Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday 21 April 1999

When courts, parents collide

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Columnist Dave Brown looks at a family fighting for the return of their children -- who were taken away from them and given up for adoption. This is the first of a four-part series.

Judge Robert Fournier looked down from the bench in an Ottawa courtroom Feb. 19 and tried to explain to the couple in front of him how the child protection system had wandered so far off the logic trail.

Four of their children had been made Crown wards in the mid-1990s and adopted in what he compared to a party game gone wrong. Now, the couple were facing the prospect that twins born to them last year would also be removed from their custody.

The judge chose his words carefully as he tried to bring an end to the couple's eight-year fight to get their children back. He was kind, compassionate and tried to reason with them, to convince them to end their fight and get on with their lives.

An hour later, the couple sat at lunch, comparing their situation to that of Joyce Milgaard, who fought 23 years to prove her son David was not a murderer.

"She at least knew where her son was and could see him," said the mother. "She got her son back.

"I've had four children torn away from me and it hurts. Every day it hurts and I'm not going to stop until I put an end to this pain. The only way to do that is to get my children back."

Parents in child protection cases can't be identified.

The judge had good news and bad news. He acknowledged the woman in front of him was a good mother and that the twin sons born to her in 1998 -- and still under her care -- had two good parents.

The good news was that he was denying the application by the Ottawa-Carleton Children's Aid Society for a protection order for the twins.

The bad news was that although the legal processes that took her other four children into protection and adoption were suspect, they won't get those children back. The first three were scooped into the system in Lanark in 1991 when she and her husband were in Europe. The babysitter, her sister, reported that the oldest, three at the time, had told her he was being abused.

By the time the mother got back from Europe (the couple were thrown into jail after they were caught with hashish at London's Heathrow Airport), her sister was the paid foster mother of her children.

In 1993, the mother gave birth to a daughter at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. An Ottawa-Carleton CAS caseworker removed that baby from the nursery and the hospital when the little girl was five hours old.

The mother was allowed to visit her baby twice a week for 356 visits as the system let legal wheels grind. Then, she was notified that a psychologist had reported to the CAS that her visits were making the child ill. Contact was cut. "I knew the day it happened it was going to happen. I could tell from the look on the foster mother's face when she brought her to the meeting."

When she delivered twins at the Grace Hospital last year, the child protectors had a problem. After appearing before dozens of judges in eight years, the parents knew their rights; the mother had even been praised by some judges for her legal skills. She has become a capable courtroom tactician.

The child protectors had to apply for a protection order, because of court-created history. That meant new judges were looking over the previous cases.

Judge Fournier, from Haileybury, was the 47th judge the couple has appeared before, and he tried to bring an end to the ordeal.

He had good news and bad news about the first three children. He pointed out that, in most cases, once a child is adopted, the birth mother can't see the child again. The good news here, he pointed out, was that the adoption made the natural mother their aunt, "and as a member of the extended family you can visit the children."

As for the newborn removed from the hospital nursery in 1993: "I know it leaves a hole in your heart, but c'est la vie."

When the twins were born last year, the couple opened their home to CAS caseworkers. In the earlier cases, social workers had refused to talk to them. The new caseworkers reported the children were in good hands.

Despite that information flowing back to the CAS, that these were good parents, adoptions of the other four children were proceeding.

It was suggested to CAS lawyer Heidi Polowin that under the circumstances, not stopping those proceedings made the system look vindictive. "The cases aren't connected" was her view. "Once a court makes a child a Crown ward, other processes start. There's a normal flow."

In an earlier court, the sister/foster mother was asked if she would consider adoption. She didn't think she could afford it. Judge Jennifer Blishen and lawyer Mary Ann Nixon, then chief in-house counsel for the CAS, outlined the process of supported adoption, in which she could become the legal mother and still be paid as if a foster parent. This is likely what happened, but the system won't discuss adoption details.

The newborn removed from the nursery in 1993 has also disappeared into adoption.

Judge Fournier gave two versions of his judgment. One was a 16-page document, but before handing it out, he gave what he called "the executive version" of his findings. In the verbal version, he said part of the problem could have been caused by the mother's appearance. She's a bodybuilder and tends to flaunt the finished product. She wears tight short skirts, spiked heels and wears her blond hair big.

In a family court, hearsay and opinion are allowed as evidence, and perception can be a factor. The woman's appearance, said the judge, could create a perception of somebody who wouldn't be a good mother.

While he delivered those lines, the mother had her head down, scribbling on a yellow legal pad. Her legs were crossed and her short skirt was riding high. She was wearing four-inch heels and her hair was particularly big. She has steadfastly refused to accept advice to change her appearance for court. Her husband supports her style, and in court they call each other "Babe."

TOMORROW: What went wrong.

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen