Secretive and often overzealous care agencies protect children largely at parents’ expense

Posted on December 15, 2014 in Child & Family Delivery System – News/Canada
December 12, 2014: Updated: Dec 15.   Sarah Boesveld

Isaiah Wilson acts out — his hyperactivity, in the form of hitting, punching and screaming, a symptom of a rare chromosome deletion called 8P syndrome. Combined with ADHD and autism, the 10-year-old has had a tough life but, thankfully, a loving family.

Three years ago, Tara and Tyrone Wilson brought their son to a downtown Toronto hospital where he was kept for observation. The doctor, a psychiatrist, recommended the Wilsons consider placing Isaiah in a residential home, which would give him more structure. The Catholic Children’s Aid Society would help them through it. They were reassured child welfare involvement would be voluntary.

After mulling this for six months, the Wilsons finally agreed, feeling it would be in Isaiah’s best interests.

Their son, then eight, went to spend his weekdays at a residential facility in nearby Pickering. After much improvement in a month, he came home. A CCAS worker, whom Ms. Wilson said she “treated like family,” continued to visit the Wilsons on a monthly basis.

One day, the worker announced the family’s file would be closed. But then, a week later, she returned to tell the Wilsons that not only would their file remain open, the CCAS was apprehending Isaiah and his parents would have to go to court to get him back. The reason? Isaiah wasn’t making adequate progress at home.

“I was sick to death, in tears, devastated,” Ms. Wilson said. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’”

‘I was sick to death, in tears, devastated’
Ms. Wilson convinced the CCAS to keep the file open and have Isaiah remain at home, but her trust in the agency was shattered. So she started writing letters: First to the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, then the Child and Family Services Review Board; then the Ontario Child and Youth Advocate and the Ombudsman of Ontario, even though the ombudsman has no jurisdiction over child protection in the province.

“I got a lot of responses,” she said. “But the one that made me seek further legal advice was from the ombudsman.”

The ombudsman’s office asked the CCAS for an explanation — and the one it received came as a shock to Ms. Wilson.

“They told me ‘Tara, they’ve come back saying the reason why they’re taking child away is they do have child protection concerns,’”— concerns they could only trace back to one domestic call to police in which no charges were laid, said Ms. Wilson, who deemed the incident from years ago “silly.” Why, if this was such a concern, was it never mentioned? Why was Ms. Wilson previously allowed to voluntarily take Isaiah out of the treatment home and back into her care? Why would the CCAS worker insist, when she sat in on school meetings, that she was merely there to support the family?


Child protection agencies have sweeping powers in Canada —powers that, in many aspects, span wider than police. And just as sweeping in many jurisdictions is the privacy under which child protection agencies and government ministries operate. It’s a realm where freedom of information laws do not apply. It’s a space of many secrets.

As last year’s Postmedia investigation into deaths in Alberta foster care revealed, a provincial law will not allow parents of children who’ve died in care to speak their names. Ontario has just given investigative powers into such cases to an independent body, but it doesn’t cover parental complaints. While governments insist the wide-sweeping privacy is to protect the best interests of the child, a growing number of families and critics say it is really a way for governments to protect themselves. Parents who feel child protection agencies overstepped their bounds have no place to go but down government-supported roads they feel are not impartial or accountable enough.

“For such a long time, the government has used privacy as a rationale for secrecy and the two are not the same thing,” said Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta’s NDP and former critic of the province’s Ministry of Human Services.

In all other provinces and in the Yukon territory, either an ombudsman or a child advocate hears complaints from parents and has the power to investigate (after a decade of lobbying, Nunavut appointed its first child and youth representative in January).

Ontario has long been the holdout — the only province in which child protection is not administered by the government directly, but by 51 arm’s length agencies. That has changed this month in the form of Bill 8 — a sweeping accountability measure introduced by the government in response to previous scandals. The bill, which passed into law Tuesday, gives investigative powers to the Ontario Child and Youth Advocate. It should be a massive win, but critics say it doesn’t help parents in the least.

“It’s just smoke in mirrors,” said Neil Haskett, an activist with the Ontario Coalition for Accountability, which has been fighting for child protection since 2006.

He represents a group of parents who feel spurned by the province’s Children’s Aid Societies, alleging they’ve been lied to by workers about their motivations for involvement, that their children have been hurt in care, that their files aren’t being dealt with in a timely manner and that critical information is withheld. The Facebook group he administers is called “Stop the Children’s Aid Society from taking Children from Good Parents.”

