Monday, April 30, 2007

In the Best Interests of the Child

I am dealing with a large number of people who are suffering from what appears to be abuse of child abuse laws and by those who are paid to enforce them. In the last two weeks alone, I spoke with three clients -- all separate individuals who don't talk to one another but talk to me -- who have all had similar experiences with children's aid authorities. The children's aid has an incredible amount of authority and an unweildy amount of clout, particularly as those they tend to "visit" tend to be people of low income, racial minorities and persons with disabilities (e.g. especially of the cognitive set). They claim the cause of their visit is that they received a "report", usually from some unidentified source that is never held accountable for their slander, and that they are mandated to investigate all "allegations". The Children's Law Reform Act, at least the way I was taught when I was taking law, is supposed to rule only in the best interests of the child ... the Child and Family Services Act is supposed to set up agencies/councils and so forth to enforce the protection of the interests of children. My legal training was on the cusp of when the swing of the pendulum was towards family unification and parental support. Only as a last resort would the children's aid apprehend a child and when they did, you, me and the doorpost would all agree that the child needed to be apprehended.

These agencies were and are still very necessary. If you read the series of books by Dave Pelzer, who was so severely abused as a child by his mother that his life was literally saved just by apprehending him from school and sneaking him off to a foster home. In his day, this was not done very much ... and he recalls how child protective workers saved his life. They still do save many lives and I cannot underestimate the toll this type of work takes on its workers. I had a special friend of mine who recently succumbed to a stroke who had for twenty-three years worked in the field of child protection and he can certainly tell me stories of abuse and neglect ... but then again, his training was much like mine, when I was trained in the law, when Bill 77 came out - to maintain family unity, unless family unit is unsafe for the child. We need these workers in our communities, just like we need a police force, a food and drug enforcement agency and a public health agency, all with mandates to protect the Rest of Us from the bad deeds of some.

However, like many police forces, government agencies and other organizations, these children's aid societies can and do make mistakes ... and they can and do make lots of them and many times, decisions made can do a lot of harm, not only to the family but also the children involved. I know these workers don't set out to do this when they wake up in the morning, and many times - they truly believe they are doing the best for the child. But like any human being, they are not infallible. Like any system, it is not infallible. We hear of police organizations being particularly difficult with racial minorities, for example. We also hear about police officers shooting down a suspect they believe is acting erratically. Over the years and it is still happening, these organizations have started to build in better systems of accountability, as well as offer better training to their officers in dealing with people from different cultures or people who may be taken down in the midst of a drug-induced "high". Using sensitivity awareness and case de-escalation training is useful for all of us that deal with people in trouble. Also, recent attempts to hire more officers from racial minority backgrounds and promote some of them from within different departments also works well. For example, the Toronto Police Services has set up a program to work with members of the gay/lesbian/transgendered community to try to understand their issues and better handle members of this community when they find themselves in trouble.

Unfortunately, children's aid societies are light years behind many of the other authorities in dealing with these issues. All somebody in authority needs to understand is that those that feel harmed by errors made do not have the power and the resources to fight back to correct the wrongs and undo years of damage to their families, careers and personal relationships, that an error made by a child welfare official can potentially make. One problem that keeps getting brought to my attention is that it is not the children of the doctors and the lawyers and the politicians that are usually the subjects of apprehension orders, even though circumstances that can warrant the same can and do occur in these families as well. The families that are most often impacted are those of low-income, racial/cultural minorities and those with parents that have some kind of disability, usually a cognitive disability or a history of mental health issues. Mothers who have suffered through post-partum depression, newly single parents or families without a parent working are usually targeted, not suspected necessarily of abuse but of neglect. If the parent was a former ward of the children's aid, they are also particularly hot targets. You might as well paint a red and black target on their forehead and say, "here, here" and the investigators will turn up at their door shortly after these people do bear kids of their own. It is my experience that an ex-ward's own history is often used harshly against them in their own assessment of parenting ability. Once caught in their game, it is often very difficult for a vulnerable family to break out. I've had lawyers tell me they find these cases the most difficult, as the parent is almost assumed guilty and they must climb some kind of ladder to prove their own innocence - this Napoleanic justice has been seen in countries that Canada claims to be so different from, but indeed, we are very much built of the same cloth when it comes to people living in poverty.

