On December 21, 2017, Surrounded by Cedar Child & Family Services cancelled the Continuing Custody Order of two Dakota boys, seeing them returned home to their birth mother.
The journey for these young ones started long before the arrival in the Victoria Court House shortly before Christmas. Generations earlier, the systems of colonialism and oppression presented themselves amongst this family system, and over time, the deep impacts of such significant trauma arrived to stay. Addiction, cultural disconnection, dislocation, loss, grief, and removal set a new, shaky and crumbling foundation.
As a youth, mom to these two beautiful boys spent time in care herself. Not many years later, she saw her children enter the complex system of child welfare, and a Continuing Custody Order was granted by the courts at the end of 2010. In March of the following year, these two little ones were transferred to Surrounded by Cedar Child & Family Services, an urban Delegated Aboriginal Agency, located on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen people, providing culturally rooted guardianship services to urban Indigenous children, youth and families.
While working hard to nurture the spirits and cultural identities of these two boys, Surrounded by Cedar was also charged with the responsibility of permanency planning, while maintaining meaningful connections between these children and significant people within their lives. Over the years, the agency supported mom to have ongoing visits to her children, encouraging her to do the work that needed to be done to have her children home. At times this work was difficult, particularly as mom struggled to nurture herself and her own spirt. At times, visits between mom and her boys was sporadic, and at other times, visits simply did not happen.
Despite all of this, mom persevered. The strong spirit of her Dakota ancestors stood with her as she made the commitment to get clean and stay clean. And over the course of three years, the transformation was amazing. By summer, 2017, Surrounded by Cedar, through their collaborative work with the Ministry of Children & Family Development, felt confident in the work that mom had done, and placed the boys in mom’s home. And by December, the agency was confident enough in mom’s new journey that application was made to court to see these boys stay at home, permanently.
Recognizing the lack of cultural significance court systems hold amongst our people, Surrounded by Cedar embarked on a journey with the courts to ensure the process of cancelling the Continuing Custody Orders was one that held deep meaning for not only the agency, but the family. And through the agency’s advocacy, a precedent setting moment took place in family court that December day.
The agency’s social worker was called into judge’s chamber to provide evidence prior to the actual court proceedings, allowing more time to focus on the cultural work that needed to take place in the court room. Excitement filled the air as we all filed into the court room, and quickly heard the judge grant the cancellation. This was followed by an address to the family and the courts by a member of the family’s Nation. The agency’s Elder then addressed the court in his language, acknowledging the very important work that had taken place. A group of staff and community members then stood before the family with their drums, belting out the infamous AIM song. To close these proceedings, we then witnessed the judge leave her bench, and come down to address each member of the family individually. Both boys were presented with eagle feathers by the judge.
Needless to say, not a dry eye sat in family court in that moment, and the significance of that day, of the work that mom did to break cycles amongst her family, were forever etched in the hearts of those who were there. Moving forward, it is Surrounded by Cedar’s intention to continue to work with the local court systems to shift the way in which proceedings take place for Indigenous children, youth and families, particularly in the family court process. Rescindments, returns, and transfers of custody need to be honoured with cultural significance. It is not only medicine to our people, it is also those very processes that align with our inherent understandings of how we conduct business.