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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Crime Stats matter for child protection policy

Despite the fact that the Harper government in Canada has been on a law and order agenda, crime levels in Canada are now at their lowest since 1972. The Globe and Mail reports on new numbers from Statistics Canada stating:

The amount of crime, including violent offences, reported by Canadians dropped again last year, falling to the lowest level since 1972, though there were increases in homicides, some crimes against children and cannabis possession.
Bear in mind that these numbers come as Canada is greatly expanding mandatory minimum sentences that will place more people in jail for longer periods. This need data is part of a stream of data that shows locking most people up does not make things better. Most people benefit from the rehabilitative and preventative approaches that have been the hallmark of the Canadian justice system. Research in the UK recently showed that there is a need to incarcerate the very small numbers of people who represent the repeat criminal offenders and the very violent.

The implications of this new data for child protection are powerful. We simply don't need to be spending literally billions incarcerating people other than the noted group. That money is better spent on rehabilitation and prevention which will:

1. Allow more families to stay together;
2. Result in fewer children living without a parent for longer periods. Research keeps telling us about the importance of both parents to a child;
3. Reduce the intergenerational crime effect;
4. Reduce the increase in criminal and antisocial attitudes that are garnered through stays in prison and exposure to the prison population. This results in less contamination of those attitudes on children if the adult has not been incorporated into those beliefs through prison sentences;
5. Allow better economic outlooks for families who do not lose a potential or current bread winner.

Criminal justice policy has significant implications for child protection. These current stats in Canada should (but won't) cause policy makers to reconsider the sentencing approaches. We have seen some push back by the judiciary and hopefully data like this will cause more.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mortgage default, foreclosure and Child Abuse

Many who have worked in the area of child abuse know that stress in family can be related to increased risk for abuse in a household. There has been recent suggestions that child abuse may be down in the economically struggling United States. A new article to be published in the journal Paediatrics puts a damper on such hope.

However, the article does show an important link between mortgage delinquency and foreclosure trends. Child abuse went up as these economic hardship factors also increased. The team looked at data from 38 hospitals meaning that the numbers are quite robust. The research concludes:

CONCLUSIONS: Multicenter hospital data show an increase in pediatric admissions for physical abuse and high-risk TBI during a time of declining all-cause injury rate. Abuse and high-risk TBI admission rates increased in relationship to local mortgage delinquency and foreclosure trends

The research also noted that unemployment did not show such a causation.

From a public policy perspective,  this really helps us to see that families facing the effect of losing housing are really under significant stress which affects the safety of children. This might well suggest that the appropriate intervention is to help find some form of place to live that offers dignity and safety for a family.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Crime as a way out

There is often an interface between child protection and criminal behaviours. It is not uncommon for children, particularly teenagers, to be caught up in both systems. Children who have grown up in environments of maltreatment, neglect and abuse may lack the coping skills to face life's challenges. They far too frequently are failing at school - even dropping out - at numbers well in excess of the general population.

Research which I have quoted before notes that children who have grown up in the care system have much poorer outcomes in the areas of relationships, criminal involvement, mental health, unemployment and educational failures. They are prone to economic hardship.

In addition, vulnerable girls within the care systems are targets of those who would sexually exploit. An interesting UK study by the Howard League for Penal Reform has put an interesting window on the role that crime can play for sexually exploited girls. They note in a new study that girls use crime as a way to escape their exploiters or as a cry for help. It may also be a way to express a sense of justice when they feel excluded from traditional avenues. As the report states, it may be crucial to consider the girls as victims who are utilizing crime as  a way to tell their story.

These girls are often already known to child protection.

The Howard League also makes the very crucial point that there is quite a difference between a sexual crime and these children who are sexual crime victims. Policies that divert these youth into treatment and support are preferable to those where they are dealt with as criminals. One approach in Alberta is the Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act which does offer one mechanism to get these youth into a safe place so that there is time to help them consider using ways out.

It is also worth remembering that girls are not the exclusive gender being victimized, although they are the majority.

The Howard League Report can be found through

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sandusky, Penn State and the Freeh Report

At one level, all of us who work in the field of child protection should celebrate the Freeh Report on the way in which Penn State University handled the sexual abuse allegations regarding former assistant football coach Sandusky. The report is blunt and scathing in pointing out the lack of accountability and responsibility by the university. It makes it clear that these children were not protected and could well have been (not to mention victims that had yet to be brought into Sandusky's abuse).