It is lawful for example that a person in a position of authority, such as a teacher, principal, counsellor, doctor or other "respected authority type" reports any "signs" of abuse and neglect to the proper child welfare authorities as soon as it is discovered. A professional in my position to some extent as well is also required to report, as there could be situations where I am dealing with clients with major problems, such as addiction issues or where a parent has been incarcerated. However, it may surprise you to know that many of these parents are actually much more stable for their children than a foster home might be. Frankly, I would report more of what I see if there was a guarantee that workers wouldn't just barge in, take the kids and force that family through many difficult years of litigation and deepening poverty - so in many ways, I become an advocate for the family myself - connecting them to services, advocating with community agencies, appealing income support claims, climbing the ladder at subsidized housing complexes to ensure that the family's environment is not an issue. I do know if I did not get a client of mine moved within an unnamed subsidized housing network from their former residence to a new undisclosed and unlisted address (also in the housing system), children's aid would have stepped in to take her children. In her old complex, this family was mired in a dispute over drugs with her older son only playing a minor role in it ... but a case of mistaken identity brought a rival gang into their yard throwing "firebombs" into their yard, breaking a window, which could have got somebody killed ... once at their new surroundings, this family was much more at peace and the children were no longer even remotely involved with the "wrong people".

In another case, there was an illegal eviction leaving the family with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I knew where they slept for a few nights until they finally asked for my help. I know if children's aid knew this happened, the kids would have been gone immediately - which would have only further mired this fragile family unit in deepening poverty. Fortunately, this did not happen as we were able to access some emergency funds to house this family until they were able to get their cheques started again and find another place. In other similar cases I've become aware of where children had actually been apprehended, children's aid would not give them back until the parent or parents found more suitable dwellings. One of these situations was at the place rented to a client by one of the slumlords I might have written about earlier here. Living on what was then called "mother's allowance", and fully aware that her income would significantly drop once the two children were out of her custody even for a short period, it was damned near impossible for this client to get her life back together without my help, knocking on doors, filing a prosecution against her slumlord and threatening publicity, but that is a story for another day ... she did get her kids back, but I swear this whole experience is worthy of labeling as a PTSD-inducing incident for both her and her children.

I mentioned I would report and liaise more with children's aid related agencies IF *real support options* were offered to the parents, who are in even many of the worst cases, going through a temporary crisis where divine intervention might be needed, but not with the big stick of apprehension. Unfortunately, *real crisis support* is not what is offered to the parents, and given a few high profile inquests during Mike Harris' reign over some children's aid societies that watched children being starved and/or beaten while under their so-called supervision, lots of political pressure yielded these agencies to today's new reality ... the pendulum these days has swung to the "take the kids and ask questions later" side of the coin, which is what is disturbing me more and more ... and in many cases, the so-called "neglect" reported is simply poverty of the child's family and not any kind of deliberate pattern of denial. As the investigator digs deeper into the family, they learn other things, usually small things, but they become crucial indicators of the fact these are *unfit parents*. I've had clients tell me her child's social worker told her that her husband's musical taste was not good for the children. I've had clients tell me that their choice in homeschooling their children was what triggered the assault in the first place. I've had other clients tell me they found their child eating out of other children's lunch boxes, so therefore - it was concluded they were being starved at home. When I hear what *really* happened, I recall my own younger days - while not filled with bliss and glory themselves, but let me tell you -- because my parents were always working and even when my mother was low-income she *always* held a job, she was never suspect of anything by any child welfare agency, nor was my father - even when he was separated from my mother and raising his second wife's children.
Yet, in the households where I grew up, the situation was less than ideal. My parents were kids themselves when they got married and had kids of their own, so there was really no fault here.

But I do remember times I ate out of other kids' lunch boxes, not because I was starving, but because like most of the kids, we all got bored with what our parents put in our lunches day after day and this often happened between many of the kids. I've even seen situations where some of the kids just dumped what was given them and because they didn't feel like eating, in these days - they would be seen as starved! Also, in my day, most parents used the belt as a form of punishment ... this would *never* be tolerated today because kids often know their rights and will tell a teacher or somebody else that their parents are beating them if a belt is used on them now and off to the children's aid they go. In my day, even schools used the strap in some cases - it was widely accepted that in certain situations, it was warranted.

