Children's Aid Society workers should be reined in, critics say

Kevin Libin, National Post
June 12, 2009

They are charged with the most essential of duties: protecting vulnerable children from abuse and neglect. They will intervene in the lives of roughly 200,000 Canadian children this year.

For most of us, they are generally unseen, save for occasional mentions in news reports, when they rescue children from misery. Or, as sometimes happens, deliver it.

Canada's child-welfare agencies, says University of Manitoba social work professor Brad McKenzie, have among the broadest intervention powers in the Western world.

Caseworkers come armed with vaster powers than any police officer investigating crime. It is an immense authority easily abused, without vigilant restraint.

It is time, critics say, they were reined in.

"The social worker system, as it applies to children, is out of control, seriously out of control," says Katherine McNeil, a children's advocate who has worked with families in Nova Scotia and B.C. "And nobody's doing anything about it."

Child-welfare agencies step in when kids are homeless, exploited, hungry or abused. They do not stop there. As the highly publicized neo-Nazi case in Winnipeg demonstrates, they might seize children from parents for teaching racist views, or for "emotional neglect." They have taken newborns from parents considered insufficiently intelligent; from religious families believing the Bible commands them to discipline kids with a rod. They order homeschooling parents to enroll children in public school, deeming them inadequately socialized.

"They violate all kinds of privacy and rights," says Chris Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Defense League, which represents Canadian and American parents.

Whether we wanted it or not, knew it or not, over time, the work of child-welfare organizations has become "parenting by the state and the imposition of their value system on other people," says Marty McKay, a clinical psychologist who has worked on abuse cases in the U.S and Canada. Provincial agencies have the power to intervene when children are considered "at risk" of abuse or neglect - even if none has actually occurred. Or, where spousal abuse happens, but kids are untouched. And what they do with the children they take can sometimes be worse than what they suffered at home.


When journalist J.J. Kelso founded Canada's first Children's Aid Society in 1891, it was from revulsion at what he had witnessed working in Toronto's slums: the filthy, homeless urchins begging on the street, the school-aged girls whored out by parents for whiskey money; children needing "rescue," Kelso exhorted, "from the environments of vice, cruelty or mendicancy."

Courts could imprison parents for cruelty, but not revoke custody. Backed by the 1893 Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to and Better Protection of Children, the society had unique authority to directly interfere in affairs of parents and children: Anyone under 14 found begging, receiving alms, out late, homeless, orphaned, imprisoned, thieving, or associating with thieves, drunkards or vagrants, would be appropriated by the province.

Since then, as child-welfare agencies multiplied across Canada, their authority expanded, too.

One Calgary mother said her kids were recently pulled from class and questioned by a caseworker after she kept them home from school for a week, fearing they might be exposed to Swine Flu. When the mother protested, the worker threatened to seize all six children in her house, including two toddlers.

"All because I was overtly concerned about my children's health," says an incredulous Ms. K, who, as is the case with all investigations, cannot be identified. Nor can she ever know who lodged the complaint against her.

The worker later visited the house. There, Ms. K reports (and witnesses confirm), when she further protested the interference - at one point calling police - the agent hollered at her, physically accosted her, and threatened to report her for abuse, of which, the caseworker later relented, there was no evidence.

The secrecy that envelops these cases makes it nearly impossible to fully investigate Ms. K's remarkable claims: caseworkers do not permit "clients," as they're called, to record meetings, and agencies cannot comment on any case. But the account doesn't shock those who work closely with the authorities.

"I'm certainly not surprised, and hear over and over again of workers ... threatening [parents] with apprehension. They'll never admit it in court, of course, but I hear it all the time," says Bradley Spier, a Calgary family lawyer. "Most of the time they're above board. ... They all have an attitude, but they'll do their investigation and, if they can't substantiate it, they're generally pretty honest about that, and won't take any action. But until then, they're god-like creatures, for lack of a better word. Or they think they are."


The government's role in protecting vulnerable children treads an impossibly fine line. Without anonymous complaints, and the power to interview and apprehend, some children would undoubtedly suffer terribly. Accordingly, legislators grant workers astounding licence: a social work graduate, fresh from college, can enter a home without warrant; apprehend children without due process; and commandeer police officers to enforce his or her efforts. A caseworker can order children dressed, fed, medicated, and educated any way they consider appropriate. Parents who do not submit risk losing custody, even visitation of their kids. Or have them taken away permanently.

It is an authority that is sometimes severely misused. When that happens, Ms. McKay says, families can be traumatized in a perversion of the very system designed to prevent abuse.

The anonymous process, for example, invites bogus tips - commonly from divorcing parents, for instance, since agencies can unilaterally alter custody arrangements. Most complaints prove "unsubstantiated": 55% according to the most recent Health Canada study.

