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Helpful CAS Workers

August 21, 2008 permalink

Durham Region is publishing a series on children's aid by Jillian Follert. While purporting to tell the truth, it is actually propaganda for social services. It contains the howler:

DCAS executive director Wanda Secord says there is the misconception that the society can swoop in and take children from their homes on a whim or that taking children from their parents is the primary objective -- neither of which is true, she stresses.

In truth, no one would pay any attention to these semi-literate misfits unless they had the power to call the police to take children on whim.



Part 1: A knock at the door

Durham CAS answers 8,000 calls a year, Tue Aug 19, 2008, By Jillian Follert

When should I call CAS?

  • If you are a child under the age of 16 who is being abused or neglected or afraid you will be
  • If you are aware of a child who may have been, or is at risk of being, abused or neglected
  • If you know or suspect a child is being exposed to domestic violence, inadequately supervised, exposed to dangerous people or placed in dangerous situations
  • If you see an unusual or suspicious injury on a child
  • If you’re a teenager experiencing serious conflict in your family
  • If you need help with a pregnancy
  • If you’re a parent overwhelmed by family life and afraid you might take it out on your children

DURHAM -- When Christina heard the knock on her door one sticky August morning in 2006, she thought it was her neighbour returning the hair dryer she had lent her a few hours earlier.

“Or else I never would have answered it,” she said.

The single mother -- who was 26 at the time -- had been anticipating a visit from the Durham Children’s Aid Society (DCAS), after another neighbour in her subsidized south Oshawa apartment building threatened to report Christina’s drug use.

“I was hoping they wouldn’t come for a few days, so I would have time to get everything out of my system,” she says, looking sheepish as she reflects back on that day.

She admits now that her “recreational” use of pot, cocaine and ketamine had spiralled from Friday and Saturday nights to an everyday occurrence.

The visitor that morning was a child protection worker from DCAS.

“When I opened the door my heart was beating so hard, I thought this is it, they’re going to take my kid,” Christina said. “I thought I might never see him again.”

It’s a fear shared by many parents encoutering DCAS for the first time.

DCAS executive director Wanda Secord says there is the misconception that the society can swoop in and take children from their homes on a whim or that taking children from their parents is the primary objective -- neither of which is true, she stresses.

When the phone rings at the DCAS office in Oshawa, it sets off a long, complex process that can take many directions -- from quick advice over the phone to a child swiftly being placed in emergency foster care.

Most cases fall somewhere in the middle.

Matthew Sweet has worked at DCAS for the past four years as a child protection worker and says he likes the job because he can see the positive changes he helps make in people’s lives.

His intake team is one of seven that operate on rotating shifts, either answering calls that come in or being the first responders who go out to assess situations.

He said calls pour in from myriad sources: teachers and principals, neighbours, doctors, relatives, children and sometimes parents themselves looking for support.

Callers are allowed to remain anonymous, because studies show people list fear of retribution as a reason for not reporting suspected abuse.

A survey conducted in Durham Region in 2007 showed 85 per cent of people were aware of the legal duty to report known or suspected child abuse but only 54 per cent said they would report suspected abuse without concrete proof and 60 per cent said they would have difficulty reporting someone they knew.

The survey results indicated the leading reason for not reporting was fear of retribution, while others included not knowing where to call and a belief that the situation is “not my business.”

But many people do call.

Every year, the society fields about 8,000 calls, roughly half of which result in investigations.

In 2006-07, DCAS opened 4,004 new child-protection investigations and had 1,257 children in care.

An estimated 90 per cent of calls fall into six main categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, adult conflict and domestic violence, inadequate supervision and caregiver problems such as drug use.

When a worker answers the phone, he immediately begins collecting information, seeking as many details as possible.

A thick manual called an “eligibility spectrum” guides the process and each call is coded to determine its priority, and discussed with a supervisor to determine the next steps.

