Wednesday 13 December 2000
When love isn't enoughDave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen
Part two of a series
There's clarity in brevity, and lawyer Lynn Keller was brief when she told her clients' wishes to an Ottawa family court in early summer this year. Her clients were three sisters aged seven to 10, and they wanted desperately to go home to their parents.
She pointed out they had been in custody for three years. During that time, they were separated not only from their parents, but from each other. Two of them had been in and out of six different foster homes each. They had been in and out of several different schools and had been treated for mental and emotional problems at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, all while in the care of the child protection system.
Ms. Keller said the children loved their parents and their parents loved them. There was no evidence of neglect or abuse.
"Let my clients go home," she pleaded, not the first time this plea has been made on behalf of the children during the three-year ordeal.
Children in these trials are represented by a lawyer from the office of the province's Official Guardian.
When family court Judge Jennifer Blishen wrapped up the two-week trial, she said there would be a further delay. She would be on vacation for the month of July. It was almost four months later when her decision was delivered, not in open court, but by messenger to the lawyers involved.
The answer to the plea to go home was no. The children would stay in state care as Crown wards.
There are many kinds of abuse, and that was what Judge Blishen had to deal with. The father abuses alcohol and his attempts to beat his addiction during the last three years have not been impressive. That's the heart of the issue, but over the years it has become surrounded by a body of complications packaged in caseworker reports and psychological assessments.
Mother is a product of a state upbringing. She was a Crown ward. She saw child-protection workers as family. Early in her relationship with the father, she turned to that family of child-protection workers when she wanted to vent, complain, or seek help. She didn't realize social workers were keeping records that would eventually be presented in court.
The pivotal point was in May 1997, when a social worker assigned to the family made the decision to apprehend the children. Mother was in hospital and father was the caregiver. He was drinking. He wasn't falling down drunk, but was obviously under the influence. Tiny details would find their way into the court record. It was noted he wasn't keeping up with the laundry.
It was clean, but piled on a bed unsorted, and the children were being dressed from the pile.
Lawyer Andrew Fobert represented the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa-Carleton. His job was similar to that of a prosecutor -- to win the state's case. He amassed an impressive pile of material to do that. There was little in the lives of the family that wasn't exposed to opinions from social workers and psychologists, and worked into court records. Between the mother's instability and the father's preference for maintaining a constant low-grade buzz, their lives were messy.
An assessment of the family was ordered, and that task was turned over to psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Motayne. He completed one in April 1998. The major problem was the father's drinking, and he concluded the man was "unlikely to maintain abstinence" if the children were returned.
Dr. Motayne said he couldn't get a solid read on the mother, because she was trying so hard to impress him that she was skewing the results. That part of his report weakened the CAS argument for permanent Crown wardship.
In June 1999, another assessment was ordered, again from Dr. Motayne. By now, the CAS had drawn up a plan of care for the children. When Dr. Motayne's second assessment came in, in February, it seemed to not only support the CAS plan, but follow it almost point by point.
The couple's parenting skills were flawed in several ways, he reported, and each flaw had been "observed." Lawyer Wendy Rogers, representing the parents, zeroed in on that word. Dr. Motayne said the observations were not his, but reported to him by caseworkers. This appeared to be using a psychiatrist as a typist, and when asked to justify that style of expertise, Dr. Motayne answered, "Accuracy is not as important as consistency."
The children's paternal grandparents sat through the trial and Judge Blishen told them they could ask questions of witnesses. This was the only time they accepted the invitation to question. The grandfather said: "I'm an old surveyor, and I know if you don't have accuracy, you get a lot of inconsistency." He didn't end his statement with a question mark, so there were nods and the trial moved on.
The circumstances of the grandparents show an odd bias in the child-protection system. There are children's aid societies, but there are no parents' aid societies.
The grandparents tried to care for the girls while the protection system made a decision, but being in their 70s, they found keeping up with three active children too difficult. They tried so hard, the grandmother was hospitalized. They asked for, but could get no, financial assistance, in-home help or respite care.
The public purse opens wide to strangers (foster parents) in times like this, but families are expected to provide for their own.
The parents of the children separated in early 1999. Mother said she was advised her only hope of getting her children back was to get the father out of the picture. Although they lived apart, they were "sneaking" back together. Finally they gave up, and in February this year, got married.
Mother had an attitude: "I think it's probably the most important thing, that children have parents who love each other."
But if you run that kind of attitude through psychology, you come up with words like "co-dependent." That's how her view of love appeared in reports to the court.
"There is no question that both parents dearly love their daughters," the judge observed in the judgment. She noted that access visits with the children showed "spontaneous mutual affection." The children, she noted, "continue to have a fantasy wish to return to their parents' home."
In the three years since the apprehensions, the parents' relationship seems to have stabilized and the judge made note of that too. Her concern, expressed in her judgment, is would children be safe in a home with an alcoholic father who also admitted to past drug use?
On the witness stand, mother was asked by her lawyer if there was a threat to her children, would she protect them? She gave the impression she definitely would. She wanted her children home and if there were concerns, she was willing to agree to frequent visits from CAS.
Judge Blishen said no. She recommended the children be allowed to see their parents at the discretion of the CAS, perhaps four times a year, and held out a faint hope they could some day be reunited.
Protection workers recently drew up a plan for the children's Christmas. They will be allowed to spend the day with the grandparents, but the parents can't be there. Mom and Dad will see the children on Dec. 21. Grandfather says he doesn't understand why he can't see his son at the same time as his grandchildren, and have the extended family together. CAS doesn't have to explain. It is now the official parent.
There is a wide door opening here. If we, as a society, take all children out of homes where alcohol is abused, where are we going to store them? Odds are good at least one of the girls will be in a foster home where alcohol is a problem.
The judge's decision is the safe one. If the children were returned to their parents and harmed, the whole child-protection system would be in disrepute. If harm were to occur in a foster home, that's a new case.
Removal of children from families should be treated like a death sentence. A family court judge should face parents, like a criminal court judge faces a condemned prisoner, and deliver the bad news.
They should see the pain.
Tomorrow: Voyage of the damned
Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com Read previous columns by Dave Brown at www.ottawacitizen.com
Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.