Is child-protection system keeping kids from their families?
 
Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

An unhappy 13-year-old girl classified as a runner from children's residences (group homes) last year kept finding her way to her parents and demanding the system allow her to stay. It appeared she won.

She is now back in custody. Four of these columns were based on her plight last year.

This case is getting difficult to follow because so much of it is happening in informal sessions. Child-protection authorities won't/can't discuss individual cases and lawyers are reluctant to talk.

Father has been taken out of the picture. The runner hasn't made contact with me as she often did last year, and that leaves only mother's version of events.

It's a case I've watched for several years, including many days in courtrooms. The story caught my attention because the slow pace of court processes in this case seemed cruel. The child was first taken into care in May 1997 and it took the system more than three years (40 months) to make a decision about whether she could return to her parents.

The answer was no. She was made a Crown ward. She had two younger sisters taken into care at the same time but they seem to have adapted. They don't show the same drive to get home.

Abuse or neglect weren't the issues. Father is by his own admission an alcoholic. Mother was raised "in the system" and looked at social workers almost as family. When there was stress in the family she called Children's Aid Society in much the same way another woman may call parents or a sister. She didn't realize it, but child-protection workers keep notes and her file grew thick.

Last fall a court issued a temporary order allowing daughter to stay with her parents, but there were conditions and one of them was aimed at father's drinking. Stop or else.

Recently father went on a bender. Mother made calls for help and with daughter spent the night in a shelter. Daughter was again taken into custody and is again in a group home in a town out of the parent's reach. They don't have a car.

Mother says father is now under a restraining order to stay away from the home and she hasn't heard from him in three weeks. She says she didn't ask for the order. She has a copy. It shows the applicant was the Ottawa CAS.

"I don't know what good this does anybody. They won't let my daughter live with me and now they won't let my husband live with me." She says her daughter has called her and wants to come home, and is threatening to run again. Mother's greatest fear is the girl hitchhikes when she runs.

There's no doubt it is not in the child's best interests to live in a home where alcohol is being abused. But she says she'd rather live with that than away from her parents. It also puts a new question on the table. If we remove children from all homes where alcohol is abused, where are we going to store them? The current answer is expensive.

There are 5,400 beds for kids in group homes in Ontario. The average daily rate per bed is $182. Although the province's child-protection agencies place children in them, they are privately owned and operated. If all beds are filled, the cost in three years crosses the billion-dollar mark.

It would be less expensive to house this girl with a friend at the Château Laurier. With their combined $364 a day they could order from the room service menu, travel back and forth to school by taxi and have lots left over for cigarettes.

In the past there was an emphasis on keeping families together but that changed with the passing of Ontario's new Child and Family Services Act in 2000. Now the emphasis is on the "best interests" of the child.

There is nothing in the system to help families. Grandparents for example, who would be willing to take in a grandchild but need financial assistance can't compete financially with an approved group home. Since 1995 Ontario's bill for child protection has gone up by 139 per cent and is now more than $860 million a year.

In the same time period 1,700 more child-protection workers were hired. That's an increase of 77 per cent.

There's no doubt there are children in need of help and the 54 autonomous agencies in the province are trying their best. But have we become overzealous? Are we scooping up children who could, with a little support, stay in their families?

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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