Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Separating children and parents should be a last resort, not the first

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

When child protectors knock on the door it's one of the most dangerous and confusing times for a family: There's no list of do's and don'ts and mistakes by parents at that moment can have devastating results.

Lawyer Danielle Dworsky knew that and tried to offer a solution by putting together a series of brochures to offer parents some protection through knowledge. The idea died somewhere in the bureaucracy and all she has left is a pile of copies of her original ideas.

Ms. Dworsky served some seven months in 1999 as a Children's Aid Society lawyer and was unsettled by the experience. She says it turned her into a determined "parents' advocate." In her view, says the mother of three, the child-protection system isn't working the way it was intended. "It's adversarial where it should be user friendly."

From the protection side, the most frequent complaint is that workers' case loads are overwhelming and there aren't enough bodies to do the work. That creates a high risk for families in that to be on the safe side, caseworkers will take children into custody because they don't have time to do a proper preliminary investigation.

That's wrong, says Ms. Dworsky. "Because they don't have resources is not a legitimate reason for apprehension."

A child should never lightly be taken into protective custody. It's a traumatic experience. "Think of a five-year-old being taken from parents and placed with strangers. For five days no contact of any kind is allowed. After the mandatory court appearance at five days, it's likely the agency will be granted further time to investigate. During those weeks or months, the parents can see the child usually only once a week, under supervision, at the agency, for one and a half hours."

That causes further trauma as every week the child has to go through the process of watching her parents abandon her again.

The protection system is running out of control, she says. It has too much power and too little accountability. It has too many glitches. As an example, she's currently trying to help a client get a child back but that can't happen until the parent can provide a suitable home. Money shortage is the problem.

Public housing won't put the parent in a proper home until there's a guarantee there will be a child in the house. The CAS can't give that guarantee.

In another of her cases, child protectors apprehended a child from its home, refusing to tell the parents why. It turned out they were acting on a complaint from a relative. "They didn't check out the complainant first, and she turned out to be mentally ill. They should have done some investigating first. They could have talked to authorities at the child's school. Too often it's a matter of apprehend first and investigate later. That is not okay."

It's every parent's nightmare: Child protectors at the door with uniformed police officers ready to back them up. What are the proper steps?

"First thing to do," says Ms. Dworsky, "is co-operate. Invite them in." Things to watch for: "Don't sign anything. If they want to interview the child or children, you have the right to be present. If pressured, you have a right to consult a lawyer."

That's another glitch. Mention lawyer and the caseworker will turn the issue over to the agency's lawyers. It almost guarantees an apprehension. "Immediately start preparing information for your lawyer. There isn't much time to prepare."

Ms. Dworsky says one of the abuses in the system is that the law says the issue must be brought in front of a judge in five days. The parents and their lawyer usually don't get details until late on the fifth day, and courts are forced to grant extensions. Then the weekly traumatic visits start.

There are other steps in the system that have become so routine they are now considered mandatory. They delay the reunion of children with parents. These include psychological assessments, anger management courses and parent training sessions.

Taking a child from the bosom of his family and surrounding him with strangers should be a last resort, but often seems to be the first. There seems to be nothing in the system to help families stay together. In some cases of alleged neglect, a cleaning service could have solved the problem.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns at www.ottawacitizen.com .

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