For example, life-threatening emergencies are referred to 911. A report of physical abuse by the child’s primary caregiver demands the fastest CAS response time -- a worker is sent out within 12 hours.

Non-emergencies, like parents who are fighting a lot, must be followed up within a week.

And in many cases, a worker doesn’t head out to the home at all. She might give advice over the phone or refer the caller to partner agencies in the community.

“When we do visit a family, there is usually a lot of shock and anxiety,” Mr. Sweet said. “Parents think we’re there to snatch their kids, which might be because they know someone that’s happened to or because of what they see in the media. That’s not what we’re trying to do. If at all possible, we want to keep kids in their homes.”

When he arrives at a home, Mr. Sweet said he starts by speaking to the parents, then interviews the children separately if they are deemed old enough to understand the situation and provide credible information.

If there is no problem, the file is simply closed.

If CAS keeps the file, there are several directions it can take.

The first course of action is a “service contract” -- a list of terms the parents or caregivers agree to, such as a promise to seek counselling or not to fight in front of the kids.

Contracts are usually drawn up for a six-month period, after which time the situation is re-evaluated.

If the family is going to be working with DCAS for more than a month, the file is handed off to a family services worker.

“Even in serious cases, we can try to keep the kids in the home with a service contract as long as we feel the parents are on board,” Mr. Sweet said.

If the parents aren’t receptive to change, there is still the opportunity for the children to stay in the home with a supervision order from the courts -- a more formal, binding version of a service contract.

In cases where the parents aren’t co-operative and there are immediate concerns about the children’s safety, DCAS looks for relatives or friends of the family the children can stay with until things are resolved.

“Only as a last resort do we apprehend,” Mr. Sweet said, using the legal term for taking children into custody.

Mr. Sweet said he has encountered many disturbing situations over the years, but has been particularly struck by the fact that many calls are not what people think of when they think of child abuse.

“It’s not always about kids being hit,” he said. “Emotional abuse can be the most difficult to prove, and it can be the most damaging. Sometimes parents don’t even know they’re doing it.”

Mr. Sweet points to one case where the parents were constantly fighting and yelling at each other. There was no physical violence and the kids weren’t directly involved -- but they were affected.

“It was very clear the kids were struggling emotionally,” he said. “Something like that can impact their self-esteem and cause a lot of anxiety.”

Looking back now, Christina says the knock on her door was a blessing in disguise, because she didn’t realize her drug use was actually a form of child abuse and neglect.

“I was feeding my kid Kool-Aid -- instead of real juice -- and hot dogs every day, because I was spending money on myself and partying. I wasn’t being the kind of mom he should have,” she said.

It also made her re-evaluate how she had changed as a person.

For most of her life, Christina lived on an upscale suburban street in Ajax with a warm family she is still close to today. She got decent grades in high school, worked part-time as a waitress and had started classes at Centennial College with dreams of becoming an advertising executive.

But everything changed when she unexpectedly got pregnant at 19, just two months into her first college semester.

“I had been dating the guy for, like, a month,” she said. “He wasn’t really going to drop everything and be a dad.”

She said not having the baby “wasn’t an option,” and soldiered through the stigma of teenage pregnancy.

She dropped out of school after her son Jacob was born and attempted to work part-time, but found it too overwhelming.

When she applied for social assistance and moved into the subsidized apartment building with its dimly lit hallways and peeling linoleum, she thought it would be temporary.

“I started falling into the lifestyle here,” she said. “It’s all single moms on welfare. No one works, everyone just sits around all day. People are drinking at like 10 in the morning, in the middle of the week.”

It took time for Christina to accept help from DCAS -- she initially denied using drugs and refused to sign a service contract -- a decision that led to her son being sent to live with relatives.

“I felt like (the worker) was looking down on me, thinking here’s this dirty young mom living in south Oshawa,” she said. “I know I was doing bad stuff but I’m not a bad person or a bad mom and I felt like this guy thought I was dirt. He talked to me like I was stupid and judged me because I’m poor.”

