Dawn McConnell chose a legal career with LABC to help people. Before deciding to attend law school, the Surrey native studied criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic, where she took social justice courses.
“I was interested in helping people who couldn’t necessarily help themselves, fighting for the underdog,” she explains.
After completing her bachelor of law from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, McConnell was called to the bar in 2018. After a six-month stint at a full-service law firm in Smithers, she joined the newly opened Parents’ Legal Centre in the region, where she focuses on child protection, assisting parents whose children have been removed or are at risk of being removed by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
It is difficult work, she says. Parents in the north (her office serves people from Burns Lake to Gitsegukla) lack the resources needed to help them treat mental health, escape domestic violence, curb substance use or find adequate housing, examples of what MCFD requires of parents before their children can be returned.
Because of the lack of resources, “it’s really hard for parents to do what they need to do,” McConnell explains, noting that many of her clients are Indigenous.
Significantly, the BC government launched the Parents’ Legal Centres, of which there are 10 operating in the province, to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster care system.
“There’s a lot of systemic racism in the child protection system,” says McConnell, who is a citizen of the Métis Nation of BC. “What one person might say is a child protection concern is not a child protection concern, it’s actually poverty.”
McConnell helps her clients to know their rights because, she stresses, “parents have rights in child protection before their children have been removed. We help parents navigate the system so the child is never removed and the parent has a say in [their child’s care agreement].”
The work of supporting parents at risk of losing their children is personal for McConnell. The BC government placed her grandfather in foster care shortly after his birth. He was the youngest of 13 children and was the only one separated from his family.
McConnell, who wasn’t raised Métis and only recently learned of her ancestry, says her grandfather’s story “brings me full circle to child protection.” It helps me feel like I’m doing good for other parents out there.”