The Vancouver Province - November 7, 1999
Top 10 problems with the system
By Kathy Tait
The ministry is too quick to remove children:
Family lawyer Kuldip Chaggar says the heart of the problem is a ministry
that removes children without adhering to the law. The law says removal of a
child without a court order can be done only when "the child's health or
safety is in immediate danger" or "no other less-disruptive measure that is
available is adequate to protect the child."
But children are commonly removed in non-emergencies, he says, perhaps after
a complaint from a teacher or neighbour, and often without investigation.
The ministry prefers, he says, to apprehend and let a judge decide if a
child should be returned, rather than decide a child should stay with the
parent and, if a mistake is made, risk losing their jobs.
Zoe Ayre of the BC Association of Social Workers says Chaggar is "100%
wrong" to say social workers remove children without investigation: "Most
removals stand up in court, which means the judge is satisfied that there
has been investigation." Ayre says sometimes removal is "the only way to get
it across to parents that spending all your money on cocaine and not feeding
your kids is not acceptable."
But Chaggar says parents work best under a supervision order: The kids are
home, parents have a list of expectations from their social worker and
programs are available to help them meet those expectations - parenting
classes, drug and alcohol treatment and counselling.
Too few support services:
A 1997 ministry audit of children in care urged much greater use of family
supports to prevent removals and to return removed children home faster. The
problem seems to be long waiting lists. In Burnaby, for instance, the wait
for Project Parent in-home parenting programs is up to a year, and eight
months for out-of-home programs.
Assistant deputy minister Dyan Dunsmoor-Farley says there is a wide array of
support services - costing $427 million this year - and the onus is on the
social worker and the family to find another program if one is not
available. The ministry says it is trying to shift its family support
programs from intervention after an apprehension to early intervention so
removal is not necessary.
Chaggar says the onus should be on the ministry to provide court-ordered
services in a timely manner, and it should be sanctioned when it fails to do
Too slow to return children:
Once a child is removed, getting him home again is a slow process. Even when
the original protection concern is found to be invalid, social workers often
feel they must justify the removal, says Chaggar, so they look for another
problem. "Occasionally you'll get a social worker who says, 'I made a
mistake.' But it's so rare, mainly because of the fear of being sued," he
The case of Anna Rath, a four-year-old who was scooped last April, is an
example of how the ministry fails to give children back to their parents
when they discover they have erred, says Linda Reid, the Liberal critic for
the children and families ministry. "The ministry knew from Day Two they had
no case, but they kept the child for 33 days."
Then Anna was placed in a non-French-speaking foster home. "Nobody spoke to
that child in her own language for 31 days," says Reid. "It was the ministry
that abused that child." A judge determined Anna was wrongly apprehended,
but the Raths are now burdened with a $10,000 legal bill.
Enormous powers of social workers:
Social workers can remove any child from its parents at any time of day or
night, even on an anonymous complaint, on any suspicion of the child being
at any kind of risk, regardless of whether there is a reasonable
probability. Child protection workers don't need a warrant to enter a home
and take children.
Family lawyer Craig Sicotte says child apprehension law is opposite to all
other judicial processes because parents are guilty until proven innocent.
Critics question whether the use of police force in some apprehensions has
been necessary. There have been cases where police have broken down doors or
drawn their guns. "In a criminal case, if the police crash your door in
without a warrant, you have legal remedies," says Sicotte. "In child
apprehensions you can't go to court to say your rights were breached. There
is no remedy."
Ayre says child protection workers would have their knuckles rapped by a
judge if they removed a child without cause. She notes it is the police, not
the social worker, who decides if it's appropriate to break down doors or
Delays in the legal process:
It may be months before the parents of an apprehended child have an
opportunity to tell a judge their side of the story.
Under the law, when a child is removed, the social worker must file a
presentation report with the court within seven days. This is not a hearing.
If the parents contest the removal, a protection hearing must commence
within 45 days and "must be concluded as soon as possible." But in fact, the
commencement date is little more than a date to set an interim hearing.
There are long delays between the interim hearing and the actual protection
hearing. Chaggar says that in Surrey, one of the busiest courts, the delay
is usually a year.
Failure to use less disruptive measures, as required by law:
The Child, Family and Community Service Act requires social workers to use
the least disruptive means of removal, which could be to place the child in
a relative's home.
A 1997 audit of children in care says priority is not given to finding
relatives to provide care. But Ayre says placing a child with a relative is
now "the first option." Chaggar says it takes about six months to get a home
study done. The home cannot get financial support for the child until it is
Chaggar says social workers are so overloaded they remove children rather
than find out what the family really needs, such as parenting classes or
alcohol and drug programs. His law partner Tim Diewold says that while
"there are many good social workers who try really hard, they are given an
impossible job to do because there are not the resources."
Overcrowded foster homes:
Chaggar says children sometimes get less care in foster homes than in their
own homes because of serious overcrowding and stressed-out foster parents.
"They just jam more kids in."
Parents frequently wait weeks for a return phone call from their social
worker, owing to chronic staff shortages and workload.
Too few visits:
Parents whose visits with their children have to be supervised are often put
on a waiting list for a visitation supervisor. The ministry is generally
unwilling to pay for more than a one- or two-hour visit once a week.