But the reality of living without her son was a sobering experience that pushed her to eventually get counselling and rehab at Pinewood Centre.

Today, she has been drug-free for 10 months and is planning to kick cigarettes, too.

Her son is scheduled to be back in her care full time this fall, just in time to start Grade 3.

Editor’s note: This series marks the first time local media have been allowed inside Durham CAS offices to meet staff and talk about how they do their jobs.

The names of parents and children involved with Durham CAS have been changed for this story, to prevent the children from being identified.

This is part one in a four part series about the Durham Childrens Aid Society and the families it serves. The series continues next Friday, Aug. 22 with Part 2: In the system, Friday Aug, 29 with Part 3: Home away from home and Friday Sept. 5 with Part 4: Fighting back.

Source: (consolidates several regional newspapers)

Part 2: In the system

Mon Aug 25, 2008, By Jillian Follert

Rebecca Owen
Walter Passarella / Metroland OSHAWA --
Rebecca Owen is a Family Services Worker with the Durham Region Children's Aid Society. July 2, 2008

Editor's note: This series marks the first time local media have been allowed inside Durham CAS offices to meet staff and talk about how they do their jobs.

The names of parents and children involved with Durham CAS have been changed for this story, to prevent the children from being identified.

DURHAM -- For 10 months, Heather lived waiting for the phone calls.

Once a week, the Durham Children's Aid Society (DCAS) would call and from that moment, she would have 24 hours to get to a clinic on King Street in Oshawa and submit to a drug test.

"It was scary for them to have that much control over my life and to know that they had the power to come in any time and take my kids," the 28-year-old said. "But it was what I had to do.".

Random drug screening was just one of the items on a service contract she signed with DCAS last year. The contracts are the first step CAS workers take in an attempt to help parents or caregivers get back on track. They might include promises to seek counselling and rehab, submit to drug tests or stop negative behaviour like yelling or name calling.

Heather's dealings with DCAS started when she was involved in a domestic dispute while her son, who was less than a year old at the time, was in the house.

"I wasn't a bad parent but I was mixed up with the wrong guy and the wrong friends and drugs," she said. "I had a bad attitude and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to be a parent."

Her kids stayed with friends and relatives while she pulled things together and today, Heather has her son, now 1 1/2, and nine-year-old daughter back in her care and has been clean for seven months, thanks to a rigourous plan set out by her DCAS workers.

Anonymous calls to CAS

Like many other CAS clients, Heather is deeply concerned by the fact DCAS and other Children's Aid Societies accept anonymous calls reporting potential child abuse or neglect.

Several anonymous callers have called DCAS to report her, she said, and she contends some of them were unfounded and simply malicious -- she is one of more than 200 people to join a recent Facebook group called "Stop Malicious Calls to CAS and Ontario Works."

Heather said anyone making a legitimate call should have no problem leaving their name and phone number and that anyone found to be making a malicious call should face criminal charges, because of the disruptive impact it has on families and the permanent stigma they are left with.

DCAS officials say anonymous calls are vital, because recent studies show "fear of retribution" as the most common reason people don't report suspected abuse -- and they stress investigators are able to quickly weed out unfounded allegations.

"There are cases where anonymous calls are malicious," said DCAS child protection worker Matthew Sweet, noting that parents in bitter custody disputes and neighbours embroiled in conflicts with each other are common culprits. "That's why we have good phone screeners. They're very careful. If the call is vague they ask for details to flesh out the facts. And, they're able to cut through to the real issues and not get caught up in concerns that aren't related to child protection."

When it comes to the safety of a child, the society always errs on the side of caution, he said.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

Heather said she liked some of the workers assigned to her case, including her current long-term case worker, but found others to be intimidating and judgmental.

"Some of them looked down on me; they made me feel little," she said.

And Heather was overwhelmed by the process, saying she didn't know what her rights were and that no one volunteered that information until she finally broke down and got a lawyer.