"Children's Aid, even when they don't start an investigation [themselves], they can be manipulated by people," says Ms. McKay.

Prof. McKenzie says child-welfare agencies typically do good work under difficult circumstances. Overstretched caseworkers, with general training, can be unequipped to specialize in interventions and the complexities each case brings. What some, middle-class agents might consider neglect, for example, is often a matter of poverty, not necessarily cruelty.

And some child-welfare workers also exploit their tremendous clout to behave unethically, prejudicially or illegally.

"Some of them get a real power complex because they have a bachelor of social work, or a masters, and they suddenly have this power [to] apprehend," says Ms. McKay. "They throw their weight around." She sees in some workers a "police mentality." It may be a coincidence, but in the largest English-speaking provinces, Alberta, B.C. and Ontario (Quebec data are incomplete), the number of children taken into care by provincial agencies between 1993 and 2001, rose a remarkable 97%, 63% and 72% respectively.

Prof. McKenzie is encouraged by a nascent trend in Canadian agencies away from historic, heavier-handed investigative and apprehension focus, and toward working more co-operatively with families to improve home conditions.

Studies show that under the current system, he says, "generally we find that the majority of children that are served [by welfare agencies] do well" - meaning they thrive at school, seem generally well-adjusted, are free from abuse and neglect. About 15% to 20%, he says, do not.

That is not a trifling number. But the stories behind it - let alone the validity of the initial apprehensions - can prove impenetrable. Cases are shrouded in silence, media blocked from reporting details, or questioning workers, in the legitimate name of protecting children involved (even in the high-profile Winnipeg neo-Nazi case, most details were concealed). But such limits thwart public scrutiny into an arm of government as capable of error as any other, yet, in determining how much or even whether families stay together, working with some of the highest stakes imaginable.

Last year, Ontario MPP Andrea Horwath tabled a private member's bill to make Children's Aid Societies answerable to the provincial ombudsman, something Ontario's Children and Youth Services has repeatedly resisted (ombudsmen in some other provinces, such as Alberta, have that authority). Ontario's CAS typically refuses to share files with its Child Advocate; in his annual report released earlier this year - which found 90 children in provincial care died in 2008 - Irwin Elman called it "almost impossible" to get information necessary to investigate potential agency wrongdoing. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled parents could not sue child-welfare agencies; provinces, it ruled, owed no "duty of care" to families. The lack of oversight, says Ms. McNeil, creates departments accountable only to themselves.

And there are numerous instances of caseworkers acting improperly. Two years ago, a Nova Scotia judge ruled that workers intervening in a divorce custody dispute were so biased against the mother, and in favour of the father - who lived with a woman previously the subject of interventions for violence and neglect - that they took "intentional and deliberate" steps to "mislead the court" by concealing evidence against him. A few years earlier, the CAS of Prescott and Russell, near Ottawa, and one worker, were convicted of contempt of court for refusing to return a two-year-old boy to his parents, defying a judge's instructions to do so. Agents insisted they were acting in the boy's "best interests." In 2001, two judges in Simcoe, Ont., criticized the CAS there for "arbitrary use of government power" and unreasonableness "verging on blind obstinacy" in fighting to keep children from being adopted by certain foster parents. Several parents interviewed for this story claim to have faced false accusations and bullying from caseworkers harbouring apparent agendas.

A report this year from Saskatchewan's Children's Advocate, Marvin Bernstein, found children suffering serious, ongoing abuse and neglect in the care of the province amidst a "culture of non-compliance with policy" among social services staff.

Even when acting with utmost professionalism, whether agents are able to provide children a better, safer environment than where they came from is not certain.

Mr. Bernstein's report found staff knowingly placing children with histories of committing sexual abuse into crowded foster homes where they preyed on other kids, without alerting foster parents to the problem (one reported that a caseworker assured her "a certain amount of sexual abuse is to be expected in a foster home"). A quarter of children were placed in overcrowded homes, he found, as staff routinely used "manipulative methods" to "trick" foster parents into taking more kids than they were approved for. Two Saskatchewan caseworkers were suspended in February after being discovered shuffling children between foster homes to hide overcrowding conditions from investigators.

"Children's Aid has no business placing into care a child that they can foresee is going to come out worse the other end than when they went in," Ms. McKay says. "If that's the best they can do, just leave them."

Two teens charged in connection with the recent double murder near Edmonton were in care of a ministry-licensed group home - a place neighbours say they warned the government for years was poorly monitored. In March, a 15-month-old baby in care of Alberta's Children and Youth Services suffered critical head injuries in a foster home; in the past four years, two Alberta children have been killed by foster parents. A 2008 report found Alberta caseworkers regularly placing kids in unsafe conditions, including abusive situations.