The report states:

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims. As the Grand Jury similarly noted in its presentment,1 there was no “attempt to investigate, to identify Victim 2, or to protect that child or any others from similar conduct except as related to preventing its re‐occurrence on University property.”
Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University – President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President‐Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno – failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well‐being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child who Sandusky assaulted in the Lasch Building in 2001. Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child’s identity, of what McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001.
These individuals, unchecked by the Board of Trustees that did not perform its oversight duties, empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the University’s facilities and affiliation with the University’s prominent football program. Indeed, that continued access provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims. Some coaches, administrators and football program staff members ignored the red flags of Sandusky’s behaviors and no one warned the public about him. (pp.14-15).

Already we see some of those named coming out to deny their culpability. Certainly, the individuals resposnible should be identified and their actions held up to scrutiny with all of the resultant consequences. What matters most here, however, is what can be learned about sexual abuse in institutions that can be useful elsewhere.

The report is long and has many suggestions.

In my mind, one of the most poignant lessons is that wealth, power, prestige can all combine to make an institution and those who serve it wilfully blind to events that can tarnish that reputation. at best, it can cause them to cover up or act behind the scenes. As I have said before, sexual abusers uses secrecy as one of their best tools to keep going In the Sandusky case, he had powerful allies to Penn State to help him with that.

Critics argue against mandatory reporting laws stating that they will lead to a flood of complaints and further over burden an already over burdened child protection system. They fear that the system will become over intrusive and apprehend children who should not be apprehended. Yet, this report shows that without methods to demand institutions and individuals to do the right thing, many will not.

This avoidance of doing the right thing is not unique to child protection. We need only look at yet another series of banking crises emerging in both the United Staes and the United Kingdom to see that.
We have also seen multiple examples of institutions who avoid accepting the responsibility that comes with managing people who abuse children - Mount Cashel Orphanage in Canada; the Roman Catholic church with their priests and brothers in many countries; the Boy Scouts in Canada; The churches who ran the Residential Schools throughout North America and so on.

Thus, we do need government to legislate and regulate as it seems too many of its citizens and institutions aren't willing to do the right thing.

Justice Hughes has ruled on the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry

Justice Ted Hughes has now ruled that the public inquiry should be fully public indeed. This means that all witnesses, including social workers, will have their testimony publicly available.  A good summary of his lengthy ruling is offered by The Winnipeg Free Press

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Should social workers at the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry have anonymity

Justice Ted Hughes has been asked to conduct a public inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair. She died in 2005 when social workers took her out of her foster home and placed her back with her mother. According to

According to evidence in the first-degree murder trial that led to life sentences for her mother, Samantha Kematch and her stepdad, Karl McKay, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun and forced to eat her own vomit. 
We have seen how social workers who appear to have made mistakes in a child protection case can be vilified in the media. Those involved in the management of the Baby Peter case in England were dragged through the press and scapegoated and judged harshly by the media.

In the case of the Matthew Vaudreuil case in British Columbia, social workers felt targeted by the Gove Inquiry. Some may have suffered for years from the experience.

Too bad critics might say. They might argue that if you fail in your job, then the public has the right to know. Yet, social workers are often trying to manage case loads that are too high; cases that are very complex; resources and budgets that are limited and political agendas that children should be reunited with family as often as possible (the family preservation agenda).  A child kept away from family unnecessarily is a tragedy - a child returned and killed is one also.

RCMP officers in the Robert Dziekanski case in Vancouver (when he was killed by a Taser incident) were not granted anonymity before they were found culpable.

The majority of professionals who make mistakes in their work are not dragged into the media. Public inquiries might be a different kettle of fish because government has purposely set up a process for the public to find out what went wrong.

There are many examples of public inquiries where the names of social workers have been made public and many where they have not. The argument in favour is that the public have the right to know - but do they need to know the who? What perhaps they really have the right to know is what happened.

The goal of a good inquiry is not retribution. Rather it is an attempt to find ways to avoid repetition. Good inquiry seeks to understand but to get there, participants need the freedom to really talk about what happened and why. If the participants fear the consequences, then open discussion is unlikely . Rather, protection of self becomes the goal.

Justice Hughes must decided how best the truth will come out.