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Powerful As God

September 16, 2011 permalink

Powerful As God

Esther Buckareff's documentary movie Powerful As God opened to an invitation-only audience of about a hundred people on September 15. Following the showing a panel of persons appearing in the movie answered questions from the audience. It is the most powerful document produced so far on the abuses committed by Ontario's children's aid societies. The movie is structured as a conversation between participants, moving from topic to topic. Persons shown range from parents and children separated by CAS to foster parents, a family lawyer and opposition MPP Rosario Marchese. Sadly, none of the people involved in running the child protection system, either at the agency or ministerial level, agreed to appear on camera.

The entire movie should become available for viewing on the internet on September 17 through Esther's website blakout.ca. The press release follows.

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Media Advisory - Documentary Penetrates the Shroud of Secrecy Concerning Ontario's Children's Aid Societies

TORONTO, Sept. 15, 2011 /CNW/ - Media are invited to attend a closed screening of Powerful as God - The Children's Aid Societies of Ontario, on September 15, 2011, 7 p.m. at the Royal Cinema in Toronto, during the final week of TIFF.

Powerful as God reveals how the agency has wielded legislation, intended to protect vulnerable lives, as a weapon to tear communities apart and deflect from social and financial accountability with a public that enables it. This documentary also uncovers an urgent systemic matter, critically affecting the lives of thousands of children and families from every income, cultural and religious community in the province.

As an academic research work produced in the Documentary Media (MFA) program at Ryerson University, it incorporates thirteen experts (family lawyers from both sides, doctors, social workers, elected politicians) and thirteen witnesses (foster parents, group-home worker, natural parents, adopter, former foster children, etc.) from across Ontario who speak openly about their experience with the agency.

The director and witnesses will be in attendance to receive questions after the film. The film will be available for free to the public, through the website, www.blakout.ca on September 17, 2011.

Closed Screening Details:

Film:
Powerful as God - The Children's Aid Societies of Ontario
Director:    
Esther Buckareff
Time:
75 min.
Date:
Thursday, September 15, 2011, 7pm (doors open at 6:30pm)
Location:
Royal Cinema , 608 College St. West, Toronto, Ontario

This is a closed screening to media and by invitation only.

To RSVP, please email rsvp@blakout.ca with your name, media affiliation and number of attendants.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBlBkMgwglk

For further information:
Esther Buckareff
director@blakout.ca

Source: CNW

Addendum: Watch the entire movie on Esther's website, Powerful As God. When uploaded, this will be our local copy (mp4).

Addendum: A review by Robert Franklin:

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Ontario Children’s Aid Society Shows the Error of Greater CPS Power

Those who argue for greater powers for child protection agencies to take children from parents should watch this video.

The last piece I posted quoted Arizona columnist Laurie Roberts urging CPS there to remove more children from parents in the misguided belief that doing so would help children. It’s true that, in the instances she cited from the past 19 years, it probably would have helped, but she’s not pretending that CPS can always know which child will be injured or killed and which one won’t be. So of necessity, Roberts’ argument is for more children to be taken from their parents.

We don’t need to imagine what this enormous expansion of CPS’s power to break up families might look like. We need only watch the linked-to video and see what’s happening in the Province of Ontario and its Children’s Aid Society.

The video is an hour and fifteen minutes long. It consists almost entirely of bits of interviews with various people. It’s an impressionistic approach and includes no pro-CAS voices. So the video isn’t a scientific inquiry into the behavior of Ontario CAS. It’s a litany of the experiences of the people interviewed.

But the variety of interviewees gives the piece definite heft. It’s not just a series of horror stories by parents who claim CAS violated their rights, although there are some of those. The people interviewed are also lawyers who’ve opposed CAS and those who’ve represented CAS in court. There are doctors and mental health professionals, many of whom used to work for CAS. There are social workers formerly with CAS and, most tellingly, there are adults who, as children, were taken from their parents and placed in foster care.

