Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, March 28, 2002

If limbo is a bad place for children, why keep sending them there?

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Limbo, according to some beliefs, is a place on the border of Hell where the unbaptized spend eternity. Even non-believers know it's not a place for children, but in our efforts to protect them we keep sending them there.

Recently Judge Maria Linhares de Sousa censured the Ottawa Children's Aid Society for letting a custody issue dangle for 20 months under questionable legality. Her custody order expired in May 2000 but the CAS refused to turn over the child to its birth father. He brought an action against the society and although the judge stopped short of finding the agency in contempt of court, she ordered it to pay the man $5,000, mainly for legal costs.

That story appeared in this column and prompted me to make a return trip to limbo to check on three sisters who have been there for more than five years. In December, 2000, their story was told in one of these columns. Judge Jennifer Blishen had just ordered that they be made Crown wards but with no adoption and continuing access. They were in foster care and separated from each other for three years and four months while the protection process struggled with their case.

Abuse or neglect were not the issues. What everybody in the system was struggling with was the question: What would be in the best interests of the children? Should they be kept in foster care, or returned to the parents who loved them? On trial were parenting skills that nobody can quite spell out. Biggest factor in the mix was that the father acknowledged he was an alcoholic and the system waited for him to prove he could beat the disease. He failed.

The sisters were aged four to seven when authorities stepped in and took them into custody. It wasn't a clean cut. They were separated from each other but allowed regular visits from their parents. Each time the visits ended they had to live through the trauma of being separated from them again.

Even Judge Blishen acknowledged the children loved their parents and their parents loved them. She ruled against letting them return to their family, but left hope alive that there could be a reunion if father could control his drinking to the satisfaction of child protectors and the court.

With that ruling, regular visits dropped to four times a year, with the parents seeing their children singly and under the watchful eyes of supervisors. In that way the trauma of watching their parents leave them again was reduced to four times a year.

The eldest is now 12. During her last visit she gave a poem to her mother. It needs work on spelling and structure, but it's not short of feeling.

"To Mumm: You love is more than I can afford/ I was sent to you with blessing from the Lord/ I'm far in the field where you can't find/ We'll have to be allowed to bind/ So I will love you from afar/ And when you're feeling low picture me in the sky like a star."

According to the parents, their last visit with the 10-year-old did not go well. Father says mother "lost it." She grabbed her former child to her and started to cry uncontrollably. The meeting was broken up by the supervising authority, as the mother's inappropriate behaviour was considered not in the best interests of the child.

Mother says visits with the youngest, now seven, have not gone well. The child has become distant, she says, and doesn't seem to want to see her parents.

During the 40 months leading up to the 2000 decision, the two older girls had behaviour problems and were in and out of several different foster homes and schools. They were treated at the Royal Ottawa Hospital for emotional problems. At the trial, the children's lawyer, Lynn Keller, reminded the court there was no abuse or neglect and her clients wanted to go home. She pointed to the obvious love between parents and children.

Repeated psychological studies were mixed, but the final one said the children's problems were the result of poor parenting skills, and the child- protection system couldn't be blamed for the later acting out. The child-protection system paid for those reports. Psychology has an uncanny knack of agreeing with the views of those who pay.

As an observer, I'm left wondering about some things. All things considered, how much has this case cost taxpayers? Enough to buy the family a home with a live-in nanny?

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to Read previous columns at .

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