Thursday 22 April 1999
Drugs started downward spiralDave 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 second of a four-part series.
The dumbest thing they ever did, said the couple in Judge Robert Fournier's Ottawa courtroom recently, was walk into London's Heathrow Airport with hashish in 1991.
It would kickstart a chain of events that would cost them four children. While they sat in a London jail waiting for their day in court, their babysitter in Lanark reported child abuse.
That changed her status from unpaid babysitter of three, to paid foster mother. Once decisions like that are made, the child protection system is reluctant to alter course.
When the couple had another child in 1993, it was removed from a hospital nursery by a social worker. Although abuse was never proven, the allegations about the first three children weren't disproved. Taking a newborn out of a hospital nursery under these circumstances is what child protectors refer to as erring on the side of caution. All four children have been adopted.
In his explanation of what went wrong, Judge Fournier landed heavily on experts -- the kind who provide most of the evidence in family courts. "Would it not be more appropriate for these so-called experts É to explore the possibility such allegations might be false? Is that not the function of an 'expert' who seeks the truth? Yet it appears that these experts were more intent on telling (Children's Aid Society) officials what they apparently wanted to hear."
Despite this, Judge Fournier said the parents would not get their children back.
The couple now have year-old twins and Judge Fournier was hearing the latest CAS protection application. He ruled the couple were good parents, and denied the application.
The parents claim they haven't changed. They are the same people they were in 1991. But court records describe them as alleged drug traffickers, alcoholics and drug addicts, and the mother as an alleged prostitute and table dancer.
In refusing the CAS application, Judge Fournier had the difficult task of explaining how people could be so terrible in court records, and be allowed to parent.
The parents say they are the victims of lies.
The judge preferred to describe it as confusion. He said it was like the party game where you tell one person a bit of information. At the end of the party you check that information with someone else, and find it has become distorted beyond recognition.
As an example, the judge felt he understood how the table dancer allegation came about. In conversation with a psychologist, the mother said she liked dancing. She's also a bodybuilder who likes to show off her figure. The psychologist seemed to make a leap of logic and the table dancer was born. Judge Fournier referred to other similar "quantum leaps" of logic in the transcripts he reviewed.
Judge Johanne Lafrance-Cardinal of Cornwall was the 46th judge to be involved in the couple's case, and she wasn't quite as diplomatic as Judge Fournier when she looked at the same protection application. At one point she asked CAS lawyer Bob Morrow: "How are you going to answer É about the fact there are a lot of lies in the transcripts? How are you going to answer that?"
She told the mother: "The only way you could get to the bottom of it is if you had a public inquiry É I know how frustrating it can be."
During one of their appeal cases the couple learned how the prostitution allegation came about. Under cross-examination, a witness said she saw a television report about prostitution, and thought she recognized the mother among hookers on a downtown street; rear profile only. She reported the sighting to CAS. That witness is the same woman who reported the original abuse and is now the legal mother of her sister's children.
The judge said the couple had to accept some responsibility for the loss of their children. For example, they refused to take the witness stand at the first session of trials.
"There was no point," says mother. "The decision that we were bad parents had already been handed down, based on a psychologist's report that I was unable to protect my children from my husband." About that time she flatly refused suggestions that her children could be returned to her if she got the husband permanently out of the picture.
"We are not child abusers, but victims of lies and deceit. Give us a public inquiry. It would be easy to prove."
As the father puts it: "How do you prove you're not a child abuser. How do you prove you're not a witch?"
After their years of experience in the system, the couple now liken the operation of family courts to the witch trials of Salem. Family courts accept hearsay and opinion as evidence. Much of family court evidence is expert opinion, and Judge Fournier doubts experts.
"The courts in previous proceedings have relied a great deal on the opinions of so-called experts who were plying their trade. É This court is only too aware that psychology is not a very precise and complete science and that it suffers from as many frailties as human beings do."
Court records show a psychologist suggesting that a three-year-old child had been sexually abused. He thought he saw something in the way the child held a toy snake, and the look in the child's eyes seemed to show some kind of sexual gratification. As that evidence moved through the court process it changed from suggestion to fact.
"Stop and think for a minute," says the father. "These people are paid to be witnesses. Is the CAS going to pay a witness to say something that isn't supportive of its aims?"
Judge Fournier said the father's bombastic nature also worked against him. He reacted strongly and loudly to accusations of child abuse, "perhaps giving the perception that anybody who reacted so strongly must be guilty of something."
The father also used a fax machine to scream his outrage, and at one point he spent 35 days in jail for what was perceived as a threat to Mel Gill, at the time executive director of the Ottawa-Carleton CAS. The charge was withdrawn when the father got to court.
Of more than a dozen social workers who touched their lives during the period their children were made Crown wards, none are now in the child protection business. Mr. Gill has retired, and lawyer Mary Ann Nixon, former lead counsel for Ottawa-Carleton CAS who handled most of this case, is now teaching.
TOMORROW: What went right.
Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Read previous Dave Brown columns at www.ottawacitizen.com
Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen