Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday 27 April 1999

Family courts deliver capital punishment

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 final column of the four-part series.

It can be argued there is capital punishment in Canada. It may have been removed from the criminal justice system, but it exists in the family court system.

When a child is given up for adoption, all records of the adopted child are sealed. As far as the birth parents and the law are concerned, that child ceases to exist, and that is a definition of death. The moment the adoption becomes official, a new child is born, with new parents and new records.

But what happens if someone makes a mistake? It's one of the considerations that led the criminal justice system to eliminate the death penalty. What if a person was wrongly executed?

In the family court system, what if a child is wrongly made to disappear into adoption?

Judge Robert Fournier had to answer that question recently, when he blamed "so-called experts" and distorted information for the 1993 removal of a five-hour-old girl from an Ottawa hospital nursery, and her disappearance into Crown wardship and adoption.

He offered sympathy to the mother. "I know it leaves a hole in your heart, but c'est la vie."

It was the equivalent of a criminal court judge learning that a person had been wrongly hanged, and saying oops.

The case has dragged on so long, and been through so many local judges, that judges have had to be brought in from outside the capital area.

Local judges have not answered the mother's question: How does she get her child back? Judge Fournier is from Haileybury and was judge No. 47. He was the first one to answer the question.

The short answer is: She doesn't.

Where does that leave other parents who could face a similar series of miscues by "so-called experts?" The answer is: at serious risk.

Throughout North America, the child protection system is an adversarial one. Child protectors and family courts react aggressively to a report of child abuse or neglect. They have massive resources, invasive powers and little public overview. Parents caught in those systems disappear. The law says if the parents are identified it could traumatize the child, and that is abuse.

It is also a system that is mainly reactive, not proactive.

In 1985, Hawaii instituted a proactive child protection system that has reduced abuse and neglect by 99 per cent. The first people to see a child at risk are hospital staff present at its birth. They get to know the parents, and they know when a newborn is going to need help.

The program is called Healthy Start, and although it has been widely reported in North America, it hasn't been able to break through the established system that supports many offshoot industries. They include armies of social workers, legions of lawyers, and countless courtrooms.

In Ontario alone, foster parents who care for children in the system are part of an industry that reached $74 million last year. In December last year, there were 7,500 children in foster care, of whom 5,000 were Crown wards.

The state has complete control and authority over Crown wards, and can adopt out such children at will. On average, 350 a year go through the adoption process in Ontario. All records are secret, including what kind of fees adoptive parents may have paid.

In the foster care system the daily per-child fee was raised last year from $14 to $26. Taking one foster child into care is worth an annual $9,500 to a family. Three are worth $28,500.

There's no doubt many foster parents are in it for the good they can do. There's no doubt that for many others, it's a source of income.

The Ontario system has studied the Hawaii experiment, says Suzanne Bezuk, communications officer for the Ministry of Community and Social Services. In June 1998 it began a program called Healthy Babies -- Healthy Children, in which "lay persons" become part of the child protection system. But since then the ministry has continued to call for more money to hire more social workers to protect more children.

Anybody who doubts the system is troubled need only spend a day around a courthouse. There's always a lawyer pleading for lenience for a guilty client, arguing that he or she never had a chance, because they were raised in "the system." Foster care.

Hawaii has made great strides by keeping children in their homes with their parents. If hospital staff report a possible need, a caseworker is assigned immediately. That person is always a woman, and her main qualification is that she has proved herself to be a good mother. She has raised good children.

She spends three years monitoring the situation and teaching the new parents how the baby will form its personality in its first three years of life. It will imprint during that period. If given love and care, in a calm and loving atmosphere, it will develop into a caring and loving person. If abused and neglected, or allowed to witness violence and anger, a course will be set for a troubled life.

Bringing about such a change of attitude in North America would seriously weaken the established multi-billion dollar child abuse industry, and power is not easily given up.

As Judge Fournier said: C'est la vie.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Read previous Dave Brown columns at www.ottawacitizen.com