Meet the grandma who lost 3 grandkids over a home that needed repairs
TheStar.com – News/Canada -Grandchildren were taken to foster care after home deemed unsafe. Then friends and neighbours helped fix it up.
March 12, 2017. By SANDRO CONTENTA
When a child protection worker walked into Marlene’s home in Toronto, two things were immediately obvious: the love between Marlene and her grandchildren was profound, and her broken-down home was unsafe.
What happened next reveals gaps in Ontario’s child protection system that even the powerful love of a grandmother can’t bridge. Marlene’s three grandchildren were taken and placed in a Mississauga foster home — at a cost to taxpayers far greater than what it cost to fix Marlene’s home.
“It was devastating, because I’ve always been the protector and now I couldn’t do anything about it,” says Marlene, 63, her eyes swelling with tears. “I walked around like a zombie thinking, ‘Oh my God, what will I do now?’ ”
Marlene had been taking care of her grandchildren for a couple of months while her daughter struggled with an abusive relationship and other troubles. Children’s aid societies are supposed to give priority to placing children with relatives, but the state of Marlene’s home made it unsafe to do so, according to society documents seen by the Star.
She couldn’t afford the repairs, so when friends and neighbours heard of her plight, they rallied and did much of the work for free.
Her boss at the pet store where she works part time gave her the $900 she had accumulated in vacation pay. Three sisters who lived on her street took turns driving her to Home Depot, paying for materials and transporting it to Marlene’s home. Marlene, a proud woman, insisted on paying them back when she could.
“She’s so sweet and kind,” one of the sisters told the Star. “She had a tough life but makes do. Most of the time you’ll find her smiling and happy and trying to lift you up. You can’t be upset when you’re around her.”
Ron Bridges, a 72-year-old family friend, put in new floors, a new door frame and new front door. He fixed the plumbing and delivered drywall, which Marlene put up herself. “She did a good job,” Bridges says.
Marlene paid Bridges some money, but not much. “He was amazing,” Marlene says. “He said, ‘Just take care of those kids.’”
“I don’t think the kids should have been taken away in the first place,” Bridges says. “They never did without.”
The work was finished in about two months. Exposed wires were covered with new drywall in the living room, a hole in the ceiling was patched up, broken ceramic tiles in the kitchen were removed, new floor tiles were laid in three rooms and plumbing was repaired.
Marlene got her grandchildren back a year after they were removed and, late last December, was granted full custody by the courts. She is relieved, but still shaken by an experience that doesn’t add up.
The repairs cost her $3,000, a debt she is slowly trying to repay while falling further behind in her property tax payments. A contractor would have charged more, but nowhere near what it cost Ontario taxpayers to keep Marlene’s three grandchildren in foster care for a year — about $50,000.
And the trauma experienced by Marlene and the kids — now aged 9, 12 and 14 — is incalculable. (Only Marlene’s middle name is being used because, by law, the identity of her grandchildren must be protected.)
“If only I could have done more,” she says. “I felt like I failed. I couldn’t save them. I broke down at work a few times. I can’t even tell you the stress. It has affected me in so many ways.”
Why didn’t the provincial government or children’s aid society help with Marlene’s renovations, thereby ensuring the family reunited much more quickly? For families struggling with poverty, the workings of Ontario’s child protection system can seem painfully perverse.
Told of Marlene’s story, Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth insisted that children like hers should be kept out of care.
“When a person goes into care because of poverty, as a society we know we can do better. It’s unacceptable,” says Michael Coteau, whose ministry spends $1.5 billion a year funding Ontario’s 47 privately run children’s aid societies.
Last fall, Coteau introduced a $5,000 renovation allowance to upgrade the homes of indigenous families that foster indigenous children. In an interview, he did not say if the allowance would be extended to non-indigenous families like Marlene’s. But he argued that province-wide programs — including free dental care for children in low-income homes, full day kindergarten and the Ontario child benefit — have helped reduce the number of children in care.
Still, the government has to figure out ways to link different programs and remove institutional silos, Coteau adds.
“It’s a culture shift. It’s having agencies, school boards and anyone who works for children understand that they need to go beyond their current roles. There needs to be a way for them to communicate,” he says.
“Just getting that child into a safe spot, that’s not good enough,” Coteau adds, noting that proposed changes to the Child and Family Services Act will reinforce a priority of preventing children from coming into care.
Examples of government ministries working at cross purposes include the slashing of Ontario Works benefits for parents whose children are taking into care temporarily, making it harder to achieve the goal of Coteau’s ministry to eventually reunite those families.
Children whose families ran out of money for housing were twice as likely to be taken from their parents and placed with foster parents or group homes, according to an analysis of Ontario children taken into care in 2013. Similar rates were found for families who ran out of money for food or for utilities.
Another study by leading child welfare researchers, published in February, found that Ontario child protection workers noted “unsafe housing conditions” in almost 4,000 cases they investigated in 2013. (On average, 15,625 Ontario children were in foster or group-home care in 2014-15.)
Wendy Miller, manager of government relations with the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, notes that with many poverty-burdened families, child protection as generally understood — protection from physical, sexual or emotional abuse — is not an issue, she adds.
“The case you describe is a beautiful, sad example of that,” Miller says, referring to Marlene’s ordeal. “I don’t think those children are served by being separated from the one caregiver who had provided the stability and the love and the care that they need.”
But responsibility to fix poverty-related issues can’t fall solely on children’s aid societies, Miller insists. Prevention must involve co-ordinated action from multiple government ministries, she adds.
The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, which dealt with Marlene’s case, does everything possible to keep families united, but does not provide money for home repairs or renovations, says Mahesh Prajapat, the society’s chief operating officer.
“When you remove kids it’s not single-issue-related,” he adds. “The house is unsafe, there’s parenting deficiencies, there are stressors related to it — there’s an entire assessment that goes into it rather than a single issue.”
What Marlene changed to get her grandchildren back was the state of her home.
Marlene doesn’t dispute that her home was unsafe.
She and her sister inherited the three-storey house in the Dufferin and Bloor Sts. area when their father, a tire factory worker, died in 1986. Marlene occupies the main floor and the basement; her sister lives upstairs and receives disability payments.
Marlene has worked four nights a week at a pet store for the past 13 years, earning $12 an hour. Ontario Works also helps her get by. The sisters couldn’t afford the upkeep and, over the years, the house fell into disrepair.
When the Star first met her late last summer, the sisters were $6,000 behind in property tax payments and Marlene was kicking herself for having long failed to convince her sister to sell what she calls “this big albatross around my neck.”
Marlene’s ex-husband passed on handyman skills that proved helpful. In September 2014, before the grandchildren began staying with her, she embarked on a slow renovation of her home by removing the drywall in her living room. Then, the life of her daughter, her only child, spiralled into crisis and her grandchildren came to stay.
The children’s aid society was already involved with Marlene’s daughter, a victim of domestic violence whose children weren’t attending school regularly, according to interviews with both Marlene and her daughter.
When the society realized the children were staying at Marlene’s, they were taken into foster care on Jan. 28, 2015. Marlene would visit with the children on the weekends, but she didn’t get them back, under a temporary care agreement, until Jan. 26, 2016. She got full custody 11 months later, but the stress remains.
“I always feel like I’m being watched,” she says. “I’m always like, ‘Oh, my God, am I doing the right thing?
“It should never have come to this.”