Ottawa Citizen
Thursday 8 June 2000

Children's Aid Society following their orders

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

When child protectors took a five-day-old baby from his mother, who has cerebral palsy, they created opportunities.

Their actions Friday showed beyond a doubt: there has to be a better way.

There's opportunity here to defend the protectors. They tend to become demonized in these cases. They are simply following orders that are, in fact, legislation that we, as a society, have made to protect children. These orders, however, are the strongest and most intrusive laws ever drawn by any civilization; with special courts in which burden of proof or rules of evidence are unnecessary.

Now, the protectors are told, don't ever allow another child to be harmed, and God help you if you fail.

At some point in this latest case, the protectors were alerted to a possible problem. A decision had to be made. Would this newborn be safe with a mother in a wheelchair with limited hand and arm control? How could promises of support from members of mother's church be factored in? Would the unemployed but able-bodied father be able to pick up the slack? What would be in the best interests of the child?

If the protectors know more than has been revealed so far, they can't say so. As the case develops, concerns beyond the mother's disability may be put on the table. The seemingly harsh action could be right.

Meanwhile, the safe play, as always, is to let a court decide. So the baby was taken into care, a euphemism for custody.

The moment that decision was made, lawyers became involved. The paperwork started piling up, and it will become known as the "trial record." Less and less mention will be made of the child as the trial progresses. Lawyers will say things like: "If your honour will turn to the trial record, book two, tab 28, section c, paragraph two ..."

During this, the court will order assessments of the parents. Persons, who for court purposes are "expert witnesses," will prepare reports. They are people who claim, through credentials from schools of psychology or psychiatry, to be able to predict human behaviour.

The judge will be under the same pressure as the protectors. If he or she returns the child to the parents and the child is hurt, accidentally or otherwise, there will be public outrage.

The safe play? Base decisions on the reports of the mind-readers.

In a way, that takes us back to where we were 300 years ago. Witch hunters were not bad people. They believed in witches. They were trained by clergy in methods of detecting them. The Salem judge who condemned some 20 people to death wasn't a bad man. He listened to the experts, thought to himself that this was some kind of spooky science, but he wasn't going to risk the lives of children because of his lack of knowledge in that field.

One week ago, I sat in an Ottawa courtroom in a different child protection case and watched a psychiatrist go through eight hours of tough cross examination by lawyer Wendy Rogers. The psychiatrist's report recommends the children in question be made Crown wards and be taken into state care. His recommendations throughout his report are based on "observations."

He admitted those observations were, for the most part, made by child protection workers and relayed to him. He defended this type of secondhand observing with a baffling statement. "Accuracy is not as important as continuity."

That trial is stalled because Ms. Rogers wants to cross-examine the apprehending caseworker, Dianna Payne, who is on extended bereavement leave following the death of her mother a few days into the trial. Meanwhile, three sisters aged seven to 10 remain separated from each other, uncertain and in custody, where they've been for three years. The children's lawyer, Lynn Keller, is on record as saying: "I represent three children who want to go home."

Monday, I sat in another family court and listened to lawyer Frank Armitage complain about the same inability to get another apprehending caseworker into the witness box. The social worker, Peggy Couture, is on extended sick leave and although Mr. Armitage was on the opening day of a five-week trial, he could not get details of the illness, or a promise the witness would be available before trial's end.

Children's Aid Society lawyers are now protecting the best interests of their client. The client is the CAS.

In the cerebral palsy case, we, as a society, make stupid use of financial resources. We will spend half a million dollars (a conservative estimate) grinding the parents through court processes that will take years. We will pay foster parents to care for the child, and protection workers to monitor visits by the parents. Should the foster parents become stressed, we will provide respite care.

For a fraction of the cost, we could send help to the home and keep a family together. But that's not built into the protection system. There is no Parents' Aid Society.

We should pay attention to a slogan favoured by Hillary Clinton. "It takes a village to raise a child."

Here's an idea from a woman with three children in diapers: Where does she sign up to volunteer to spend one day a week for three years with the disabled mother? If somebody will handle the co-ordination, she's sure there would be more than enough volunteer moms to help get this baby on his feet.

Such a co-ordinator would not be able to meet screening standards set by our child-protection system. Should the CAS do it? That's not part of the mandate.

Hawaii has reduced incidents of child abuse and neglect by 99 per cent by putting moms into the protection system. The program is called Healthy Start, and is based on the fact the persons most likely to first spot a child at risk will be the hospital staff present at its birth. If they report a problem, the system sends in not social workers, lawyers and shrinks, but a proven mother who has raised good children. For those most important first three years, she becomes almost part of the family.

In Ontario, there are more than 50 child-protection agencies, and each is autonomous. They are "arm's-length" agencies, which means they have little oversight and almost no accountability.

Regional Councillor Alex Munter has long been a proponent of allowing Ontario's ombudsman to provide that oversight. The province's recently appointed ombudsman, former judge and police complaints commissioner Clare Lewis, says he's open to the idea. It would require only tinkering with existing legislation.

Meanwhile, each individual agency is mandated to enforce a set of laws called the Child and Family Services Act. By definition, they are police departments --without controls.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. His e-mail address is dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca .

Read previous Dave Brown columns at www.ottawacitizen.com

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen