Every day for more than a month, Sonja Hathaway sat with her newborn baby Amella in the hospital, speaking to the infant in her Dene language.
Despite the feelings of being watched, Sonja and her husband Philip diligently spent time at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Victoria General Hospital to feed and care for their daughter.
While Amella was in the NICU, the Hathaways stayed at Jeneece Place, a home for families to live while receiving medical care in “Victoria.” Sonja was brought to the city at the end of February by ambulance from “Campbell River” because of health complications.
When Amella was born on March 11, she was almost two months premature and weighed only three pounds at birth.
“I call her my thumbelina,” Sonja says lovingly.
Then, on Monday, Sonja and Philip arrived at the NICU to visit with their daughter and were met by police. They knew right away — the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) was there to apprehend Amella.
On Tuesday, the morning after the apprehension, feeling helpless, the Indigenous couple went to the B.C legislature to try to find answers. As she sat on a tarp on the lawn, wrapped in blankets, the new mother was heartbroken. Sonja said she was concerned that her premature baby was being given formula instead of her breast milk.
“I had milk all ready to go first thing this morning, ” she said. “They are taking away having a motherhood with her …. They are taking that away from me, and it hurts me so much.”
Nowhere to go
The couple was featured in the news late last year for crafting their own boat to live on, after years of living unhoused. They worry that MCFD used that story against them.
Sonja also went to MCFD during her pregnancy to access resources in order to plan for the arrival of the baby and find proper housing but believes the social workers were covertly working against her the entire time.
“They brought her gift cards and coffee. Pretended to be there as help and friends. Little did Sonja know they were building a case to use against her,” the family explains on a website they created to raise awareness about their situation.
“They had a devious and frankly outrageous plan to wait months to strip her from her child.”
After Amella was born, the couple was then “forced” to sign a safety plan by MCFD, according to Philip. He said they were denied the chance to have the plan reviewed by a lawyer.
Philip said the couple has been on a waiting list for shelter with BC Housing for the past three years. They have also tried to secure housing through the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, the Aboriginal Homeless Prevention Society, John Howard Society, and the Vancouver Island Society of Saint Vincent De Paul.
On April 14, they were given an ultimatum by MCFD — Sonja must move to the Aboriginal Mother’s Centre Society (AMCS), close to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and separate from her husband, or face the removal of her daughter.
“They came in on Friday saying that they want me and my wife to separate and [for her] to move to a transition house in East Vancouver, where she is not allowed to leave the building with the child,” Philip said. “I would have no access during that entire time.”
Sonja said she doesn’t know anyone in “Vancouver” and that she wouldn’t have any support, nor would she feel safe there. So she declined this demand, and days later, her daughter was taken from her.
IndigiNews reached out to BC Housing for comment but did not receive a response. IndigiNews also reached out to the AMCS, which was unable to comment on any information that would be confidential in nature.
Since Amella was taken, her parents have only been allowed to visit their baby when a social worker approves it, at the MCFD office in “Esquimalt.” Upon arriving there on Tuesday, Sonja and Philip were informed that they weren’t allowed to bring any support people with them to see Amella, including their two postpartum doulas who drove them there.
After seeing baby Amella, the doulas brought the couple back to the B.C legislature, where they spent the night on the lawn. Sonja expressed concern that she may end up with an infection, like mastitis, from not being able to nurse her baby.
After some worrying, MCFD eventually allowed Sonja to visit Amella once a day to breastfeed, as per their own policy.
In 2018, MCFD changed its breastfeeding policy after the B.C. Supreme Court heard a case of a three day old Huu-ay-aht infant who was apprehended from their mother.
The Huu-ay-ahy Nation argued that the mother wasn’t given sufficient time to bond with and breastfeed her baby before the child was apprehended. The court ruled that the ministry must ensure that the mother has daily access to her baby.
A statement from an MCFD spokesperson said “we recognize the significance of breastfeeding and support breastfeeding for mothers and infants. When working with mothers who are breastfeeding, MCFD works with the mother to ensure plans are in place to meet her and her baby’s needs.”
Failed by the system
On Wednesday, during a subsequent visit to drop off milk and visit with Amella, Sonja and Philip were met by police — this time, the parents learned they are being separated by a MCFD-imposed protection order which now must go to the hearing stage and will be decided on this week.
To add to the stress, Philip said he observed his baby was overheating and wrapped in too many blankets. He said her diaper was too tight, overflowing with urine and feces, and she was wearing the same outfit as the previous day — leading him to question the quality of care she was receiving from the people who apprehended her.
The social worker told him she had a rough night, he said.
MCFD Minister Mitzi Dean explained in a statement to IndigiNews that the ministry cannot remove a child for reasons of lack of housing and poverty alone — but that legally there must be a protection concern to bring the child into “care.”
“My ministry works every day to keep children safe with their families and connected to their culture and communities, whenever possible, as we all agree this leads to the best outcomes for children.”
According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Indigenous peoples shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.
For Sonja, she wonders why the system has failed her so direly — and all she wants is to be reunited with her daughter.
She misses her baby, and also worries about her not being able to pass on her Dene language and other important teachings.
“I talk to my daughter every day in my language, in Dene, so that she learns as she grows,” said Sonja. “And now, if I don’t talk to her, how is she going to learn?”
In the meantime, she’s launched a petition directed at Premier David Eby as she tries to get Amella back from the province. It now has nearly 1,000 signatures.
“It’s our baby. Not some dog you give away to someone else. I am not a breeder for entitled people,” she wrote on the petition page.
“I am a good mother and my husband is a good father. We desperately need your help to not allow the B.C. government to destroy another family. To steal yet another First Nation child because they can get away with it in silence.
“Do not allow them [to] continue the cycle of generational trauma.”