Like any good work of Impressionism, each individual part of the whole is insignificant, almost meaningless, but step back and the whole picture comes into focus. Unlike many works of Impressionism however, there’s nothing beautiful about the picture of CAS drawn by this video.

It’s a picture we’ve seen before. It’s a picture of an agency with very nearly unbridled power. Indeed, the title of the piece is “Powerful As God,” which you might think is a little over the top until, late in the film, you realize that it’s a direct quotation from a CAS case worker informing a desperate parent just what she was up against.

It’s all there and then some. There are the parents blinded by rage at their children being taken from them for no legitimate reason. There’s the IT Engineer who’s son was taken from him and his wife because their housecleaner reported an unclean house to CAS. And there’s the grandmother who tapped a teacher on the shoulder at school, was charged with assault and had her grandkids, of whom she had custody, taken from her. There’s the mom who says “I did nothing wrong.” There’s the mother who admits to cocaine use, but, after being clean for five years still couldn’t convince CAS to give her child back.

It’s no accident that CAS overreaches so dramatically. Money fuels the process. CAS is paid according to how many children it takes “into care,” i.e. from parents. Clearly enough, that establishes an incentive to do just that. After all, faced with leaving a child with its parents and losing money, or taking a child and making it, the choice isn’t difficult. And caseworkers are acutely aware that jobs depend on budgets, so when budgets depend on taking children from parents, well, you can guess what happens.

The subject of case workers is fraught with conflicting aims and motivations. To me, one of the most chilling moments comes early in the film when one mother describes CAS coming for her children and they were smiling. As she points out, what kind of person smiles when they do what should be one of the most heart-rending tasks imaginable?

On the other hand, a nurse who worked with CAS described seeing a social worker with the agency sitting at a table weeping because she didn’t see how she could continue doing a job that was so divorced from actual child well-being. The combination of the two - the smiling and the weeping case workers - says to me that, at CAS, the humane ones don’t last. The ones who do, smile when they come for your children.

Any parent who challenges CAS in court confronts a radical imbalance of power. Attorney Michael Clarke emphasizes that, alone among all agencies of government, CAS has the power of search and seizure, the ability to question children without their parents being present and, above all the power to take a parent’s child. Just how large a stick that is, he makes clear. Parents will do virtually anything CAS wants to avoid that outcome.

CAS often targets the poorest parents which means that when they get into court, the parent is usually unrepresented or has a public defender. Meanwhile, CAS has essentially unlimited resources of attorneys, mental health professionals and the money to pay them. It also has time on its side since, in most cases, children have been taken into care and it’s the parents who are trying to regain them.

Callie Langfeld is now an adult, but when she was a child, she was taken from her mother by CAS. She couldn’t tell her story then, but now she can. She says when CAS first talked to her, caseworkers “railroaded” her into care telling her how dangerous her family was. Once in foster care, though, Langfeld learned just how dangerous a family could be. She says she was sexually and physically abused, but when her real mother contacted CAS, she was told “there’s nothing we can do.”

Langfeld reports that her foster mother apparently wanted her for the work she could do around the house. At age 13, she did essentially all the housework including cooking and caring for the mother’s two younger children.

Another young man, George Gilbeau, reports physical and sexual abuse in the foster home in which CAS placed him.

Lawyers, children and parents alike report a particularly wicked strategy used by CAS to separate parents from children. Parents are told that their child doesn’t want to be with them; children are told that their parents don’t want them. Those messages, combined with the prohibition by CAS against any communication between parents and children can be highly effective at separating children from their parents.

I highly recommend this video. I’ll post more about it later.

Thanks to Attila for the heads-up.

Source: Fathers and Families


Children’s Aid Society: ‘Powerful as God’

There’s more to say about the video entitled “Powerful as God” on the Ontario Children’s Aid Society. That’s primarily because there’s a movement afoot, in Arizona at least, to vest still more power in child welfare agencies for the specific purpose of taking more children from families.