However, we never used corporal punishment on our own children. We never had to. Our children are not always the best behaved, but they never needed any form of physical punishment and I still don't have major problems with them. However, in some situations, with some children, it might be necessary for some parents -- not a beating - just a whack with the hand on the buttocks or a slap on the wrist of a child who decides to cross a busy street in front of a car, for example. The Supreme Court refused to void s. 43 of the Criminal Code, which permits reasonable corporal punishment - however, this whole debate is not over yet ... and most children's aid societies take a strong opinion against any form of corporal punishment against any child at any age in any situation ... and for many, this creates protection issues. There was in fact a high profile case a few years back when a very strict family from a religious order became targeted by children's aid over the use of a strap as a disciplinary method. It turned out that none of the children saw this to be abusive, nor did this impact on the family dynamic ... and these kids appeared quite well-adjusted, but then again some of the anti-s.42 advocates were out at full force at this time pushing for apprehension of all of these children. I personally don't support the use of the strap, but then again - I can't dictate what another parent and family feels is right for their children. I am not standing in their shoes, so who am I to pass judgment - esp. when this is not a beating or done in an abusive or vindictive way?

Anyhow, back to main topic ... I sometimes see a lot of things happen to people that breaks my heart. I truly think accountability is in order for any agency or organization that carries such a huge level of power and authority, especially over vulnerable people. However, at this point, there are complaint mechanisms but they are largely internal and based on legislative authority and internal policies. It is much like what people talk about when they see police being overseen by other police, lawyers being overseen by other lawyers and doctors being overseen by other doctors ... there is no true Holy Grail one can look to in order to make an agency like this accountable for some of the mistakes they make. This agency, while now overseen by the Provincial Auditor, is not overseen (at least yet!) by the Ombudsman ... and the only way an aggrieved parent or prospective employee or somebody else that was hurt by an action by children's aid can fight this is to sue them. Rev. Dorian Baxter, a few years ago, successfully sued the Durham Children's Aid Society for siding with his ex-wife over slanderous abuse allegations for which there was no objective merit. Even though Baxter "won" in principle and in law, he lost almost everything he had in order to challenge an agency that saw no limits to its own authority. I can only imagine what my clients feel about trying to pick a fight as a David against a Goliath, when they really have few resources of their own ...

... but I do truly do believe in truth and accountability; I also believe in the power of the pen, which I am told is mightier than the sword. I believe collective action is more powerful than the action of one David. We can all be Davids. We can all fight the same fight. It is not just about children's aid or even the abuse of government authorities as a whole. It is about the empowerment of the vulnerable. No, we don't want to see children's aid stop fighting the abuses of many vulnerable children out there ... because many people including Dave Pelzer who I referred to earlier had lives they owe to the many fine men and women who work for these agencies. But, we need to fight to make sure there is true accountability, a better way to correct egregious errors and to restore reputations when they have been lost and to re-unite families if they have been wrongly divided ...

... and to restore the social safety net that has been lost over the past decade, where for whatever reason, has made the services of children's aid, the police, the jails, the public health system, the health care service, as well as many other "band aids" necessary, whereas our politicians can only see wisdom in increasing their ever-rising budgets, as they slash the resources for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the disabled, the elderly ... how else will we ever let the politicians know this is just a dangerous shell game they are playing? ... how else can we let the taxpayers know where their money really goes? ... how else can we let people who are one pay cheque away from losing their jobs know there is no social safety net to catch them when they fall anymore ... that they will only be caught by the powers that be, whatever vice haunts them will punish them thrice, and all hope and dignity is lost, as well as that blessed term called accountability.

Your thoughts? E-mail me.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Public Housing, Public Lives

As you can tell from prior entries, I offer a different viewpoint on many "social issues". I try to view "social issues" from the perspective of the person who must live with them. I try to educate the uneducated, or if well-educated, to provide a fresh perspective.

I recently attended a forum on housing issues in my Region. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, because I was not one of dozens of providers of "services" ranging from emergency housing to transitional housing to subsidized housing to supportive housing, etc. I attended as an interested party, probably showing my bright red Tory colours as I walked in the door with about three dozen faces all staring at the lunatic who first did not even know where the forum was. I get lost easily; I am poor at remembering directions and couldn't read a map if it were spelled out for me.

Anyways, besides being a lightning rod for potential criticism, I did find some people there I was pleased to see there and the information provided was not that out of place for me. After all, I am a service provider of a different type: legal services for poor, disabled, injured as well as other citizens. The sad fact of the matter that even somebody like me, who does not get paid a cent for what I do with society's unwanted/stigmatized/abused, etc., is usually the one whose views are attacked as smarmy and a tad to the so-called right. One of these issues where I often find myself at odds with the government-funded agencies or social workers that work there, is housing policy.

