Pregnant aboriginal women find ‘world of difference’ in Edmonton inner-city program

By Nikki Wiart, CBC News Posted: Jul 27, 2015 7:00 AM ET

It’s not often a job description includes monitoring fetal heart rates and taking blood samples in the back of a car or in the bathroom of a fast food joint.

Falon Quinn

Falon Quinn is eight months pregnant, and says HER Pregnancy is giving her the help she needs to keep her baby. (CBC)

But that’s exactly what employees of an inner city prenatal program in Edmonton do.

At-risk pregnant women on the street are “incredibly scared of the system,” says Marliss Taylor, a nurse who helped found HER Pregnancy — which stands for Healthy, Empowered and Resilient — in 2008.

HER is an aggressive outreach program for pregnant women living on the streets. It’s based out of Boyle Street Community Services’ Streetworks program in downtown Edmonton and it’s seeing a lot of success.

In an independent review of the agency, Children’s Services predicted that 95 to 100 per cent of HER’s clients would have lost their children to apprehension. Instead, 52 per cent of those women were actually successfully parenting — photographic proof of which lines the walls of the program’s pregnancy room.

Falon Quinn is eight months pregnant, and says HER Pregnancy is giving her the help she needs to keep her baby.

“I would probably still be homeless — pregnant and homeless — not knowing what to do,” Quinn said. “Probably doing drugs and alcohol if I didn’t have the supports I do today.”

That success hasn’t been lost on the provincial government either. As of early July, Alberta’s new NDP government promised the program an additional $200,000, on top of the $1.4 million over three years promised in 2014 by the Progressive Conservatives.

Alberta Health has also provided funding for two similar programs in Red Deer and Calgary.

Aboriginal focus, shared experience

Morgan Chalifoux, a pregnancy support worker with the program, is Métis; she’s been through the system, lived on the streets and was a teen mom.

HER pregancy

Morgan Chalifoux, (bottom left), a pregnancy support worker with the program, previously lived on the streets and was a teen mom. She says those shared experience helps her connect with clients. Kristen Rowan (top left), Trish Gladue (top right), and Nadine Santin work with pregnant at risk women in Edmonton. (Nikki Wiart)

“Honestly, if I wasn’t aboriginal, if I didn’t have the experience, if I didn’t use when I was on the street, if I didn’t understand what it was like to have my son threatened to be taken away from me … I wouldn’t be able to have the success that I have now with the clients,” Chalifoux said.

According to Erin Konsmo, from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, these shared experiences “make a world of difference.”

“When you see somebody that looks like you, that can speak about communities that are similar to yours, experiences that are similar to yours, you’re going to have a much safer experience as a young mom.”

Ninety per cent of HER clients are aboriginal, including Quinn, who is from Saddle Lake First Nation. That’s a large reason why 50 per cent of Streetworks’ staff is also aboriginal.

“Indigenous-to-indigenous relationships are super important,” said Konsmo, who has a Métis and Nehiyaw background.

The program’s manager, Marliss Taylor, said the high number of indigenous clients is a reflection of bigger issues within the community.

“I think that a lot of mainstream folks still don’t appreciate the incredible effects of the residential school system,” she said.

“[HER] has a really critical viewpoint on some of the larger historical legacies that make people homeless,” Konsmo said

More flexibility than mainstream health care system

HER is a modest operation, with three pregnancy support workers, two registered nurses, and a social worker. It is made up of a small, dimly-lit room filled with secondhand furniture that they call their pregnancy room, as well as another room for nursing.

“It’s close to them. It’s a little gritty; doesn’t feel like a formal doctor’s office,” she said.

‘That fetal heartbeat is much more than just a diagnostic ‘how’s the baby doing?’ It represents hope.’ –  Marliss Taylor, nurse with HER Pregnancy

HER employees help clients make key decisions early on in the pregnancy and support whatever decision is made. HER will put clients in touch with a Children’s Services agent, so that when the baby is born, the agent knows who the mother is and what work they’ve done to keep their child. In many cases, it means they are less likely to immediately apprehend the child.

The program also approaches prenatal care from a harm-reduction standpoint rather than an abstinence-based one, which can include encouraging women who use drugs and alcohol to use less.

“We have women come in and say ‘I need to hear that baby’s heartbeat because I feel like using right now.’ And that’s a control for them,” Taylor said.

“That fetal heartbeat is much more than just a diagnostic ‘how’s the baby doing?’ It represents hope.”

HER pregnancy

Homeless and pregnant women can drop by Boyle Street’s pregnancy room for everything from advice to providing HER Pregnancy staff with a blood and urine samples. (Nikki Wiart)

HER keeps supporting mothers up to six months after delivery to ensure they’re on the right track to being a successful parent.

This dedication is what makes the program different from others offered through Alberta Health Services.

“You can just come and talk to them and they’re not like, ‘OK, you gotta go. I have another appointment,'” Quinn said.

“They make you feel comfortable and make you feel like they’re family.”

A feeling Taylor said can make a huge impact on a soon-to-be mom.


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