As I said in my previous piece, sometimes there’s a good reason to take children from parents. Some parents, sadly, are dangerous to their children, through either their abuse or neglect of them. But there’s also a reason why CPS agencies have, as part of their mandate, family reunification. That’s mainly because biological parents tend to be better parents than any other person or collection of people. A wealth of social science has shown that for decades.

So it’s worth seeing the reality of what people who urge greater family destruction by CPS are really arguing for. I don’t doubt that people like Laurie Roberts want children protected from harm. But their naive belief that ever more children consigned to foster care by overworked, underpaid and undertrained CPS workers will solve the problem is misguided at best.

And that’s just what the video documentary “Powerful as God” shows - the direction in which Roberts and others would have us go.

Like most bureaucratic institutions, Ontario’s CAS prefers to act in secrecy. It calls it “confidentiality,” and it justifies the curtain behind which it acts as necessary for the well-being of the children it takes into care. But, as one interviewee points out, the secrecy is far more for the protection of CAS and its case workers than for the children. After all, when a child is taken from a parent who’s done little or nothing wrong, and is turned over to a foster mother who tries to drown him, or one who sexually abuses her, CAS could look bad.

So secrecy serves to keep those cases from scrutiny by a public that might not understand the need to take the child in the first place. Of course, the better to recruit public sentiment to its side, CAS often ignores its rules about “confidentiality.” It does so when there’s a case that makes it look good and in those, it not only publicizes the case, it names names.

According to the video, a salient feature of CAS’s worldview is that of adversary, i.e. the bunker mentality of “us against the world.” Like the matter of secrecy, that mostly serves to protect the agency against questioning by irate parents, lawyers, judges and the like. Protection for children is secondary.

So, much of what CAS case workers do is with an eye toward possible litigation. And when that inevitably happens, CAS circles the wagons and defends its actions, whatever they may have been. A case in which a child’s welfare is involved then, becomes a case not of what’s best for the child, but one of how best to justify what CAS did or failed to do.

As Alfred Mamo, an attorney who has represented CAS in court, said, that process “has nothing to do with parenting.” What’s best for the children gets lost in the antagonism of legal charge and countercharge.

That concept of their jobs as part of permanent litigation against them and CAS leads, unsurprisingly, to illegal and unethical behavior on the part of case workers. One attorney said he’s “seen it too many times” that case workers have suppressed evidence and perjured themselves to defend their actions toward a child. “Cross examination to a case worker is like garlic to a vampire,” he said.

Inevitably, the implicit threat of lawsuits skews not only what case workers testify to, but how they conduct individual cases. Thus, a case worker may choose not to interview a particular person if she suspects that person won’t support what the case worker did or wants to do with a child. In that way, contradictory evidence never makes it into the child’s file. But of course that evidence also doesn’t make it into the case worker’s assessment of whether or not to take a child into care.

That absence of a concept of the child’s welfare carries over into all aspects of CAS’s day-to-day behavior. As one parent who was having trouble dealing with her ADHD child said, “No one ever asked ‘how can we help you?” The “solution” to all parenting problems is foster care.

And as lawyers, parents and former CAS case workers point out, that’s a curious approach to child welfare. One of the lawyers interviewed said that a foster parent in Ontario gets $30 a day for a child; that’s $900 a month. As several of the interviewees point out, maybe that money would be better spent helping parents deal with specific issues of childcare.

So maybe Parent A is struggling with an ADHD child. Why not connect that parent with a professional who can help? Could that be done for $900 a month? You bet it could, but CAS has one solution for every problem - foster care.

Of course there are cases of child injury and abuse that won’t be helped by that sort of intervention. There will always be a need for foster care. But Ontario CAS, like many similar institutions in the U.S., often errs on the side of family break-up rather than family unity. The point is that money spent on foster care could often be better spent to assist parents become better at the important job they’re trying to do.

After all, as former CAS social worker Tammis Smith said, the research showing that kids do better in foster care than in parental care is “missing.”