"The second I got a lawyer, it seemed like CAS backed off with a lot of their threats and I felt more confident," she said. "I found out things I didn't know. Like, I didn't know I could talk to a lawyer about my service contract before I signed it."

Things are better these days. Heather has moved into her own place, changed her friends and is getting along well with her family services worker, who helps by bringing her food vouchers and clothes for the kids.

It's the kind of relationship Rebecca Owen tries to have with her clients.

As a family services worker with DCAS, she takes over files from intake workers after about 30 days and works with families long-term, providing support, referrals and a watchful eye.

She typically has between 19 and 22 families on her plate at one time, visiting each a minimum of once a month and more often if needed.

During those visits she might check that the terms of existing service contracts are being met, draw up new contracts, refer clients to services in the community and just generally take stock of life in the home.

Files stay open anywhere from a month or two, to several years for complex issues like mental illness or addictions.

"These aren't bad people, they're usually just average families going through a difficult time and need support," said Ms. Owen, who has worked in the field for eight years and at DCAS for three. "We don't just go in looking for what might be wrong. We identify the strengths the parents and families have and customize our service to reflect that."

And while DCAS staff like Ms. Owen typically encounter a family after the crisis of the first intervention has passed, the relationship with clients can still be rocky -- a fact Ms. Owen attributes mainly to negatives stereotypes of the society.

"The second you hear 'Children's Aid Society,' the family is judged as child abusers and the agency is judged as baby snatchers," she said. "It's hard to fight that belief. But as workers, we try to be ambassadors and just keep communicating the fact we're here to help and support families."

Ms. Owen also stresses workers like herself and her colleagues in intake don't make decisions on a whim. They are constantly consulting with supervisors and the entire agency is mandated by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services and works under the guidelines of the Child and Family Services Act.

"There are a million checks and balances," she said.

Even with all these assurances, Heather is still of two minds when it comes to her feelings on DCAS.

She wishes her rights were more clearly explained, that anonymous calls (see sidebar) were scrapped and that some workers were more compassionate. But overall, she is glad the society came into her life.

"This experience has taught me to look at my priorities and put my kids first," she said. "For that reason, I'd say it was positive overall."

This is Part 2 in a four-part series about the Durham Children's Aid Society and the families it serves. The series continues next Friday, Aug. 29, with Part 3: Home away from home and concludes Friday, Sept. 5, with Part 4: Fighting back.

Source: (consolidates several regional newspapers)

Durham CAS: Heartache and Healing

Part 3: Home away from home

August 28, 2008

DURHAM -- For many empty-nesters, the silence and extra space left behind when adult children leave home are things to savour.

But June and Ashwin Parmer didn't feel that way after their four kids grew up and moved on.

"We couldn't have imagined how strange it would be when the place was empty," Ms. Parmer said. "You work hard all your life to have this home. What good is it to be dusting all these empty rooms that no one's using? It's not a home without children in it."â?¨ So eight years ago, the Clarington couple took the plunge and applied to the Durham Children's Aid Society (DCAS) to become foster parents.

They went through initial training that covered things like first aid and CPR, nutrition and behaviour management, and they're still taking classes and workshops today.

What does it take to be a foster parent in Durham?

You must:

  • Live in Durham Region
  • Be at least 21 years old
  • Be in good general health
  • Be financially self-sufficient
  • Have no criminal record or charges pending
  • Have stable family relationships, including being with or without a partner for at least two years
  • Have the consent of all immediate family members.
  • Have an approved home with adequate living and sleeping space for a child
  • Demonstrate the ability to carry out essential parenting duties and be willing to learn new skills and do ongoing training
  • Be sensitive to the cultural differences and backgrounds of children in care
  • Be willing to work toward the child's future, whether it is the child's return home or another permanent plan, such as adoption

The Parmers started fostering gradually, taking in just one child at a time to provide relief care for other foster parents on weekends.

