Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen October 16, 2001
by Dr. Barry Dworkin
Our child protection laws are designed to protect the defenseless. Those that are responsible for enforcing these laws have a difficult job to do. This is made even moreso by a flawed complaints process.
In our society we are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the case of a complaint or accusation of child abuse or neglect, the onus is upon the parents or caregivers to prove that the accusations are without merit. I have witnessed complaints levied against several of my patients by individuals whose sole aim was retribution and punishment. No credible evidence existed to suggest that the children were in a dangerous home environment. There was no abuse. Rather the complaint was levied because the complainant had an intense dislike for the other person. I have had to defend my patientsí care of their children; children I have delivered. I know them well.
Imagine being wrongfully accused of child abuse and/or neglect. The CAS, following legally established protocols comes to your door asking questions about your competency as a parent. They interview your children for evidence of wrongdoing. For the life of you, you have no idea why this is happening. You ask who has registered the complaint. You are told that this information is confidential. Your accuser is protected. Your nightmare begins. The neighbours talk. If this situation is not resolved in a hasty manner, your reputation and dignity will be stripped away if that hasnít already happened.
A mother was truncheoned by her ex husbandís use of this process as his weapon of choice as a means of exerting control over her. I had to treat her for clinical depression because of the unrelenting stress of the situation. She feared her child was going to be ripped away from her on a momentís notice.
A father, accused of child abuse by his wife during the break-up of their marriage, was denied access to his children until it was proven that he was innocent. In the meanwhile his wife maligned him to his children in order to turn them against him.
He was powerless to stop it since he was prevented to see them. The frustration ground him down.
They had to endure the physician reports, home environment assessments, child interviews and other evaluations. Without question, both these people were innocent. There were no grounds for the accusations.
The suspension of civil liberties with respect to safeguarding our children is an area that is acknowledged to be acceptable provided those that wield this power use it judiciously and without malice. The CAS tries to uphold this tenet. They are mandated to investigate all complaints. That is their job. They must do so because the potential harm to a child outweighs the inconvenience and stress caused to the parent or guardian. That is the theory. The theory fails when less scrupulous individuals are the variables.
How do we make people accountable for their use of the complaints system? How do we counter those who deliberately use this system with the express intent to punish another? The argument for confidential reporting states that if it were circumvented, people would hesitate to call CAS. They would face potential threats and confrontation from the parent or guardian. This fear would hinder our ability to protect the children.
Could we not petition the government to amend the child protection laws? Is it unreasonable to prosecute those persons who have clearly intended to harm another? I think that those people who abuse the system for their own personal ends should pay the cost of the investigation and be prosecuted. It is a drain on valuable resources.
Not all complaints will pan out even those made by well-intentioned individuals. The CAS has no doubt amassed enough data through their complaints process to profile the well-intentioned complaint from the frivolous. This ability exists as well in the judiciary and other law enforcement agencies.
We have the right to due process. When a malicious complaint is uncovered by due diligence and investigation it should be pursued and dealt with firmly. It is unacceptable for the complainant to use the power of confidentiality to avoid accountability.
A message has to be sent out to those malicious individuals who deliberately cause tremendous trauma and suffering for both children and parents alike. They must face the consequences for their cruelty. I am interested to know what you think we should do.