The state vs parents: the playing field is even less level for some than for others

I am really happy I am not a CAS worker. Frankly, I don’t want the responsibility; I would be too afraid of making the wrong call. What if I removed kids from their home when it wasn’t really necessary? What if I left kids in their home and something terrible happened?

There is no shortage of such stories: parents investigated because of a malicious report, their lives and the lives of their children turned upside down; children left in unsafe situations who suffer serious harm and even death. It is a balancing act to sort these stories out, and the stakes are high for everyone, especially children.

It is easy and maybe somewhat unfair to be a critic from the outside, but it is hard not to be critical of a system that has a lot of state-mandated power and that seems to fail children and families so often.

The shameful legacy continues

Anyone who follows the news in this country will know that Indigenous children are taken into care at an extremely high rate – they make up 15% of children in care in Canada even though Indigenous peoples make up just 3% of the population. As Shawn Atleo, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations said:

“There are more First Nation children in care today than during the height of residential schools.”

No one knows this better than Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitskan First Nation and a social worker with more than 25 years of experience in child protection and Indigenous children’s rights.

Appearing before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in March of this year to call on the federal government to provide equitable funding for child protection services on reserves, Ms Blackstock had this to say:

“Canada is saying it’s above the law, it doesn’t owe First Nations children equality in this country. I think it’s a sad day for the nation.”

The power of money

CAS involvement sometimes reflects a class bias, likely because many of its workers are middle class and, wittingly or not, impose those biases on the families they investigate. Behaviours that may not be ideal for children but go unnoticed in financially secure and stable families become the basis for an investigation and possible removal of children in families living in poverty.

As Martin Guggenheim, a law professor at New York University, said in a recent article in The New Yorker:

“[O]n the privileged side of town in all parts of America, children are raised by drunks, by drug addicts, by violent people. . . . Equality requires that we give the same freedom to underprivileged children as we give to privileged children – to be raised by crappy parents.”

And then there’s family violence

The approach of child protection authorities to situations of family violence – long a source of tension and disagreement between violence against women advocates/service providers and children’s aid societies — also needs to be looked at critically.

There is little doubt that it is not good for children to be exposed to the ongoing abuse of their mother by their father/her partner. But is the full weight of the child protection system – usually deployed against the mother, herself a victim – the best way to make life better for the kids? And why has the system been set up so that the interests of mothers and their children appear to be in conflict with one another?

By and large, the women I work with are very concerned about their children’s safety and well-being. Sometimes, they feel it is safer for them and their kids to stay with the abuser, and they may be right. Sometimes, they want to leave but cannot find affordable housing or cannot get an appropriate custody order or cannot get any court – family or criminal – to take their evidence of abuse seriously.

And yet, if a CAS worker determines that the children are at risk of harm because of being exposed to the abuse of their mother, that worker will too often find the mother at fault and warn her that her children will be taken away from her if she does not leave the abuser.

Changing direction

Rather than creating a climate of fear, in which women do not seek assistance because they think their children will be taken away from them, would it not make more sense to start by listening to the mother, finding out what she needs to keep herself and her kids safe, and then providing those supports while holding the abuser accountable for the harm his behaviour is causing to the children and their mother?

To return to Martin Guggenheim:

“We need to understand that destroying the parent-child relationship is among the highest form of state violence. It should be cabined and guarded like a nuclear weapon. You use it when you must.”

Or, as Cindy Blackstock said:

“Why would it ever be okay to give a child less than other children?”

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