Listening makes a difference – the story of an Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference

Posted to: 
Court
23/05/2018

“The Elder began by performing a smudge ceremony, easing the circle into a sense of connectedness. She then shared a bit about herself: her 12 years of residential school; the loss of her brother to suicide; her career as a registered nurse, working in psychiatric care; and her commitment to the Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference.”

Not the usual beginning to a case conference with a judge! In a recent edition of The Advocate magazine, Judge Rosemary Gallagher and Elder Kathy Louis, OBC, provide more information about the pilot project aimed at addressing the needs and concerns of Aboriginal families involved in the child protection system - the Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference (AFHCC).

They write, “Near the beginning of the conference, the procedure is for the Elder to
describe the AFHCC as:

“a unique process that utilizes the medicine wheel and four directions cultural teachings, beliefs and values to guide Aboriginal children and families through a more traditionally based conference. The process values the sacred teachings of respect, courage, honesty, humility, wisdom, truth and unconditional love, while incorporating principles of kindness, sharing, trust and caring into the decision-making process and development of the healing and wellness plan for families. The Elders and program coordinator work closely with the families, offering support and guidance through the process of addressing Ministry-identified child protection concerns as the family begins to move toward wellness. …”

So far, the conferences have produced some remarkable evidence of communication,
support and potential healing. In one conference, the participants sitting in the circle included the mother, the project coordinator, the social worker and her supervisor and their lawyer, the mother’s counsellor, lawyer, a family-strengthening worker, a substance use and mental health worker, the Elder and the judge. The Elder began by performing a smudge ceremony, easing the circle into a sense of connectedness.

She then shared a bit about herself: her 12 years of residential school; the loss of her brother to suicide; her career as a registered nurse, working in psychiatric care; and her commitment to the Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference. The Elder then relied on the passage quoted above to describe what the AFHCC is and how it would proceed. The judge began by asking the mother, whose two teenage girls are in Ministry care, what she would like to talk about and how she was doing with the wellness plan she had created with the help of the Elder and the program coordinator in preparation for the family healing conference.

The conversation began with supportive comments on the mother’s progress from the Elder, the program coordinator and the support worker. It took some time, just over an hour, for the mother to appear to relax and want to speak. When she did, she was able to describe difficult early years in her life, involving incest, rape and the lifelong shame and guilt she carries. The silence and attention in the circle were heartfelt.

The Elder, who was sitting beside the mother, moved her chair closer to her, gently leaned into her and said, “It is my honour to walk with you. You were an innocent child who walked in the light. The shame and guilt is not yours to take.” The mother cried deeply, but there was a sense of relief in the tears - there was a palpable sense of connection between the Elder and the mother.

The heartfelt conversation continued and, by the end of the conference, the mother, who had been in denial and anger for a very long time, turned to the Elder and said she was ready to try to work on her healing and wellness plan. The Elder provided a kind of listening that is present and free of judgment. This listening allows for connection between Elder and mother that creates space for the mother to grieve for and potentially remember her better self. It is this quality of deep listening that can provide the mother with the hope and will to take a first step. It can provide the catalyst for change. All of us believe that this listening allows the court process to touch the lives of this Aboriginal parent in a way that makes a difference.”

See Making Space: Prioritizing Aboriginal Practices In Aboriginal Child Protection Case Conferences for the entire article, reprinted from 184 The Advocate, VOL. 76 Part 2, March 2018 with permission of The Advocate.