When he first saw the title of Bill 8 — “An Act to promote public sector and MPP accountability and transparency” — he thought ‘Wow, that sounds fantastic — accountability may be truly on the horizon.’” But the expanded oversight does not include access to freedom of information requests, it doesn’t give the Advocate power to drop in on a foster home unannounced, it does not allow him to discover abuse in care. It doesn’t go far enough, he said.

“Kids are still going to die. Kids are still going to be abused in care. There’s going to be no way to find the systemic problems that are leading to these issues and why they’re not getting resolved…Families are going to continue to be torn apart.”

Even academics who study the system in Canada share worries about what’s often considered overzealous privacy.

“Sometimes concerns about lack of transparency are quite legitimate. There’s a tendency to not be as accountable to the community,” said Brad McKenzie, a professor of social work at the University of Manitoba.

The secretive nature may also breed distrust; as stories from the parents in Mr. Haskett’s network lay bare, parents feel like the enemy in an adversarial relationship.

“If someone took your kids, you’d be angry too,” said Mary Ballantyne, the executive director of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. The society’s job, she stressed, is to protect the child, and while they try to do that with the cooperation of the parents, that is not always possible.


Since assuming office in 2005, Ontario’s ombudsman André Marin has pushed for child protection agencies to come under his umbrella. His office keeps a tally of complaints it received but has no mandate to pursue. Last year, he received 536 — far more than the pervious year’s tally of 472. Between April and November 2014, 290 complaints have filtered in.

“This is serious stuff: Failure to investigate abuse allegations, denial of access to children in care. These people have no place to go,” he told the National Post. “The Children’s Aid Society is funded to the tune of $1.4 billion. That’s a lot of public funds.”

Mr. Marin has said he will support Ontario Child and Youth Advocate Irwin Elman in his new investigative role. It is unclear whether he will continue to accept complaints from parents. Mr. Elman won’t. His mandate is, and always has been, speaking up for children.

The Child and Family Services Board — a recent creation designed to address concerns in Ontario — cannot investigate a matter that’s before the courts, and acts as a bureaucratic mediator that ensures protocol was followed. The auditor general looks out for the money. The coroner takes complaints about child deaths, but there is no child death review system in Ontario. Late last month, high-profile pediatrician and child abuse expert Dr. Lionel Dibden resigned from Alberta’s quasi-independent committee to improve the province’s internal death review system, saying the council has been “unable to fulfill its mandate.”

In late November, the Minister for Child and Youth Services rejected Mr. Elman’s plea to extend his powers to protect all the children under his mandate, provide whistleblower protection and give him access to information, saying it would create too much of a ‘document process.’”

“How can I explain to a child or youth who bravely comes forward with a concern about their safety or care that I’m unable to act because the government is concerned about paperwork?” he asked.


Change is occurring in Alberta: Late last month, the province “lifted the veil of secrecy” over the deaths of children in care, promising to make publicly available key details of all deaths. The results come after a damning six-year-long Calgary Herald/Edmonton Journal report on child deaths. Over the past 15 years in Alberta 767 children have died in care.

Alberta mother Velvet Martin is one of two parents legally allowed to speak about her daughter. Samantha, apprehended due to a rare chromosome disorder (not unlike Isaiah) that authorities felt meant her parents couldn’t provide adequate care, suffered multiple injuries and neglect in her foster home and died as a result in 2006 at age 13.

“The entire premise is to protect the child and to protect the family of the child. This is how I was successful in arguing my case in lifting the ban: ‘Well my child doesn’t require protection any longer. She was failed. She is dead,’ ” Ms. Martin said.

This Dec. 3 marked eight years since Samantha passed away in care. Ms. Martin, champion of Samantha’s Law and founder of the organization Protecting Canadian Children, received a human rights award last week for her activism — an award she believes is “owed” to her daughter. “I’m afraid the true picture of what actually exists remains grim,” she said.

‘Well my child doesn’t require protection any longer. She was failed. She is dead’
In the case of Isaiah and his family, Ms. Wilson feels the CCAS unjustly threatened to take her child from a very good home with loving parents.

She quit her job at the Royal Bank to stay home with him full time and ensure he had as much support as he could get at home.

She ended up spending $25,000 on a lawyer who finally convinced the CCAS to close her son’s file. Her lawyer, Gene Colman, is convinced the file was kept open to ensure the organization got proper funding.

The CCAS declined to comment on Ms. Wilson’s case directly, citing privacy legislation, but said the agency has an informal and formal complaints process and tries its best to resolve complaints with the family. Louise Galego, child protection manager of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, said it is odd that a worker would appear to be closing a file one week and then return the next with an apprehension order.

Ms. Wilson just wants her story told: “I’m not going to smack anybody’s hands or get anybody in trouble. Whatever happened, happened. But someone needs to be held accountable.”

National Post

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