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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Australian Four Corners Video

There is  no doubt that the video presently making the rounds of social media and world news sources is a tough watch. The series of videos show abuse of a boy over time in an Australian institution.

The videos can be found here and here and here and here. But remember, they are not an easy watch as you will se child abuse and torture of a teenage boy, Dylan Voller.

Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation video posted to YouTube

It will be easy to get focused on how the institution saw the management of children in this fashion as somehow acceptable.  And yes, that is an important question. The larger conversation though, is needed about how we treat people within prison systems. In this case - children. Strip searches, isolation and torture, which occurred in this case, come from a philosophy of how people (and I use that word very consciously) are worthy of being treated when in custody.

There are very different correctional philosophies with Norway often being cited as one where rehabilitation is the paramount objective; Canada with some balance between retribution and rehabilitation and the United States seeming to tip more towards retribution.

The Australian case is a moment for societies to consider what is the purpose of the criminal justice, child protection and mental health systems and how are they to inter-relate and inter-connect. If we just look at the case of this boy, we will miss the much larger discussion.

Affecting the discussion is an increasing sense of fear in our societies. There may well be valid reasons for some of that given recent events in Europe from what appears to have been a series of terrorist tragedies to the domestic events such as the Orlando shootings in the USA. Such large scale tragedies deflect us from the reality the, by far, the vast majority of people are in jail for crimes related to mental health, addiction, trauma and poverty. Dylan appears to be an example of such a person.

How he was treated (and many other cases of people being put into things like long period isolation) will have lasting impacts on their mental health. Every time such methods are used we reduce the probability of successful reintegration into society. The trauma and its mental health impacts accumulate over time. There are many who suggest that techniques like solitary confinement do substantial long term damage to the health of people incarcerated. Some examples of that data can be found through a PBS documentary as well as this report the American Psychological Association.

By using these incarceration techniques we are adding to society's burden. Add to this the rapidly expanding field of epigenetics and we see that traumas like this move through generations within the DNA. The implications are that the children of such an abused person will pass their trauma on to the next generations.

With the type of abuse that Dylan appears to have experienced, we also reduce the probabilities that he could be a successful parent. Not only then does the DNA carry the trauma but there is a significantly increased possibility that the social emotional environment of the next generation will be impoverished. This creates a further burden for society through child protection and its related systems.

It is this broader conversation that should be happening. Yes, what specifically happened to Dylan matters but the underlying philosophies and practices related to people like Dylan is the bigger picture. A further question that should be examined is why, as societies, are we so willing to buy into approaches that have been shown to not work - indeed to make things worse. A good part of the answer is that we fear people in prisons and also they deserve what they get - except that it is the larger society that pays the greater price.

Let Dylan Voller's case be an opportunity for the bigger conversation.

Another view on this conversation can be found at the blog of Tony Tonkin.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Intolerance as a risk for children

There is a growing intolerance that is becoming evident in the public discourse. There seems a willingness, perhaps under the rubric of freedom of speech, to target individuals, groups of persons or classes of persons. There has been suggestion that racial and immigrant intolerance was related to the BREXIT vote. Some are noting that the present US presidential race is seeing an increase in caustic rhetoric that is sexist, racist and reminiscent of the politics of oppression.

There has been a linkage to violence with the shootings in Orlando recently targeting gays. There are divisive arguments about refugees, Muslims, minorities. Here in Canada, we still see evidence of racism with a Black person in Toronto, for example, likely to be carded by the police for being Black.

One can hardly spend time on Facebook without coming across various forms of "hate" speech. Twitter has just banned Milo Yiannopoulous for racist comments about a Black actress. In essence, we have seen the growth of emotional terrorism. It is a form of tolerated bullying.

What does this have to do with child protection? In general terms, it is the most vulnerable families who come to the attention of child protection. These are also the families that are the targets of the intolerance - poor, racial minorities, LGBTQ community. Many live in areas where community supports, schools, social services and health care are not as well funded.

When we allow intolerance to grow, then there is also a reduced motivation to find the solutions that can be driven by both public and not for profit agencies. It tends to breed the "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" type of thinking. And if they cannot, then they are not worthy people.

It also breeds laws where people who can least manage in vulnerable positions are then put at greater risk. Examples can be seen with a variety of legal efforts to limit access to reproductive rights in the United States. But lest anyone think this is a US bashing commentary, be assured it is not. For the intolerance appears to be growing across many nations.

When you also see the economic challenges that many countries are also facing, then, as seen with BREXIT, there is a diminished willingness to support vulnerable populations that "are not like us".

This emotional terrorism increases the vulnerability of vulnerable families and, in particular, children. The growing field of epigenetics shows that trauma experienced in one generation is passed on to subsequent generations through the DNA. Thus, when we fail a generation of children, we create both the social and genetic conditions to carry the problems into the next generations.

This point is made explicitly clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Report in Canada which shows how the traumas arising from the Indian Residential Schools are still being played out in First Nations, Inuit and Metis families across the country.

Child welfare gets asked to intervene in families where, in reality the problems are not protection of children but systemic neglect that arises from the emotional terrorism (which often plays out in physical conditions) that society has imposed on communities. Child welfare cannot solve these problems and intolerance will lead to the problems becoming more entrenched than they are already.

The growing social unrest that follows marginalization, which we are seeing in a variety of forums, will put pressure on child protection as these pressures get lived out in family life. There is a need for a large conversation across many political, social and policy forums. Child protection should be part of the conversation so that players can see the downstream implications of intolerance.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The policy debate that should come out of the death of Alex Radita

Canadian media is covering the current trail of Emil and Rodica Radita for the first degree murder of their 15 year old son Alex. The allegations involve medical neglect of their son's diabetes leading to his death. The family is reported to have been involved in child protection systems in British Columbia and Ontario prior to his death in Alberta.

Much has been made of the supposed failure of British Columbia social workers to notify their counter parts in Alberta when they learned the family had moved left B.C. They had found out about the move as they were looking for the family when it became apparent they were not following through with Alex's medical care.

There has also been significant criticism of a judge in B.C. for returning Alex to parental care even when the child protection workers and specialists were arguing against it. National Post columnist Christie Blatchford has been quite critical of that decision and the failure of B.C. social workers to follow up with Alberta.

Alex Radita at age 15 (Source: Calgary Herald from photos released by the Court)

Child protection systems are often criticized for their failure to effectively communicate with agencies. It is a theme that has cropped up in most of the 91 public reviews I have examined in Canada. It is also very common in reviews in other countries.

There is an issue that needs discussing in Canada though, but also in countries such as the United States. Canada's constitution places control of child protection within provincial and territorial jurisdiction (there are specific aspects that are different for Aboriginal on reserve families but that is for another post). Health care and child protection legal processes also fall under provincial jurisdiction. Thus, each province and territory operates their own system, except for Ontario which places delivery of child protection into a complex network of children's aid societies following provincial legislation.

What this means is there is no national child protection system. It is a series of unique systems. Each jurisdiction has its own legislation, policy, procedures and service delivery mechanism. There is  no national requirement for data sharing. Families can and do move between jurisdictions to avoid continuing scrutiny by child protection. They are quite able to do so once their case in one province is no longer active.

When a case opens in one area, families are asked about their history elsewhere but there is no national database to work from. Should there be? Protagonists of data sharing might well argue for one but those who argue for protection of information and privacy might well make an alternative argument. Child protection legislators and senior managers across Canada might well take the Radita case as an opening for a national discussion. I want to emphasize that many of the workers I know make efforts to learn about families past participation in other parts of the country.

The Radita case raises some important policy issues and we should not let the chance pass. Another one is about legal duty of care. Like the Jeffrey Baldwin case in Ontario, it appears there were other adult children in the Radita home. Yet the criminal code does not place a duty of care on those who are not parents or legal guardians. Thus, other adults in the home who were aware Alex and Jeffrey were at risk cannot be held accountable . That too should be reconsidered.

It is important to note that, at the time of writing, the criminal trial noted above is still ongoing. Thus, the accused have not been convicted of a criminal offence in this matter. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Managing the undefineable - the human judgments of child protection

Child protection is the front end of a bargain between a child and society. Essentially, society says that they will leave a family to raise their children as long as they do so safely. The deal with the child is that, if that does not happen, society will protect the child and the child protection authority will act on behalf of society. It's a bargain that we often do not know how to uphold.

To begin with, we lay that bargain out through legislation. Inherent in most such laws is a belief that the family is the root of society and is an institution that requires preservation. In other words, society should intrude into the family only as much as needed to protect the child.

Next comes the decision by child protection to enter the family - but there are certain hurdles:

  • Someone must alert the child protection authority that there is a concern. Many countries have mandatory reporting laws that require a variety of professionals to call them. Many do but there are many examples of professionals who do not because past efforts to report a concern have led to no apparent action. Some won't because they are so uncertain about whether the child really is in danger. Some professionals feel that there is little point in reporting a child because the child is already so disconnected and won't comply with efforts to help. This was seen very clearly in the Paige case that led to a blunt review by the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth
  • Once the report is filed, a human judgment is made by an intake worker to investigate or simply note the report in case there are further reports. This very human  judgment is influenced by such factors as how the report was framed, the degree of danger seems to exist, the resources available as well as the presence or absence of past reports.
  • If the report is investigated another human judgment is made which is whether or not there is a risk to the child; how serious is that risk; is it serious enough to open a case; could it be handled in a less intrusive way or is the risk sufficient to become quite intrusive.

