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Top 10 problems with child abuse by the government

Date: NOV-07-99
Keywords: family breakdown, heavy caseloads, crowded foster homes
Posted: JUN-03-02
Editorials Index

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 so.

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 says.

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 draw guns.

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 approved.

Heavy caseloads:

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."

Poor communication:

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.

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