018: An earlier version of this story described Grace Tait as the associate director of Crabtree Corner housing. She’s actually the associate director of YWCA Crabtree Corner Community.
This piece was edited by Robin Perelle. Sign up here for our Urban Nation newsletter.