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Families Apart

October 15, 2009 permalink

A Lanark mother who lost her daughter is organizing for reform of children's aid.



Woman pushes for CAS reform

Organization needs to be more accountable and provide supports and counselling, says Lanark Highlands woman

The children’s aid society should be a resource to help keep families together, not tear them apart, says a Lanark Highlands Township mother whose child was removed from her home.

Sarah, who asked to keep her last name private due to domestic violence issues with a former partner, is starting an advocacy group called Families Apart in Lanark, which she says will promote fairness and accountability of the Children’s Aid Society of the County of Lanark and the Town of Smiths Falls, an organization she called “authoritative and impulsive.”

Sarah said she feels the CAS has too much power and little accountability, since the Ontario Ombudsman does not have jurisdiction to oversee children’s aid societies.

“They take your children away on allegations,” she said. “In my mind, it is a clear violation of Charter rights. “It has a disastrous effect on the family unit,” she said.

Families Apart in Lanark could be the groundwork for a forum where people can access a support network outside of the CAS, Sarah said. A mentorship program is another dream; Sarah envisions

partnerships where young mothers could pair up with experienced parents to share skills.

“That is empowerment,” she said.

She plans to launch a website soon, and is considering charging a small fee for membership that would be used to establish a legal fund to help families pay for lawyers to represent them in child protection court.

Suzanne Geoffrion, the executive director of the Lanark children’s aid society, said, “I couldn’t agree with her more that the most harmful thing is separating a family,” adding that the safety of each child is the CAS’s top priority.

Sarah said CAS workers removed her eight-year-old daughter from her home in June due to what CAS workers deemed an unsafe environment created by Sarah’s ex-partner. The daughter is now living with Sarah’s parents. Sarah said the CAS removed her child without any attempt to offer counseling or resources to help her keep her family together and encourage strong parenting skills.

Margo Bell, the community outreach co-ordinator for the Lanark children’s aid society, said the organization offers a lot of supportive programs for families and works to connect parents with other organizations and service agencies that can help families, such as the Ontario Early Years Centre, Tri- County Addiction Services and the health unit. Bell said she “would find it surprising” that a client wasn’t directed toward resources that would help her keep her child.

Geoffrion said the CAS operates under strict conditions, including a Ontario Child Welfare Eligibility Spectrum that is very clear in how child protection workers determine how serious a situation is. Information gathered in a child welfare case needs to stand up to the scrutiny of child protection court. If a worker feels a child is unsafe in his or her home, a team including a manager and a supervisor meet to discuss the case before the child can be removed from the home.

Sarah’s daughter’s case is just one occurrence in a long history of mishandled child welfare cases she has been involved with, Sarah said. She was the sole care provider for her ex-partner’s children when he was unable to care for them, even though the CAS deemed her unfit to supervise her own children, she said. She said the CAS provided documents containing her address to her ex partner, whom she had a restraining order against. Sarah said she has initiated most of her contact with the CAS, because she has approached the organization for help several times while dealing with a stepson who abused her daughter. She has 16 incidences on her case file, and while she said nine or 10 of them are times she requested assistance from the CAS, the number of incidences – not the reason behind each call – is being held against her in her current situation with her daughter.

“I contacted them for advocacy and they backstabbed me,” she said. “I have been ignored by the CAS ... why did they let me slip through the cracks?”

The local CAS served 450 families in 2006/07, with 140 children in care. It received 706 calls that required no investigation and 520 cases were closed because no further protection was needed. Forty full-time child protection workers work an average of 20 open files at a time, Geoffrion said, which is close to the provincial average.

Oversight for children’ aid societies lies with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which is responsible for conducting Crown ward reviews, service and financial reviews, licensing foster care and residential programs and reviewing fatality and serious incidence reports. In all other provinces but Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario, the ombudsman can review child welfare agencies, a point of contention that was highlighted in a June report delivered by Ontario Ombudsman, Andre Marin. In reference to the MUSH sector (municipalities, universities, school boards, hospitals and long-term care homes, children’s aid societies, and police), he stated: “Ontario continues to lag far behind other provinces in allowing Ombudsman oversight of these areas, which consume the bulk of government spending.”

In June of 2008, Queen’s Park heard the first reading of a private member’s bill (Bill 93) tabled by Hamilton East MPP Andrea Horwath. The bill aims to allow the ombudsman to investigate children’s aid societies.

CAS records are not available to the public, since they are private corporations, and most information is kept strictly confidential to protect children’s safety and privacy, Geoffrion said.

"Unfortunately it hides our work,” she said. “It mystifies it a bit.”

Sarah sees it another way. She says the tight privacy controls are a way for the CAS to hide its operations from public scrutiny.

“Why are they hiding?” she asked. “They are putting it under the guise of the rights of the child ... abusers use fear and secrets, and it’s the same thing the CAS uses.”

The Child and Family Services Act, which governs children’s aid societies, requires that each children’s aid society has a complaint procedure to allow clients to express concerns.

If you are interested in joining or learning more about Families Apart in Lanark, contact Sarah through Rev. Shirley Abrahamse Bradley at 613-267- 4652, or by calling 613-257-1215.

Source: Smiths Falls This Week