To me, housing affordability problems are an income problem first; then, if the income situation were corrected, then afterwards, we can see what else we need. Housing advocates, as they call themselves, are always bleating on the liberal bandwagon about the need for the government to build thousands upon thousands of more housing units ... in particular, a critique of the recent Liberal budget was that monies allocated in this budget were essentially the same monies the federal Liberals dished out to Ontario during its dying days of the January 23, 2006, election and no new monies were involved. They point to a provincial total of 122,000 on various wait lists across Ontario for "affordable" housing. They also estimate that 600,000 households are in "core need", defined as paying more than 30% of their total income on housing/shelter costs.

Given the definition of "core need", I know I fit this definition, as well as many other people I know that currently live in so-called market housing or own their own homes. However, there's many reasons why not all 600,000 families are beating their paths to the wait lists for so-called "social housing", even if the lists weren't that long ... families in Toronto, for example, can well wait for their baby to grow up and leave home before they arrive at the top of this list.

However, I, like many other homeowners of fixed or lower incomes, prefer to remain in our own premises. If I want to move, I want to choose when and if I do, I want to profit from the move. In public housing, you do not profit from any move, although you can be made to move multiple times, as your family size decreases by one each time a child leaves home. In public housing, they tell you what your housing needs are, not the other way around ... For a typical academic like myself, I am typically underhoused even if the number of bedrooms meet my family's size. I can't be comfortable living in cubicle-sized living quarters that were likely originally designed to meet the needs of one person, but were rebuilt to add bedrooms to house families. I think of being trapped inside wanting to go outside and get away ... fast!

Besides their size, public housing can create major eyesores for neighbourhoods and communities if too many people in these projects come from low-income families. There are numerous studies that have shown public housing eventually deteriorates to sites of concentrated poverty, domestic violence and crime. In my own city, well-meaning social workers want to develop housing programs for former substance abusers or people with mental health problems. Did they ASK people first if they want to live with or beside other people with similar or possibly worse problems than they have? Just because somebody has had a substance abuse or mental health problem does not mean they want to live with and work with others who exclusively have the same problems ...

In another life, I created among other programs, a substantial pilot project that developed six independent agencies that trained and supported people with disabilities in starting and operating their own businesses. Almost ten years, five of six of these agencies are still operating and have a strong track record of success. Later, I provided services under contract to the provincial government to assist others to do the same thing. At my first round, I encountered people who wanted us to develop and fund consumer-controlled business co-operatives, which would give jobs to anybody that wanted a job and was reliable for at least a few hours a week. After consulting with the people and organizations I developed the pilots with, there was not a strong interest by people with disabilities working with others with the same problems in a business; however, there was substantial interest by many individuals in starting and running their own businesses. There were individuals who were interested in entering into partnerships with others, but the choice of partner or partners was theirs and theirs alone. Besides that, most of these prospective businesses planned to compete in the regular marketplace and having a disability or being known as a psychiatric survivor is not necessarily a strong selling point ... so why would I set these folks up to be any different than any other prospective entrepreneur? Why would it be any different for where someone lives?

Finally, public housing policies entrench poverty. Let me say this again: public housing policies entrench poverty. When I refer to public housing under this category, I am particularly referring to "rent-geared-to-income" housing. Rent-geared-to-income housing under Ontario's Social Housing Reform Act requires that rent subsidies be geared to a person's income. While this sounds simple, it really is not. I used to live in co-operative housing, where our property was then placed under this Act (against the wishes of the co-operative housing associations, mind you). Your rent subsidy for example differs if your income came from working, than if it came from social assistance benefits. The reason I was told was because when somebody works, their income comes to them in weekly or biweekly implements, while social assistance is paid monthly ... therefore, just by working itself, your rent would increase. As you continue to earn more money, your rent increases even more. I believe the standard they keep is 30% of one's net income. This is not a bad policy if you always earned the same amount of money month after month, but we all know this doesn't happen.