Last year, seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson was killed in Toronto in care of a foster parent with a record of violent crimes, and in Vancouver, police discovered minors in provincial care working as prostitutes. In 2002, Jeffrey Baldwin was abused and neglected to death by a couple with a known history of child abuse but were nonetheless granted custody of the five-year-old by the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto. A 2006 CBC investigation uncovered Ontario caseworkers drugging a seven-year-old Ontario boy into a stupor with massive doses of psychotropic medications, which a psychiatrist would later find had "no actual treatment value," except making him more compliant in his group home. While in his drugged state, he was sexually abused by fellow residents.

Those who believe in the good intentions of child-welfare agencies argue they lack the resources to deal properly with each case; with some workers handling more than 30 clients simultaneously, it is impossible to act perfectly. One problem, believes Ms. McKay, is caseworkers spread too thin, drifting far from the original vision of the state's role in family matters: protecting kids from verifiable and authentic abuse, cruelty and neglect.

"They need to go back to the basics," she says. "Do the children look well-nourished? Do they have bruises on them? Are they molested? Is the house crawling with cockroaches? If not, they're not being abused or neglected."

But with powerful, generally unaccountable agencies, dependent on justifying their place in a world far improved from the cruelties of J.J. Kelso's Victorian Toronto, the need to intervene in more cases, for more reasons, may make such discipline difficult. "I would love to just demolish the system and start from scratch again," she says. "Because it's gone very far awry here."


Beliefs about the best interest of children

Many of the issues this article talks about have been discussed on this site and while I believe it's important to keep doing that, I'd like to expand the discussion somewhat by taking out this part:

Child-welfare agencies step in when kids are homeless, exploited, hungry or abused. They do not stop there. As the highly publicized neo-Nazi case in Winnipeg demonstrates, they might seize children from parents for teaching racist views, or for "emotional neglect." They have taken newborns from parents considered insufficiently intelligent; from religious families believing the Bible commands them to discipline kids with a rod. They order homeschooling parents to enroll children in public school, deeming them inadequately socialized.

I know these issue are a can of worms, but I'd like to address them anyway because it sheds a light on an aspect of child protection I have so far not paid much attention to. So far my personal focus has been on the financial aspect of foster care which leads to a pull for children out of their families and into the system, yet that pull needs some moral justification to happen.

Child protection is firmly grounded in the notion of the best interest of the child, a term dating back to the progressive era, a period in which the government stepped in to end practices like child labour and make education available to all. At the time using children to provide an income for the family was still wide spread and school attendance was low, especially among the poor.

While today we think differently about child labour and school attendance than hundred years ago, and while we can see the best interest of children in that era was served by ending child labour and promoting school attendance (even making it compulsory), it is not to say the parent at the time didn't believe they acted in their child's best interest too. As much as parents needed the extra income, many of them probably also believed that learning to obey the owners of the factories they worked for was much more valuable in life than getting an education. So in the end it all boils down to what adults believe is good for a child. Can we ever know that? Is it arrogant to claim we sometimes do? And when we think we know, what is the best thing to do?

Whenever there is a dispute over the best interest of the child, there are two parties that both believe they serve the best interest of the child. That's why there never is a dispute over sexual abuse, because one party already knew (s)he didn't act in the best interest of the child and did it anyway. All disputes revolve around parents believing they are acting in the best interest of their child and social workers believing they do too.

When neo-Nazi parents raise their children to become like themselves, they probably believe they are doing the right thing. In their minds there probably is a vast Jewish/Negro conspiracy that is trying to establish world domination and the only way to prevent that is by teaching their children to undermine those attempts. The government, by means of its social workers sees a next generation of Holocaust Museum attackers, or at least children growing up to become hateful racists. So we have two competing belief systems, one that desperately tries to prepare their children for impending doom, another that desperately tries to prevent society from getting more hateful racisists. The question is: do we have to treat these beliefs as equal, in which case parental rights do prevail, or should we take the belief of the neo-Nazi parents as ridiculously improbably, in which case social workers are correct in their belief.

The case becomes even more complicated when religion gets involved. While for many the beliefs of Neo-Nazi's tend to lean towards religiosity, that belief is still based on the words of a human being. With religion those words are purportedly divinely inspired and as a result not only protected by freedom of speech but also by the freedom of religious practice.

A father who paddles his children daily on the ground of spare the rod spoil the child, probably believes he is doing the right thing. He probably believes obedience to be of utmost importance and not enforcing that will lead to the corruption of the child. Social workers will see this differently, they will believe that paddling a child on a daily basis will make a child frightened, having low self-esteem and fear that child will as a response become an abuser itself. Again two opposing belief systems collide and again we have to ask ourselves, should we treat those belief systems on equal footing? If so, parental rights prevail, if not then at least the social worker has the correct assessment this is not healthy for the child.

