Child welfare does important work

NationalPost.com – Full Comment – Counterpoint: Child welfare does important work
Posted: June 19, 2009.   By Raymond LeMay

Child welfare organizations do important work and have broad powers, suggesting the need for scrutiny and debate. Unfortunately, in the article “Children’s Aid Society workers should be reined in, critics say,” (June 13) the National Post failed to fully present both sides of the argument.

Our organization, Prescott-Russell Services to Children & Adults, is mentioned in the article as having been found in contempt of court in 2004 for refusing to return a two-year-old child to his parents. What the article does not add — perhaps because it was not widely reported at the time — is that in 2006 the Ontario Court of Appeals threw out this contempt finding.

The article raises concerns about the confidentiality requirements that surround child welfare work including court proceedings, but there are good reasons for not adding harm and stigma to innocent victims through unwarranted publicity. The judges of the Court of Appeals reviewing the facts of the above case found them compelling and judged that our employees had acted appropriately. I think that the great majority of Canadians would have concluded similarly had all the facts been reported, even in 2004. The confidentiality requirements do cut both ways.

It is undoubtedly difficult for parents to be confronted with allegations of abuse or neglect, but then children should not be abused or neglected. We must seek to improve child protection practices, but not at the cost of leaving children and youth in dangerous situations. The Post article highlights the fact that 55% of allegations prove “unsubstantiated” as somehow testifying to what is wrong with the system, when in fact it should reassure readers that child protection services distinguish between “true” and “false” allegations. Moreover, though child protection employees do make determinations about allegations, it is in fact judges, in formal court proceedings after hearing all the evidence from all parties, who decide if a child or youth is “in need of protection” and if a child or youth will be taken from his parents’ care. Children’s Aid Societies are law abiding, and contempt findings (including erroneous ones) are extremely rare.

The article refers to the Ontario Child Advocate’s recent report “which found 90 children in provincial care died in 2008″ and quotes the Child Advocate, Irwin Elman, as saying it was “almost impossible” to access information on such cases. However, Mr. Elman created much controversy because of his misrepresentation of the numbers and the involvement of Ontario Children’s Aid Societies in these cases. Child deaths are a serious issue and a single death of a child or youth should be viewed as one too many. But child protection is also an important issue and public confidence in child welfare services an important element of our capacity to protect children.

Mr. Elman gleaned his “facts” from a public report released almost a year earlier by the chief coroner of Ontario without mentioning that it had concluded that child welfare services had not been a factor in the great majority of these cases, or that the Ontario Coroner already has the authority to review all cases of child deaths where child welfare authorities are even remotely involved.

Indeed Mr. Elman’s report betrays a lack of confidence in the coroner, but provides no evidence of a lack of accountability. In addition to the Courts of Justice and the Ontario coroner, there are a number of other oversight mechanisms already in place and carried out by government officials and more recently the auditor-general of Ontario. Adding another bureaucratic layer of accountability and oversight over an already stretched system will not improve the effectiveness of services.

This is not to say that all is right with child welfare in Ontario or Canada. Much needs to be reviewed, researched and discussed in order to improve the system. Journalists, however, need not sensationalize that which is, by its nature, already sensational. Child abuse and neglect, and child deaths must mobilize a community’s involvement. Child protection requires community support.

rlemay@seapr.ca   –   Raymond Lemay is executive director of Prescott-Russell Services to Children & Adults.

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