Social housing residents are supposed to report any changes in their income (up or down) within ten (10) days of becoming aware of the change. That means if your income varies from one month to the next, you have to report your income each and every month to your social housing office. If you are also receiving social assistance or Ontario Disability Support Assistance (ODSP), this situation becomes even more interesting. Whenever somebody on social assistance or ODSP earns money in Ontario, they must report their earnings before the 7th day or 22nd day of the following month, respectively. For somebody who runs a small business for example and is on ODSP, reporting requirements are slightly different and one's file is annually reviewed. However, if that same person lives in social housing, they must report month after month what their new and varied income is, which if it differs by as much as $100 a month (which I think still applies), your housing charge goes up or down accordingly. If you are on social assistance or ODSP and this agency covers your shelter costs, you have to declare any change in shelter costs as they occur. It is too easy to fall into a trap where you can end up in substantial arrears to social housing if this situation is not kept in check. I know this - I've represented many of these tenants before the Landlord and Tenant Board.

Another major issue is the subject of clawbacks. ODSP recently changed its legislation to allow people to keep up to 50% of what they earn, as opposed to their old formula which many of its recipients found too complicated to keep up with. A simple 50/50 split is easier for recipients to calculate, plus if there are earnings in a given month - the recipient would receive an additional $100 (called work-related allowance, but no receipts are required). This is actually a positive change for many ODSP recipients. However, if that same ODSP recipient lives in public housing, they don't only endure the 50% clawback, but also endure an additional 30% clawback from an increase in their housing costs simply as a result of going to work. Add in work-related expenses that are not generally covered by ODSP and one is simply being clawed back $1.00 - $1.20 for every $1.00 earned! Is it any wonder why many people living in public housing do not even bother to look for work?

On the subject of working, I do believe that individuals living in subsidized quarters are still disallowed from running a business out of their home. Small business run out of a person's home is the start of at least 75% of small businesses that eventually move out of the home and grow. For those so inclined, this is yet another disincentive to move up the social ladder. I am currently representing an individual who has been in trouble repetitively with the social housing department for operating a small business out of his home. Because this individual is incapable of working for an employer, this is his only option to earn a few extra dollars; nevertheless, he has also encountered the double jeopardy bureaucratic triangle I described above with respect to variable incomes each and every month as well. I know for a fact many of these people would be in far deeper trouble than they would be if they did not have access to our office for support and advocacy. There will be more on the battle that we paralegals are facing later. However, none of the successive governments that worked with social housing issues have ever tried to correct the double jeopardy bind I describe herein. More importantly, none of the so-called housing activists that push for more and more housing of this type appear to be aware of this double jeopardy trap or they just don't want to talk about it - feeling that bringing too much attention to it might discourage already reluctant government partners from building more of this housing, or even more cynically - to creating more social work jobs.

Finally, there is an element within the social housing movement that bothers me more particularly than any of the above issues. There are proponents that want to put anybody with mental health issues into supportive housing, people with substance abuse issues into supportive housing, and so forth ... in a society where we once valued integration and privacy, these same proponents want to throw all of that away and create projects specifically for people with mental health issues. To me, when I once worked with consumer/survivors as executive director of a local agency, I never heard any of the consumer/survivors I worked with tell me or anybody I worked with that they wanted to live in segregated housing where all their neighbours would also be consumer/survivors. I personally think this is a recipe for trouble and further stigmatization, if you ask me. People with mental health issues want to be left alone and the best kind of housing for them is the same kind of housing that is best for anybody else seeking to find the same -- one that is clean, safe and well-maintained.

Back to me ... my family is one of the supposedly 600,000 families in "core need" because more than 30% of my income is spent on housing-related necessities. However, even if there were no wait list, why would I want to move to a residence that is not mine? Why would I want to turn my life upside down and force myself into what can be a sentence to perpetual poverty? Why would I want to have neighbours that have similar problems, perhaps worse? Even at my co-op, which was only 30% subsidized, the police were there all the time ... a resident was murdered there many years back and in the year prior to my purchase of my present home, a resident committed suicide. Many others have also died of unnatural causes. They were all good people and in many ways, I miss the bunch of them ... however, I was no longer able to afford above average market rent hikes year after year, along with hydro, cable, gas and everything else we had to pay, while not having the benefit of ownership. While my housing where I live still costs about the same as it would have in the co-op, perhaps a bit less, it is mine.

Rather than go after the government for issues of supply and demand, why not ask the government to ensure that people on assistance and working poor are in a financial position to afford to pay for reasonable housing in the marketplace, as opposed to having to queue up for what looks like an awful long time on the road to nowhere?