These are two situations where I personally agree with the assessment that growing up under such circumstances is unhealthy for children. The key to that is evidence. There is no evidence of a vast Jewish/Negro conspiracy we have to prepare for, while there is plenty of evidence that teaching children to be hateful is not good for their development. There is no evidence that daily paddling helps in preventing the "corruption" of a child, while there is plenty evidence that doing so is detrimental to a child. The big problem with cases like these is that the parents in question are not open to such evidence. Persuasion is not going to help.

There are also plenty of cases where child protectors have beliefs that end up to be totally unfounded. The Wenatchee sex ring investigation mid 1990's led to the removal of 60 children on grounds of sexual abuse that didn't take place. Alicia Wade was coerced to retract her earlier testimony she was raped by a stranger, because a child protecter believed that all daddies are scumbags. Matthew and Katie Dean had their son removed because social workers believed military men are abusive. Rachel Pullen had her child removed because social workers believed she was not smart enough to raise a child. In all these cases parents believed they were acting in the best interest of the child, while child protectors were erroneously believing they were too.

Of course the moral beliefs of either parents or social workers are not the only factors playing a role. Many parents are not doing such a wonderful job raising children, but their sense of morality demands them to believe differently. Social workers are not doing such a wonderful job protecting children, but their sense of morality demands them to believe differently. Except for some really sick sadists, most people think they are being good to children, even when that is not at all the case.

The big issue is: what to do about it?. Governments have been granted the authority to remove children and there are plenty of cases where that is warranted. When a child is sexually abused by both parents, removal is the only option. When a child is tortured by both parents, removal is the only option. But should we remove all children that are not treated well? If that were the case the foster care population could easily be 100 times larger than it is today. Sad as it is governments cannot prevent children from growing up in unhealthy families and when they try to do so, grave mistakes are being made. The raid of the FLDS community in Texas is a perfect example of that. As much as I believe religion in that community is used to the benefit of some power hungry men, trying to save the children by removing them has shown to result in disaster.

I don't pretend to have any answers here. I believe children should not grow up to be brainwashed in becoming Nazi's. I believe children should not grow up in religious sects to become brides of old men at a young age. I also believe parents in cases like these cannot be persuaded to act differently. Their beliefs don't allow that. We can do something about irrational beliefs in child protection professionals though. Maybe we cannot make someone stop believing all daddies are scumbags, but we can make sure someone with such beliefs can no longer work with children. Maybe we cannot convince a social worker that military men can be just as loving father's as men of any other profession, but we can fire them. We cannot ask of parents to have rational beliefs when it comes to treating children, but we sure can ask that of professionals.

Which one?

Neils wrote:
We cannot ask of parents to have rational beliefs when it comes to treating children, but we sure can ask that of professionals.

As an adoptive parent, do I also enjoy the luxury of irrational beliefs?  Or am I obligated to the standards of the professional?  Interesting commentary.


Policy and Procedure

The adoption procedure allows for screening of prospective parents, so we can indeed make an attempt  to eliminate those applicants that have irrational beliefs that are not in the best interest of the child.

As I stated earlier, I think it is not in a child's best interest to grow up in an environment that teaches hatred, I also think it's not healthy for a child to grow up with parents that beat the crap out of their children, no matter how much those people believe they are doing the right thing. We can and should expect  adoption workers to weed out those applicants.

So I hope adoption workers have done their job and made sure you "Dad" don't have irrational beliefs that are damaging your children before they allowed you to adopt.

Irrational beliefs...

Known irrational beliefs of AP within 90 miles of my home:
Money is god and I can buy each child and send money to the biological parents so they won't miss their son.
I really don't want to adopt this baby, but she is the full sister of the child I adopted last year; but I will make sure
everyone knows (and sooner or later these two girls) I had to use all my savings because the adoption agency
is pushing the issue and I'll look bad if I don't.
If I adopt as many children as Harry and Bertha Holt; and name several of my children after them, then the whole
world will think we are great; and since we live in a dump, people will continue to give us all the things we need, as
we need them.
I'm old but I see my friends adopting and I want to adopt too and it will keep me looking younger and feeling younger
and it is so much fun to be like my friends.
If I adopt then I will get pregnant with my own real child because I've seen it happen to a friend of mine.
They tell me not to believe the myth that all Asian adopted little girls are beauty queens and the boys are math
geniuses but I know they really are and I want one, too.
Asians are never fat and I could never stand a fat child so I'll adopt an Asian child; and if she wants to eat
too much I will limit her food so she will not get fat; all my biological children are thin so my adopted Asian child
will be thin, too.
I'll adopt a playmate for my son.
I really don't like kids but my marriage is horrible so I'll adopt some kids and my marriage will be better.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

Want to help but don't know

Want to help but don't know where to start? Here's a good place to start

"Touched By Adoption, With a Blowtorch "

Pound Pup Legacy