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By Lindsay Kines
July 29, 2009 / timescolonist.com
A five-month-old boy who suffered a traumatic brain injury while in foster care three years ago should never have been taken from his parents, B.C.'s child watchdog says.
The First Nations couple were loving, capable parents, but they were young and poor and needed help finding a safe place to live, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said in an investigation report released yesterday.
Instead of lending a hand, however, social workers scooped the couple's baby off the reserve and placed him in a series of three foster homes away from his First Nations community and culture.
Within three months, he was taken by ambulance to hospital suffering from suspected shaken baby syndrome.
The Crown charged one of the foster parents with aggravated assault, but the charge was stayed last year.
Today, the three-year-old boy is back with his parents, but will require life-long help.
He has cerebral palsy, is blind in one eye and doesn't yet walk.
Turpel-Lafond withheld the family's name and location out of respect for their ordeal and the challenges they still face.
But she said their experience highlights the devastating impact of child poverty, lack of affordable housing and the B.C. government's ongoing failure to help families in need.
"Certainly, the evidence reviewed in this report is that it costs more when you fail to support families than it does when you support them," she said.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development got involved with the family in July 2006, shortly after the baby was born. Social workers received a report that the family was living on reserve with relatives, one of whom had a criminal record for violence.
Turpel-Lafond said the child-protection concerns were legitimate.
"But the parents were put in a no-win situation: Choose to stay with relatives and lose care of their son, or choose to keep their child and lose the security of staying with their family, but without having the money necessary to move out," she said.
Turpel-Lafond said the government should follow its own child-welfare law, which is clear about providing temporary support to families in need. She also called for the removal of barriers between the child welfare system and the Ministry of Housing and Social Development that prevent families from getting help.
"Unfortunately, no one stepped forward in a timely way to say, 'Here's how we'll help you address your short-term housing problem so you can keep your child safe,'" Turpel-Lafond said. "These young, inexperienced and stressed parents ... were left to figure it out on their own, and because they couldn't, their son was taken away, a family broken apart."
Children's Minister Mary Polak said the ministry is already moving ahead on a number of fronts, noting that its Strong, Safe and Supported action plan stresses the need for early intervention.
"There's a consistent theme for us around improving the way in which we seek out alternatives to taking a child into care," she said.
"That is absolutely consistent with the work we're doing through Strong, Safe and Supported and we know it's one of the things our social workers are anxious to be involved with."
Turpel-Lafond, however, questioned whether those workers have access to the necessary tools, such as emergency housing for families in need.
She said social workers have recently told her about their frustrations in getting help for families.