Misconceptions about what foster care really consists of abound. Many people believe that children taken into foster care go to healthy families with a mother and a father. Sometimes they do, but often they go to group homes in which many children are thrown together under the care, not of one set of parents, but of employees of the home.

One such former employee, Nick, said that group homes are strictly money-making operations. If one child goes back to its parents, that means a loss of income that must be made up by the addition of another child. Empty beds mean lost jobs and empty wallets.

Putting many unrelated children together can always lead to difficulties, but when many of those children have behavioral problems, a bad situation gets much worse. For that, the group homes have a handy solution - medication. One psychologist who used to work with CAS said that, in her experience, “almost every child in group homes” is on some sort of psychotropic medication.

“It’s all about control,” echoed Nick, the former group home worker.

What pretty much everyone in the video agrees on is that CAS should dispense with its self-protective secrecy and open its decision making to public scrutiny. That’s certainly a good idea. Public institutions that operate out of sight of the public that pays every cent of their operating budgets, invariably abuse the privilege, so greater openness is indeed required.

On that note, it’s interesting that one of Laurie Roberts’ pet peeves is that Arizona CPS refuses to turn over records in various cases to her or the Arizona Republic newspaper. In other words, it’s behaving the way any governmental institution cloaked in secrecy behaves. And rightly, Roberts is unhappy about it. Like any journalist, she thinks the public has the right to know what its servants are up to.

So it’s odd to say the least that she calls for more of the same - greater power for CPS to break up families would mean all the things the people in “Powerful as God” complain of, including greater secrecy. After all, CPS in Arizona wouldn’t want enraged parents going to a newspapers with their stories, now would it.

Source: Fathers and Families

Addendum: As part of her project Esther produced this thesis (pdf). One theme is the reluctance of functionaries of the child protection system to participate in the film. Esther dealt with this problem earlier in Camera Shy, expand for her thesis essay on the topic.

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One of the greatest hurdles for conducting diligent research was overcoming barriers to critical information by Executives Directors whose agencies had been named by witnesses (and occasionally by experts) as causing grave injury to either the advocate, the children in care, or both. One such example was a request made to the College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers to supply a statistic of registered social workers employed by the CAS. A common grievance from witnesses was the incompetence of a social worker that damaged the witness’ or the child’s life by abusing their power. Subsequently, it was commonly held by witnesses that social workers employed by the CAS have no professional training in social work, and thus lack the professionalism that a trained social worker might exhibit. Employment listings by the CAS on job boards also supported this claim. To explore the validity of this theory, in mid-February 2011, an informal phone conversation with the College’s office manager was held. The manager, who also handles requests by the public to provide data from the register, helpfully explained that the register was kept in an off-line database managed by one IT professional, and that he would require two weeks to retrieve the statistic. Though the request required a mere sorting of the database tables and a printout, there was already a queue of requests for information by the public and that she, herself, would be on holiday for two weeks and could not follow up sooner. On March 23, 2011, when a call was placed to Glenda McDonald, the Executive Director and Registrar at the College, to follow up on an unrelated matter regarding an interview request to discuss the value of social workers in the workforce and the mandate of the College, Ms. McDonald responded by saying, “Oh, I know you. You asked the college to compile the number of registered social workers employed by the Children’s Aid. Well, I have that information but I’m not going to give it to you without more information on your project.” Ms. McDonald then expressed concern that the statistic would “be abused” and that she would have to think about whether or not to release it. After having the project information resent to her a second time, she clarified her statement regarding the statistic in an email,

Please be assured that I am not unwilling to release the information to you. However, it is my responsibility to ensure that it is as accurate as possible, conforms with the purpose of your research project and is released in accordance with College policies. Please be advised that the information has not yet been compiled and in accordance with College policy, only the Registrar can release this information.

