A Calgary mom is on a mission to support children entering foster care or being removed from their homes, to make sure they aren’t forced to carry what possessions they have in a garbage bag.

Tanya Forbes started I Belong Bags two years ago, filling backpacks with essentials and comfort items for children in crisis.

I Belong Bags was kind of born out of this idea that no child should leave their home or anywhere else with nothing, or with a trash bag full of their belongings,” said Forbes. “That’s not a positive message for a child to take on in the world, and connect with their self-identity.”

With the help of fundraising and donations, Forbes and volunteers customize backpacks with toiletries, books, stuffed animals, pyjamas and blankets for babies to kids up to the age of 18.

Forbes has her own foster care story. When she was a teenager, she asked a friend of the family to take her in.

“My foster mom would tell me a lot of times how children would come with garbage bags or just nothing, nothing from their homes, and how heartbreaking it was to see.”

For the past year, Forbes has been donating stuffed bags to the Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service, which has handed out 150 bags to children in the first nation community.

“It takes a community to raise a child and when we're called to service to assist and support usually at a traumatic time, any opportunity that we have to make that a softer approach is beneficial I think to all people involved,” said Sgt. Dawn-Lyn Blake, operations NCO.

Blake said the backpacks have had a positive impact in interactions with children.

“It’s allowed us the opportunity to develop relationship building with the children that are experiencing trauma or abuse or mental health issues. COVID-19 is a really difficult time for a lot of children with isolation it gave us a great opportunity to be able to develop a bit of a rapport.”

According to the province, from January to September 2020, there were 2,285 new in-care legal authority cases for children and youth across Alberta. For the same time period in 2019, 2,764 children and youth were taken in to government care.

The timing of packing a child’s belongings depends on the circumstances.

“If there are imminent safety concerns for the child, or if the parent/guardian is uncooperative, items that are needed in the short-term and the child’s comfort items are collected if possible, and the caseworker may make arrangements to return another time for the rest of the child’s belongings,” said Nancy Bishay, communications director for Alberta Children’s Services.

If the child is coming into care by agreement, often the parent or guardian will have the child’s belongings packed in an appropriate backpack or luggage.

“When a move is unplanned, the caseworker would seek resources in the family home that are accessible to the worker to carry the child’s belongings. The caseworker would work with the parent/guardian to assist them in gathering what their child needs and to pack their belongings in a suitable container from the child’s home.”

Forbes plans to continue the partnership with Tsuut’ina police, but also hopes community support will help the program expand.

“I don’t think people are seeing the need that is out there for these kids,” said Forbes. “There needs to be different conversations to create empathy and compassion.”