Ottawa Citizen
Saturday 19 December 1998

New Ontario law makes social workers accountable at last

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Last in a Series

Accountability -- a word long missing from Ontario's child protection industry -- was added to the mix this week when the Social Work Act received third and final reading in the legislature. Once it is proclaimed, it will require the province's estimated 15,000 social workers to be licensed.

For more than two generations, social workers have been allowed to work in almost complete secrecy, making life-altering decisions. The move to more accountability was spearheaded by 3,000 responsible social workers who have voluntarily joined the 16-year-old Ontario College of Certified Social Workers.

The bill had all-party support in the legislature. The main opposition came from a small but vocal group of social workers who argued that the move to a college and licensing was elitist. They claimed that only front-line workers know what the problems are, and how to handle them.

It will take about a year for the act to come into force, but Shannon McCorquadale, registrar and founding member of the college, says social workers will then need to be licensed. Much like doctors, they will be subject to professional standards and complaint reviews.

A social worker wields enormous power. If she represents the child protection industry, she has the power to change your life. If she decides that taking your children into custody is in their best interests, you immediately disappear. The moment you become involved with the child protection system, you can't be identified.

I use the pronoun "she" because 80 per cent of the province's social workers are women. Most are from the middle class and don't understand the poor. When they encounter a child in poverty, it is clear to many of them that a placement in a middle-class home is in the child's best interest.

The moment a caseworker makes a decision to apprehend a child, the system locks up. An apprehension, or arrest, is a serious step; if wrong, the door can be open to a lawsuit. The priority switches from protecting a child to protecting the agency.

A classic case is that of a southern Ontario clergyman who battled the child protection industry and won. But it took 11 years and ruined him financially. By the time an angry judge told the CAS to stop appealing court decisions and pay the man, his children had grown up poor because the family had no disposable income. All money was going to the legal battle.

When the CAS finally gave up, it turned the mess over to its insurer, and the clergyman had to fight that new player. The social worker who made the original bad decision still works in the industry and has even been promoted.

Early in this series, an unidentifiable Ottawa couple was featured. They are seven years into their fight to get back children taken into custody while they were out of the country. The awful words "sex abuse" were whispered, and a caseworker apprehended the children. Now nobody admits to doing the whispering. But the children remain in foster care.

My files are filled with stories about a system of intake that sometimes seems bizarre. Almost eight years ago a developmentally delayed grade sixer went into foster care when she became confused about love and sex. Her mother asked the family doctor for a referral to a child psychologist because the girl confused heart, love, penis and daddy. The doctor, by law, had to report that to CAS. The girl is still in foster care.

A mom, a registered nurse, who swatted her 12-year-old son with a broom spent a weekend in jail after the incident was reported to CAS.

Maria Bieber is the name that most often pops up in my files. For 10 years she has fought the system after losing her daughter. Originally she turned to CAS for help during a period of turmoil. Her husband abandoned her. The daughter she voluntarily gave into temporary custody became a Crown ward and was adopted.

To illustrate the strange logic of the child protectors, for more than five years Ms. Bieber raised a sister's daughter the same age as her own "former daughter" (the term showed up in CAS letters) without being challenged. Yet her own daughter had to be saved from her.

She searched for her former daughter and more than once went to jail when she got too close. She's still searching.

We have failed to learn from the past. Troublesome boys were sent to corrective facilities run by religious orders. We've forgotten the millions paid to First Nations people who, as children, were turned over to the tender mercies of clergy running Indian schools. It was in their best interests, according to social workers of the day.

All it will take is for one of the 12,000 children now in foster care in Ontario to come out of the system smart and angry. He or she will go back through records, asking the question: Why was I denied my parents? In many cases, the answers won't be good enough.

Social workers have also become tied to the divorce industry, and their opinions are accepted by judges when issuing things like restraining orders. After two decades of hearing men complain about losing access to their children when wives left a marriage through the shelter system, I focused on one man who fought back. It cost Norman Christie 18 months and $35,000 in legal bills to prove he was a loving father.

Most men would look at the prohibitive legal costs and give up. Mr. Christie, an engineer by training, historian by choice, and a determined dad, fought back.

One thing that ran up his costs was a written opinion from Sally Gose, used to convince a judge to issue a restraining order. When she wrote it she was a member of the board of a women's shelter, spokeswoman for the Women's Monument which commemorates local women killed by their spouses, and a social worker with the Family Service Centre. It's an agency with some 80 staff members, funded by the province and the United Way.

Discrediting the Gose letter cost Mr. Christie's more than $10,000 in legal bills. In that document, Ms. Gose claimed to know that Mr. Christie was a potentially violent and dangerous man. Evidence would later show that she never met him or his children.

It began when Mr. Christie came home on the day of his twins' birthday and found his children and many of his possessions gone. His wife got the shelter movement involved, not because there had been violence, but because she feared it was possible.

He would say later: "I fought because I love my children and couldn't bear to see them harmed by the people claiming to save them." Those who didn't fight have left behind an unforgiving legacy. Every time a man walked away in defeat, he became another statistic on the violent-male list.

Although Mr. Christie proved beyond a reasonable doubt he was a good father and not violent, there was an angry reaction to his story when it appeared. I wrote he was an "honourable" man.

Objections to that word were so long and strong, I wrote a clarification to get back the use of my phone. To fight for his right to father, he had to get past a court-ordered assessment, which cost $5,000. This caused him to fall behind in his support payments, and in the view of a vocal minority, a man in support arrears could never be honourable. That he had been wronged didn't factor into their thinking.

How often has the Family Service Centre helped push fathers away from their children? When asked to explain the Gose report, centre director Tim Simboli went superlogical. It's a name I invented for verbal deflectors. Ask a logical question and you get a superlogical answer. Over the years I've learned to find the answers not through what is said, but by listening to what isn't said.

Mr. Simboli gave me a history of the centre. (It was the original Ottawa welfare department.) What he didn't do was condemn the document filed by Ms. Gose, or go back to it. My conclusion was that the Gose report was not unusual.

To check this, I'd like readers to send to me copies of social workers' reports damaging to them, written by people they never met or talked to. Please include your name and phone number.

This week, the receptionist at the Family Service Centre said Ms. Gose no longer worked there. No telephone number or forwarding address was available.

Most of these systems fall under the Ministry of Community and Social Services, which has grown into a monster with too many heads and tails, and not enough controls.

When men can't afford to fight an accusation of violent behaviour, they show up in the records as another violent male. With the new "domestic court" pulling in men in the capital area at the rate of 120 a month, and making a guilty plea an attractive option, the statistics are exploding.

In the Dec. 11 edition of this paper, a woman letter-writer asked what was happening to men. She believed they were starting to avoid women.

Who can blame men if they're feeling uneasy? Only a few weeks apart, an Ottawa court sent to jail a woman who abused animals. Another court sent home a woman who shot and killed her husband while he slept.

Our species has always had bad people in the mix, but they are far outnumbered by the good. No matter how hard the state tries to protect all, some are going to be hurt.

Parents of sons should be demanding a return to the first self-evident truth of the Constitution of the United States of America. All persons are equal. All are entitled to a fair trial in a court with hard rules of evidence. All are free from arrest without solid cause. The state should not fund gender-based activist groups. Until some of these changes start happening, caring parents should advise their sons:

Don't marry. Don't have children.