The information was never provided and when a FIPPA request was made to the governing Ministry for the statistic, the request was returned as stating, “the ministry has determined access cannot be provided as the records do not exist.” Given the conversations with the office manager, followed by a conversation and correspondence with Ms. McDonald the Registrar, and knowing that a register containing social workers and their corresponding employers actually exists, by stating this data does not exist, both the Ministry and the College demonstrate either gross incompetence or they lied. In the film, lawyers who discuss the behaviour of CAS social workers express a similar opinion about their actions toward children and advocates, and their testimony in court. They are perceived as being liars, incompetent or both.

Given the degree of power these individuals exert over a subservient public, their actions contradict the democratic model of participation and collaboration when they hide behind a wall of secrecy and isolation. Subsequently, their actions often contradict the public’s best interests, and can be oppressive and damaging to human life. Not being elected members of government, the potential for the abuse of power without accountability is enormous; the time-frame for the abuse also transcends the short-term employment of their publicly elected bosses. Executive Directors of government agencies were contacted in the same way as the contributing experts, through an email with a description of the project and a request for an on-camera interview. Warner might classify the prompt responses of the bureaucrats as curiosity and gossip. Curious about the project and how their agency plays a role, both Lucy McSweeney, Executive Lawyer for the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL) and Irwin Elman, Executive Director and Child Advocate for the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth responded promptly and conducted lengthy phone conversations regarding their agency’s mandate and the documentary.

The OCL represents children who are apprehended by the CAS. A grievance arising from both children and parents was that the lawyer from the OCL did not represent the child’s wishes and that they more often sided with the CAS than provided honest and adequate representation to the child. Ms. McSweeney agreed to conduct an on-camera interview to address this concern, if questions and transcript notations were sent to her ahead in order to allow her to adequately prepare. Though the document mirrored the phone conversation, the interview was promptly cancelled after the document was sent. Conversely, concern with the Child’s Advocacy Office involved the Advocate's lack of authority when dealing with the CAS. Once a child is in care (at a group-home or foster home), they are no longer represented by the OCL. If that child is in danger, who or what entity outside of CAS can advocate for them and remove them from this danger when the parent or guardian is denied access? Both Ms. McSweeney and Mr. Irwin agreed by phone that this was an issue. Further, as the only legal authority outside CAS permitted to access the child, how does a child in either foster care or a group-home even know the Child Advocate exists or how to resource them if they’re in trouble? These questions were discussed in conversation with Mr. Elman who expressed the same concerns and heartedly agreed to an on-camera interview. The interview was rescheduled three times and on the third time his assistant stated that the consent form had not been thoroughly investigated by their “team of lawyers” – a consent form that protects the witness, allows the witness to request the footage not be shown in public if it does not represent their intended position, a consent that is also approved by Ryerson’s Ethics Review Board, and one that Mr. Elman had received weeks earlier. During the phone conversation with Mr. Elman, he also mentioned that the Thunder Bay CAS had served him with a law-suit after speaking out on public radio, and that he was absolutely not concerned with any law suits that prohibited him from speaking out on behalf of children. The reason for cancelling the interview was clearly a contradiction to the facts. Isolation through secrecy proved to be a common strategy by agencies and their directors to absolve themselves from accountability and mask truth. This work aspires to demonstrate truth and reality through the collaboration and participation of its publics. Therefore, members of the greater public, who chose to isolate themselves, became of no consequence to this work because their lack of contribution is demonstrative of the lies and deception the public already suspects of them through the actions of their agency.

Addendum: Esther posted a story by social worker Denise with a local copy, actually a negative review of her movie. The most revealing sentences are:

As far as apprehending kids, it was very traumatic for me and my co-workers when this needed to happen. We would spend time debriefing and supporting each other for those difficult times. Most of my colleagues were very shaken up and upset if they needed to apprehend kids. It was very common that we would support teammates after they needed to take such a step. At times, other staff would do the apprehension since we found it so hard to apprehend after we had built a supportive relationship with the parent.

There is no hint of support for the real victims of apprehension, the bereaved parents and children. This warped view, that the main trauma of apprehension falls on social workers, appears also in a self-serving academic report Getting Over the “Magical Hump" by researchers affiliated with Wilfred Laurier University.

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