Child poverty, CFS and the road to hope in Manitoba

Click to play video: 'Child poverty, CFS and the road to hope in Manitoba'
Child poverty, CFS and the road to hope in Manitoba
One in five children in Manitoba currently live below the poverty line. Katherine Dornian introduces us to a man who experienced poverty as a child and tells us what advocates say needs to happen to help break the cycle – Sep 14, 2023

Monika Carpenter, Daniel Morgan and their three daughters were living in Tofino, B.C., but due to health problems, they needed to move somewhere more affordable. They decided to move to Winnipeg, because Carpenter’s mother lives there.

Yet the move brought another challenge: scraping together enough income to keep their daughters out of Child and Family Services, which can be a gateway to homelessness and abuse, according to advocates who have spoken to Global News.

The family arrived in August and moved into the SonRise Family Shelter after it became impossible to stay with Carpenter’s mother.

“We originally went off to go stay with (Carpenter’s) mom, but her mom’s place was too small, so the landlords asked us to leave because that many people in a bachelor is a fire hazard,” Morgan said.

Morgan said when the family of five arrived in Winnipeg, their days were immediately spent trying to qualify for Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) benefits. They also spent their evenings “trying to scrape up money” to ensure their daughters had milk and other essentials. The stakes were high, because they didn’t want to lose their daughters to  Child and Family Services. “If we don’t do that, we’re subject to CFS.”

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The family’s desire to keep their children out of the CFS system is warranted, according to a report from earlier this year.

Poverty, the Pandemic and the Province, a Campaign 2000 report on the state of child poverty in Manitoba, said kids who age out of CFS are up to 200 times more likely to go through homelessness than their peers who aren’t in care.

Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and a steering committee member of Campaign 2000, said this high number is fed by distrust in a system that has repeatedly harmed them.

“They’ve been used and abused by the medical system. They’ve been used and abused by the CFS system. They’ve been used and abused by the justice system,” she said.

That distrust is especially prominent among Indigenous and other racialized youth, Kehler added. Canada-wide, Indigenous people are overrepresented in poverty data, with 37.4 per cent of First Nations children who live on reserve living in poverty. Some 24 per cent of First Nations children who live off reserve are living in poverty, while the figure is 15.2 per cent for Métis children.

Manitoba’s struggle with harrowing child poverty rates has been raised as an issue in the Oct. 3 provincial election.

The NDP has promised to “prioritize children in our ambitious plan to end chronic homelessness over two terms,” and reduce costs for low-income families, said a spokesperson for the party.

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Likewise, the Liberal Party Leader Dougald Lamont said his party has “committed to removing barriers to work and volunteer for people on EIA.”

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Other parties have not yet replied to Global with a comment.

Kehler has called CFS a pipeline to poverty because it breaks families apart.

“CFS kids drop out of school, they end up in crime, they end up in jail.”

Marc Sweet, a Winnipeg man, who is no stranger to Child and Family Services, witnessed that first hand. As a child, he said he suffered physical and mental abuse from his parents, and faced instability because of his own family’s poverty.

“We lived in a trailer, and the trailer was owned by my grandfather,” he said. “There was always a threat of being kicked out, and we actually moved from a couple of different places when we were young.”

At eight years old, Sweet’s aunt made a call to CFS and he wound up in a temporary emergency placement.

“About six months into staying there, I was removed,” he said. “Another relationship that built trust, that connection, was taken away from me.”

Kehler said placement bouncing, even if children are sent to good homes, leaves them marred.

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“Even people who have been raised by very good foster parents have said, ‘I was still taken away from my family.’ They still have had that brokenness inside them, and that does harm,” she said.

By the time Sweet was 11, he said he was moved to a permanent placement in Lorette, Man., but never felt like he belonged.

“I felt like I was a burden,” he said.

Sweet said he also faced sexual abuse from his roommate who was an older foster child.

After being encouraged to charge the young person by CFS, Sweet said support fell through the cracks and he couldn’t follow through. In the end, Child and Family Services kept him in the same home and in the same room he was abused in.

“There’s trauma that comes from living in that same space — you know, still that fear. I just got to the point where I didn’t feel like I belonged, didn’t want to be where people didn’t care about me, so I ran away.”

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At 14 years old, Sweet said he took to the streets and joined a gang, hoping he’d find a family. But he was caught after committing a robbery as his initiation and spent 12 months in Agassiz Youth Centre. Later, after aging out of CFS, Sweet said he bounced around from place to place, and found himself homeless in his early 20s, even spending time on the streets in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown East Side.

Zainab Kamara, coordinator of the SonRise Family Shelter, said feeling unloved is not unusual for children living in poverty.

“The majority of them feel they have been left out, that nobody cares for them. That alone is making them have that mental instability,” she said.

Nikki Alexander, a SonRise Family Shelter resident, agrees.

“It makes it kind of hard when you’re on EIA with kids, because a lot of people look down on people who are on assistance and stuff like that, especially single parents,” she said.

Kehler said poverty creates long-term mental health struggles like chronic stress, which has an impact on decision-making, judgment and emotional regulation. Adolescents in the lowest income quintile are four times as likely to die by suicide than those in the top four brackets.

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“If we can’t feel that finger pointing at us, then I’m in despair,” she said.

Advocates say keeping kids out of care and shelters could be accomplished with stronger provincial child benefits.

Kehler said Manitoba’s CFS system has suffered from years of clawbacks by the provincial government. From 2006 to 2019, federal Children’s Special Allowance payments (the equivalent of the Canada Child Benefit given to parents who are raising their kids) were put into general revenues rather than being invested back into CFS. Kehler said the number of children in care doubled after the practice began.

Campaign 2000 also advises increasing affordability packages to lift families out of poverty, including better child benefits for low-income families. Currently, the Manitoba Child Benefit provides $420 annually per child, while other provinces with lower child poverty rates give out much more. In Alberta, up to $1,410 can be given to a family demonstrating need with one child, with up to $3,535 for a family with four or more children. Ontario offers up to $1,607 per child annually, and in B.C. a family can get up to $1,750 for their first child, $1,100 for their second, and $900 per child annually if there are three or more children in the family.

When it comes down to it, both experts and people like Sweet who are survivors of, or are living through, child poverty, say that change needs to come from tackling the root of the problem.

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“I get that there’s not a lot of resources. But make them. We’re worth it. We’re worth the time,” Sweet said.

— with files from Global’s Katherine Dornian. 

Click to play video: '‘We can do it today’: Manitoba has resources to address shocking child poverty rate, advocates say'
‘We can do it today’: Manitoba has resources to address shocking child poverty rate, advocates say

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