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Handle with Care

January 28, 2014 permalink

The Regina Leader-Post ran a six-part series Handle with Care detailing child deaths in Saskatchewan. It is not included here because it aggregates children harmed in provincial care with children harmed in their own homes. Part three, by a reporter who spent a day in a courtroom, is enclosed.



Handle with Care Part 3: 'The children are often lost'

Twenty years. Hundreds of deaths. Our exclusive six-part examination of Saskatchewan's child welfare system continues

Handle with Care part 3
Photograph by: File , Getty

"Whenever children are apprehended, there are competing interests. Parents are trying to deal with their personal demons which often relate to addictions and violence. The Ministry and agencies are focused on trying to reunite children with their families. The Bands want the children to reside on reserve to protect their aboriginal roots and identities and to prevent the systematic destruction of their culture. All of these goals are laudable. All of them are important and must be addressed. But in this maze of competing interests, the children are often lost." - Justice Jacelyn Ryan-Froslie, then with the Saskatoon Court of Queen's Bench

Her eyes hold a look of utter confusion as she stares across the courtroom.

She's a young woman, perhaps in her late 20s, yet her slender frame leans on a cane. She was teetering on hope when she came through the doors, but it's slipping away as the reality of her situation takes hold.

"I was under the impression my children were coming home with me today," she says evenly, matter-offactly to the judge.

A lawyer for the Ministry of Social Services - the equivalent of a prosecutor if this was a criminal court - explains that a new police report has just arrived on her desk, and with it comes new concerns. The ministry needs time to re-evaluate its position. Justice Wayne McIntyre has little choice but to delay the case in this damned-if-you-do; damnedif-you-don't moment.

The emotions the woman held in check moments earlier give way. "Nothing but lies from the ministry," she quietly but audibly scoffs. She corrects the judge as he mispronounces the name of one of her children.

Seconds later, she is out the door, where the paper sign taped to it reads: Child Protection Chambers.

The room in Regina's Court of Queen's Bench is packed this Tuesday morning. The seats on one side are filled primarily with ministry staff, those toward the back with families. There are 26 files on the agenda, some of those translating into groups of siblings.

There's a noticeable absence of any children in a room where the focus for the next 90 minutes will be on their needs. They are instead represented by rafts of files, some as much as five inches thick or more, stacked in foot-high piles in front of the two ministry lawyers. This is the starting point for a myriad of child protection cases, but by now, many of these families have already been involved with Social Services for some time.

As the Leader-Post's continuing series examines the children who die in the child welfare system, it's important to get a glimpse at the beginning, and how some 4,000 children in this province end up in care.

A baby allegedly smothered by his mother; drug-addicted infants apprehended in hospital; a five-year-old ward exhibiting sexualized behaviours; children born with the effects of their mother's alcoholism - those are a few of the challenging cases confounding Saskatchewan's child protection courts in the past five years. (See sidebar for more details.) By authority of the Child and Family Services Act, a child can be apprehended if he's at risk of harm or neglect. For the majority, it's the latter, fuelled by addictions, unstable housing and poverty.

In the hierarchy of options, the first consideration is whether or not a child can be returned to his parents, then placed in the custody of a person of sufficient interest or PSI (usually a relative), or, as a last resort, placed in the custody of the ministry. The key consideration is "the best interest of the child."

On this day, one particular file has caught the judge's attention. The parents - "they have a number of issues," McIntyre comments as he pages through a file - are absent.

The ministry wants a new PSI order, but the judge is not about to rush it through. PSIs have come under increasing criticism by the Children's Advocate because they don't have the same checks and balances as for children directly under the ministry's care. The case of June Alexus Dawn Goforth, a four-year-old allegedly killed while in care under a PSI order, is currently at the centre of a pending criminal trial in this same courthouse.

After that case came to light, Social Services ensured a home visit was made for all children under age five under a PSI.

In the file before the court this morning, McIntyre has questions about the home study - which was initially rejected, he notes - and the worker isn't certain if criminal record checks on the caregivers have been done.

"It's been three months since somebody has been in that home," McIntyre says, adding that he wants an updated review. He also notes there are eight other kids in the home. In the foster system, any home exceeding four children is considered over-capacity. McIntyre wonders what is known about the friends, also residing in the home, and if anyone has checked their criminal records.

"I'm not prepared to put my stamp of approval on it," says the no-nonsense judge. "It's my neck on the line ... You have to satisfy me."

He also wants to know more about the PSIs' prior involvement with the ministry. "If so - what and when?" The case is adjourned a month and a half. In the meantime, the children remain in the home.

In another case, the parents are also absent as the fate of a year-old girl hangs in the balance. Attempts are being made at "reunification," except the parents haven't attended for most of the visits.

"The parents need to step up to the plate more than two hours at a time," says the ministry's lawyer.

In the next case, a young couple want to temporarily let their children remain in state care. McIntyre asks if they also agree with the allegations made against them in the child protection file - except they've never seen the affidavit.

McIntyre takes issue with a ministry practice of not handing over the affidavit of allegations to the parties it involves. A worker steps out of court to review it with the couple. In fact, they don't agree with what has been said, but they are content at this point to leave the kids in care while they sort out their own issues, including where they're going to live.

One of the last files of the morning involves a young woman, her long black hair trailing down the back of her small frame. Her coat is closed up tightly despite the time she has been waiting in this stuffy room. She stands awkwardly at the end of the table where the lawyers ordinarily sit. She's there about her two children - one she knows is in a group home because she recently paid a visit. She learns from the ministry lawyer, in response to a question from the judge, that the other one is in a foster home.

The woman wants time to get a lawyer.

When the judge suggests a date in mid-December, she quietly responds that it might be "too close."

The judge raises his head from the file, a quizzical look on his face.

She explains further - it's too close to her due date for the birth of her next child.

Source: Regina Leader-Post