Inherent in this series of human judgments is defining safety and risk. There are a  multitude of factors that are taken into consideration and the investigator must try to weigh the various options and meaning of the data. Some have suggested that this means structured decisions should be used by entering data into various investigative formats. Yet, in those cases, someone must still find a way to operationalize a way to define and measure safety. Even in cases of structured tools, the front line worker must make meaning out of the data; must find the data; must contextualize the data; must know what to look for and be able to see it. To enter the data they must be able to discern what is in front of them. It is a human judgment process to make meaning out of information even when you enter it into a decision making tool.

Safety is an incredibly complex concept in which many factors interact in an unpredictable way - parenting, mental health, addiction, community, culture, poverty, housing, schooling, resources, temperament and personality of the child to name a few. The worker has to figure out the interactions. The worker is asked to predict probability for the safety of the child.

The worker is but one of the decision makers. The data gathered by the worker will be presented to a variety of other human judgment makers as the open case moves along - supervisors, colleagues, contracted community resources, lawyers and the courts, for example. Each will weigh the data (which is typically constantly changing) and judge what is and should happen.

The family are also making a series of human judgments - what to tell; what to cooperate or not cooperate around; what to try and self manage; how to interpret the direction of child protection and other parties. 

It is a series of human judgments made by many parties with ever changing data that is typically imperfect seeking to predict the behaviour of human beings in an environment where no prediction tool shows reasonable accuracy. No wonder child protection gets things wrong at times - indeed how could they not. So why are we not telling that story?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Looking at the Sixties Sxoop

The Sixties Scoop has come to represent the transition from Residential Schools as a means of controlling and disrupting Aboriginal families, communities and cultures across Canada. Indeed, Cindy Blackstock of the First People's Child and Family Caring Society has termed child welfare as the new Residential school.

An MRU journalism student sought to have a look at the Sixties Scoop and offer some insights into what that period was and profiles two people who were impacted by it. The blog can be found here.

In another relevant report, I have been part of a group that has been looking at how First Nations parents are assessed in the child welfare system. The report, Nistawatsimin: Exploring First Nations Parenting: A Literature Review and Expert Consultation with Blackfoot Elders:

This report provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of the scholarship that encompasses relevant topics surrounding the theme of Aboriginal parenting. It seeks to contribute to a larger conversation about the relationship between child protection services (CPS) and Aboriginal peoples. The focus is on how parents are considered and assessed by CPS. In this report, the authors raise the notion that the foundations of assessment have not been rooted in Aboriginal cultural and their world view of family and parenting.
It is one step in challenging how child protection looks at First Nations parents. It is rooted in a Blackfoot view and thus the work requires extension and adaptation to other Aboriginal cultures. But it is a place to start.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The tragedy of the Jian Ghomeshi case but it's not about the judge

The acquittal of Jian Ghomeshi on four counts of sexual assault has rightly caused an uproar in Canada. But the focus of the debate is not about what the judge did unless you want to congratulate him for doing precisely what we ask judges to of. He assessed the evidence and the credibility of it against the appropriate standard of whether or not there was a reasonable doubt. He concluded there was.

The real lessons come from what evidence was put in front of the judge which led to the decision. One might also criticize the theatrics of the defence counsel. One might go further and ask whether or not the case was presented in the light of what we really know about the victims of sexual assault.

In Canada, only about 6 per 100 cases of sexual assault are reported to the police. It's a pathetic statistic but there are many reasons why it exists:

  • There is fear of how the victim will be judged - certainly we saw good reason for that fear based on how the victims were dealt with by Ghoneshi's lawyer. That lawyer will no doubt state that she was doing what she was supposed to do - vigorously defend her client. Yet, should a victim leave a cross examination more damaged when she came into the court? The Macleans magazine interview with one victim, Lucy DeCoutere illustrates the high price she paid.
  • Witnesses are often not believed. My own experience with victims is that telling the story is a huge risk as the victim is not often seen that way. They are probed for evidence that they led the perpetrator on, failed to make clear they were not offering consent or had allowed themselves to become too impaired to properly protect themselves. It's called victim blaming and it's real.
  • There is much shame arising from being a victim. This arises from some of the same victim blaming forces. There are also some communities and cultures who will also see the victim as forever "damaged goods". 
There are many other reasons but these are some of the most powerful. But there is one even greater reason - women are vulnerable to the societal structures that allow men to dominate, control and demand. We are still socializing boys to believe that somehow they "deserve" what they want which includes sex. 

