Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday 15 December 1998

Child-protection industry tears families apart

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Second in a Series

The Children's Aid Society is allowing an Ottawa couple to see their three children for three hours, once every three weeks. In exchange, they must provide enough groceries to keep the children fed in foster care between visits. They have been told no groceries, no visit.

Because it's a CAS case, the couple can't be identified. For the past year and a half the protectors have, in familiar fashion, slowly and agonizingly pulled the children away from the parents. They had a court date last week, and there are more to come, but the outcome is inevitable. The CAS will get Crown wardship, and the parents will no longer have to pay with groceries to see their children.

They will never see them again.

There is no abuse involved. Father has a drinking problem, and in the opinion of the protectors, it would be in the best interests of the children to keep them away from a man who drinks. The mother was offered the children back if she would abandon the father, but she's still with him. She says he's a good man and a good father, and together they're working on the drinking problem.

The grandparents cry in outrage, supporting the claim that their son is not abusive. He has a criminal record for impaired driving. The grocery order is part of the deal because the couple is still drawing social assistance for a family of five.

Social workers became involved when there was a report that a man in charge of children was drunk. Many parents drink too much, but a phone call to CAS scooped this family into the system.

Now three sisters, ages nine, eight and six, are living in three separate group homes. For each of them, it's the third foster home in the past year and a half. The nine-year-old has had four if you include the time she has spent being treated at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Factor in, as well, the cost of hospitalizing the stressed-out parents several times.

It's a familiar pattern that unfolds virtually in secret, through family courts, where there's no burden of proof, and decisions may be based on opinions and hearsay.

The parents have been keeping me updated, step by step, as it grinds on. At each step in the long and painful court process, the CAS is in a stronger position to show that the children shouldn't be in the care of emotionally wrecked parents. It's a cycle I've watched before.

This case is made worse because the mother is herself a survivor of foster care and a group home that kept both boys and girls. She reported sex abuse and believes she helped bring about segregated group homes. Her dread for her children's futures is based on personal experience. Foster homes can be dangerous.

Ask the parents what they want for Christmas, and they cry for their kids. Their children have disappeared into the system and can't be asked, or their answers heard. I'll take a chance and bet they want to go home.

Any day at the courthouse you'll find a criminal lawyer making a pre-sentence plea on behalf of a guilty client, claiming that he or she never had a chance, because he or she was raised in the "the system." But child protectors are demanding more money to protect more children in more foster homes.

While tracking the drinking dad case, I dropped into one of the hearings but was ordered out by Judge Alan Sheffield. To get into family court in the past, I have had to use lawyers to argue me in. In this case the lawyer for the parents is Ross Stewart, who has seen a lawyer argue me into another case he was working on. I expected Mr. Stewart to argue me into this one. Would it not help his clients if the system knew the case was being watched by a reporter? That he didn't react surprised me.

"I would have needed clear instructions from my clients," he said later. The clients had earlier instructed him to co-operate with me.

Judge Sheffield and I have had dealings before. He refused to take my call in 1990 when I tried to tell him an order he had issued to Lanark Child and Family Services had been ignored. On Feb. 2, 1989, he issued a "plan of care" ordering the agency to "examine options for care within the extended family" as an alternative to adoption.

On May 3, 1990, Judge J.-P. Michel gave Crown wardship to the agency and the adoption proceeded. The extended family in New Brunswick had a room decorated and waiting for a baby boy they knew and loved. I surveyed the extended family. Nobody else did. Among its members was a child protection worker, the mother's brother. He said what happened was wrong, but could think of no way to correct it.

Adoption records are sealed and secret, but the reporter in me cries for somebody with authority to go into records and answer a question. There are costs involved. Were they fed back to the adoptive parents, and if so, how much did they pay?

Passing messages back and forth through a secretary, Judge Sheffield's final thought on the subject was: "He says you'll have to find another avenue."

There is no other avenue. Child protectors take the view that when they get Crown wardship they have all the rights of parents, and can make decisions that overrule judges' orders. If we were talking about a criminal court case, that would be like a judge shrugging off the news that the man he sent to jail for a week had been hanged because the jailers thought it was best.

Family court processes that take children into state care lack continuity of judges. The judicial distancing spreads the responsibility.

Even more frightening was that a child protection agency could do this with full knowledge that a journalist was watching. I watched Elizabeth Peterson being turned into an emotional wreck as her son Joshua was slowly pulled away. The visits with her baby became further apart and shorter as a family court issued one order after another. She can be named because Joshua ceased to exist the moment he was adopted. He became another person with another name. She still calls, and she still cries.

She came to the attention of the CAS when she asked for its help. The baby's father had abandoned them and she was unable to cope. On the advice of her family doctor, she asked the agency to care for her baby while she checked herself into the Royal Ottawa Hospital. When she checked out, she bumped into a child protector's opinion that her baby was at risk. After all, she had just been in an institution that treated mental ailments. The decision was made. Joshua needed protection from his mother.

The Lanark County agency refused to return calls or faxed messages. At least the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa-Carleton is more courteous. Over the years that I've tracked similar cases, it has always called back, always with the same answer: "We can't comment on cases that are before the courts."

That the child protection industry is out of control isn't peculiar to Ontario. It's a North American epidemic. As far back as 1986, American author Mary Pride wrote a book titled The Child Abuse Industry. The subtitle: "Outrageous facts about child abuse and everyday rebellions against a system that threatens every North American family." It's filled with stories like the ones I'm telling here. Nothing has changed, and if anything, it's getting worse.

There is a better way. It's a system introduced in Hawaii in the mid-'80s, which has reduced child abuse and neglect by 99 per cent. Many stories have been written about Hawaii's Healthy Start program, but it's bumping into the established interests of the abuse industry.

In North America, universities grind out social work degrees at about $40,000 a pop. Those people are then fed into the child protection industry, generating the raw material to keep more judges on more benches and more lawyers in more courtrooms. They in turn feed a growing underground industry called foster care.

Hawaii put a stop to it. Social workers have been replaced by parents. People with proven parenting skills are factored into potential abuse cases right at the hospital nursery. Hospital staff know which babies are at risk. Psychiatrists know the human animal forms its character in the first three years. The professional parent joins the family and shows them how to mould a good character. It's done with love and supervision.

Meanwhile, we live with a bad idea -- social workers with their own courts -- and it's getting worse. We are hiring more social workers to feed more children into more foster homes through more family courts, and all of them need more funding.

The frightening thing is that they're getting it.

In 1996 Carleton University's School of Social Work graduated 29 students. In 1997 the number jumped to 60. The number of master's degrees in social work jumped from 43 to 59 during the same period.

We should look back at the previous generation and ask how they raised such rotten children -- us. Their children weren't being pulled away to be state-stored at anywhere near the rate that ours are.

As for the drinking father case, the court's decision is a foregone conclusion. If the children are not made Crown wards, it would be an admission that three children have been traumatized by the very people who are paid to protect them.

Tomorrow: The SWAT-team effect.


Copyright 1998 Ottawa Citizen