The Winnipeg Child and Family Services Newcomer Unit may be small, but it has helped many people who are new to Canada settle in to their new homes and keep their families together.
The brightly painted office, located in Winnipeg’s north end, which was established in 2009, began because of a surge in new arrivals to Canada and an increase in cases referred to CFS. As well, referrals were coming in from all regions of the city and a more specialized unit, located in one place, was needed.
“The clients who come to our care, most of the time it is lack of awareness. Because they are coming from a different perspective on what parenting is,” says worker Aklilu Teferi during a round-table interview with the team, which includes six social workers and four other administrators/support workers.
However, the changes they have seen in many families over the years is immense, says Susan Irupang-Scott, the WCFS Newcomer Unit supervisor.
“Many of the kids [go on to] live independently. Many are doing extremely well in schools and universities. We have helped families get employment…We use our powers to protect families,” she says.
One of the brightly painted family rooms at the Newcomer Unit.
The specialized unit has many aspects that make it unique.
Most team members speak several languages. “Most of us have two languages. Some have three,” explains Irupang-Scott.
Working in the unit presents complex problems and issues that aren’t necessarily seen in other Winnipeg CFS offices, says the team. For one, families are large.
“With the Newcomer Unit, our family doesn’t comprise four people but comprises 10-15 children plus extended family members, so one family is already a caseload. And many times they do not speak English,” says Irupang-Scott.
And along with not speaking English, many families come to Canada with a lack of understanding of parenting approaches here, says Teferi.
“When the kids are brought into care, most of the time they [parents] are coming from a different perspective of what parenting is. So in order to assist them, the need for the special unit is there, says Teferi.
In terms of the services they provide, one of the main goals is to see child welfare issues through a cultural lens, says worker Elizabeth Mahmoud.
“We have a cultural perspective that is more enhanced. We have an awareness of complex situations. For example, it is easy for me to say you are failing to protect your child, whereas if you see their background, they came from a war-torn country and they lived in a camp. For years, they couldn’t sleep or took turns sleeping for fear that somebody was going to kidnap their children. Now, if that’s not protection, I don’t know what is.”
Unit members give the example of a family who, after years in a refugee camp, come to Canada and parents begin dealing with their trauma and other issues, and get called in for child protection issues. The Newcomer Unit would assist this family differently.
“You do it in a sense that you respect their troubles, you acknowledge their trauma,” says Mahmoud. But she adds, “You still have to perform your job as a protection worker but acknowledge there is a difference in protection when it comes to the newcomer population.”
For example, workers have come to recognize that the longer a family stays in a refugee camp and witnesses trauma, the longer it may take them to settle in and adapt to a new environment.
So in their approach, Mahmoud says, “instead of jumping the gun and bringing children into care, the workers look at what are the integration issues here. What are the contributing factors so we can support the parents to parent their children.”
The team works hard, says Irupang-Scott, to help give parents support and to “give them the opportunity to really demonstrate the ability to parent their children.”
Also, says Teferi, neglect is subject to a lens. Two or three children sleeping on the floor in an apartment in Canada could be seen that way, but compared with their former living conditions in a tent or temporary shelter, this is not neglect, so workers have to take these sorts of factors into consideration.
And often there are many contributing factors to the issue that brought the family to the attention of child welfare.
Often, refugee parents feel extreme financial pressure as they try to settle in to a new country and obtain employment, which can lead to domestic issues and child protection workers being called. Others are struggling to cope with settlement, getting their permanent citizenship card or refugee status, which can lead to depression or child neglect.
“We see that some of our families are struggling with that. Settlement doesn’t have a timeline,” says Mahmoud.
“A lot of times we have issues that have been festering for a year or two but without the knowledge of [child] protection, or when the child starts schools. Often the Unit works with schools or community or church leaders to find a place of safety for these children,” says Mahmoud. The Unit also works closely with these agencies to help support families at home. For example, a church leader might be part of the safety plan and help check in on the family regularly.
And for the workers, assisting these families is more than just child protection work. Often they have to deal with immigration court, immigration papers, calling other countries for birth certificate information; as well as helping people find employment, furnish apartments, seek winter clothes or obtain halal food.
And often meetings take two to three times longer than they would with a non-immigrant family because of language barriers and the need for interpreters.
Mahmoud notes that even finding interpreters is a difficult enterprise. “Maybe an Iraqi person would not want a Syrian for an interpreter. There is mistrust and you have to be cognizant of that.”
And removing children from a home is a last resort, says Irupang-Scott.
“We try to provide maximum stability for a child. We do not want to move them around.” What they do instead, she says is make use of support workers “so the kids stay at home with the parents.”
The team has seen many of the refugee children they have worked with over the years thrive and grow up to be very successful.
Irupang-Scott says one young man has “promised he will become a doctor.” Another young woman “is now in university pursuing science, doing extremely well.”
And many of the newcomer children who were formerly on the Unit’s caseload have invited workers to their high school graduation, she says. Some children who have been abused have gathered the strength to set out on their own and are now on Agreements with Young Adults, which provides them free university tuition, she says.
“They say, ‘I want to stay with CFS for now because I have a dream to continue with school,’” says Irupang-Scott.
She says the unit strives to first help people settle in Canada, and then learn to take responsibility for their own lives.
“We set an example, so that they can see their dreams.”