Up to four children between the ages of three and 12 can now be cared for at one time, in their home with its backyard swing set, children's bedrooms and playroom stocked with toys and art supplies.

Some stay for days and weeks, others for years.

No matter the length of their stay, foster kids in the Parmer home are immediately folded into the household routine, which means family dinners, set bedtimes, limited television and church on Sundays -- if the children and their parents are OK with it.

DCAS makes an effort to match children with a foster family that reflects their cultural and religious values, but if that's not possible, children aren't forced to participate in anything that makes them uncomfortable.

When children first arrive at their door, the Parmers are careful to offer smiles and plenty of personal space -- no hugs or personal questions. The kids call the couple by their first names, to make sure there is no implication of parental roles being taken over.

Mr. Parmer said the most important thing foster parents can do is provide stability, reassurance and a listening ear.

"Self-esteem is a big thing," he said. "Kids come to us for various reasons. We just try to accept them for who they are and make them feel good about their strengths,"

DCAS has about 900 children in the foster system, with 260 families in Durham Region providing care.

Children are taken into foster care through two avenues -- voluntary agreements, which can last no longer than 12 months and can be terminated by the parents or CAS at any time -- and court orders.

Court-ordered foster care includes temporary care during the adjournment of a child protection hearing, society wardship, which lasts up to 24 months and sees parents retain access rights, and Crown wardship, in which the child is made a permanent ward of the Crown and a CAS has the rights and responsibilities of a parent until the child is 18.

While in foster care, children generally maintain regular contact with their biological parents through phone calls, visits at the DCAS office or visits home.

"We often wonder if the parents feel threatened by us," Ms. Parmer mused. "Because there's no need to. We aren't out to take their kids from them. We want to give them some space so they can fix things and be a family again."

But some parents do fear or resent the foster caregivers their children are sent to stay with, and no matter how welcoming a foster home is, there is still the concern that children are still being sent to live with strangers.

"I didn't really know what it would be like, but I don't like living with them," said 12-year-old Megan, an Oshawa girl who was sent to live with a foster family this past spring. "They're not very nice. They don't let me eat enough because they say I'm an emotional eater, and I feel left out because all the other kids in their family are older and they don't want to do anything with me."

She landed in the foster home after her mother, Connie, called DCAS looking for help.

The pair just moved to Oshawa this year, and Connie said she didn't know where to turn when her daughter started acting out.

"She was smoking, lying, running away from home, things like that," Connie said. "I'm a single mom, I'm usually not home from work until 7 or 8 at night, and I was having a hard time dealing with everything. I called CAS to see if I could get a worker assigned to help us get some resources and counselling."

Connie said DCAS asked her to sign a six-month service contract, which she did, but feels things went off the rails when the agency then recommended her daughter go into foster care temporarily -- a condition Megan says she agreed to without fully understanding what it would be like.

"I was doing track and field at school and the principal came out and said my worker was here to see me," she recalls. "They said they were taking me away to a foster family, and that I couldn't even go home to get my stuff first."â?¨ Megan said she was upset she had to switch schools for a month and a half, because her foster family lives in another municipality, and was also surprised that the family took her to their Pentecostal church, when she is a practising Catholic.

Connie will be back in court in September to attempt to regain full custody of her daughter, and said that day can't come soon enough.

"My daughter already has emotional issues and this is just making her more confused and upset," she said. "I only called CAS because it says on their website they will help parents and be an advocate for them to get into programs. I didn't know that asking for help could end up like this."

This is Part 3 in a four-part series about the Durham Children's Aid Society and the families it serves. The series continues next Friday, Sept. 5, with Part 4: Fighting back.

Note: Thanks to a generous reader we know that the print article, but not the web version, included a picture of the featured foster parents.

Ashwin and June Parmer
Ashwin and June Parmer are foster parents with the Durham Region Children's Aid Society.

Source: (consolidates several regional newspapers)

careers for misfits