The judge was missing some clear evidence that helped the court fully understand the behaviours of victims. What the women described on the stand (at least as reported by the media) is quite typical of victims of sexual assault. This includes believing that they were somehow at fault. This leads to further contact with the perpetrator. Victims are also often caught up in the enmeshed dysfunctional relationship were they feel they are responsible for making it better. Courts need expert evidence on these types of behaviours. The effects of sexual trauma also distort memory, impact decision making and influence the cohesiveness of the story. Traumatic memory can compartmentalize the story such that when it is told, it is told incompletely. The court also needs expert evidence to explain the neurobiology of traumatic memory and behaviours that arise from that. 

Children who have been sexually abused are just as likely as an adult not disclose, particularly given that the perpetrator is most often someone they know and trust. As Esposito (2015) notes:

Sadly, disclosure of childhood sexual abuse is often met with disbelief, anger, or rejection. This leaves a child feeling isolated, unnoticed and unsure. Children say they don’t disclose because they are afraid of the consequences to themselves and others, they feel ashamed or in some way responsible for the abuse, they are unsure whether an abuse has occurred, or they do not know where to turn to for help. Children therefore make calculated decisions about disclosing; they consider who they will tell, whether they will be believed and how much detail they should provide. (p.1)

We have an urgent conversation in Canada which is how to encourage disclosure and make it safe to do so. We must also speak about how these cases are managed in the courts. The Ghomeshi trial will have a chilling effect on the willingness and ability of victims to disclose. The real lesson from the trial: "You will not be believed; You will be attacked and vilified; Your perpetrator will get away with with it, so why try".

As a nation, we need to change these messages but we also need to change the message that sexual assault is ever permissible. The cultural position of boys and men needs to change (and yes, males are  by far the most common perpetrators). They need to truly understand that consent is a necessity.

Our non-judicial institutions also need to protect victims far better than they have been. There has been an avalanche of media coverage about sexual assault on post secondary campuses. These stories have, unfortunately, also highlighted how victims in post secondary are not protected. This is an example of how institutions can play a role in prevention but also in supporting victims.

The story of sexual assault needs changing. Ghomeshi's case took us further away from protection and prevention. The message is loud and clear - even if you are found out and charged, your chances of being convicted are poor. The odds are stacked in favour of perpetrators in this country. How truly sad!

Reference: Esposito, c. (2015). Child sexual abuse and disclosure: What does the research tell us? New South Wales: Office of the Senior Practitioner, Family and Community Services. Available at this link

Monday, March 21, 2016

Child Death Reviews - An American imperative?

Youth Today is reporting on a recommendation from a US Federal Commission that:

wants the states to examine all child abuse and neglect fatalities from the past five years as part of a national strategy to end such deaths.

The notion is interesting. Trying to understand what has gone wrong in the past is often seen as a way to help prevent further deaths. Looking into deaths has become common in many countries. For example:

  • Serious Case Reviews in the UK are used as a way to find leanings from deaths that might help the child protection system do a better job protecting children
  • Large scale formal public reviews are used by politicians to look into high profile cases. In Canada, there has been the Phoenix Sinclair review which published its report in 2015 after months of public hearings. Another example is the Victoria Climbe case in the UK.
  • The Jeffrey Baldwin case saw a high profile Coroner's Inquiry which received national media attention.
  • There are inquiries by agencies that represent children and youth such as the Child and Youth Advocate in Alberta which this week issued a report on the death of Lily. These reviews offer an independent lens on what might have gone wrong.
There are other methods as well such as aggregate reviews by third parties along with internal reviews. The latter are not typically made public. The advantage of many review processes is that they are public allowing citizens to feel that there is a sense of accountability.

There are downsides however. There is somehow a feeling that all deaths can be prevented. That is not the case as it is not possible to predict with any certainity who will or will not kill a child. There is also the negative impact that these stories have in child protection practice. In particular is the impact on worker's decision making - they tend towards bringing more children into care in order to not be the worker with the next case on the front page. That may not serve children well.

The recommendation in the United States may not be the best use of resources. There are literally hundreds of inquiries in the western world that show oft repeating patterns of practice errors that contribute to poor outcomes for children. A better use of resources might have been to analyze and learn from those inquires. A next step might be to set up a way to use that knowledge while also setting up methodologies to learn from new cases. Going back over a 5 year period will use a lot of resources and be unlikely to yield information that is different from the existing knowledge base.

By using existing data, there has been an opportunity to reframe how child protection is delivered. This is an opportunity missed. Doing it differently has more promise than spending time looking backward especially when a large database of such learning already exists.