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.

No comments: