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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Access to children after Termination of Parenting Rights

When courts terminate parental rights (TPR), the prevailing wisdom has been that the connection between the parents and the children will typically be severed. Exceptions might occur when the children are placed in kinship homes with extended family who may offer some connection. This is often the case as TPR is usually a last resort that has followed a variety of efforts to help parents change. After all, the goal of most legislation is to try and sustain families through a variety of family preservation programs.

TPR is often associated with unmanageable or unmanaged mental health, addictions or family violence as well as chronic neglect. Quicker efforts to TPR can occur in cases of serious physical harm or sexual abuse. Thus, the prevailing wisdom associated with no contact with biological family has made some sense.

Yet, there are situations where contact may make sense. When extended family is willing to act in the role of primary caretaker while accepting that the biological parent has significant limitations that preclude acting as caregiver, then contact can be managed. Extended family keeps the child safe and looked after while also allowing the child some level of relationship with the parent.

There are also cases where the parent, later on, takes steps to address the problems. What then of a parent who sustains sobriety later?

In this day of social media, it is much easier for children to find their biological roots. Searching in Facebook, Google, Linkedin and so on can yield connections. Children often want to know their roots and go looking. I have seen this in several cases.

Then there is the reality of small towns and rural areas. I recall a case where the foster home was only a few blocks away - inevitable in the small community. The child exercised the "right" to see the parent by just walking down the street. In that case, counselling to help the child understand the risks while also managing the relationship was the best solution.

It may be different when the child is an infant or toddler, but it becomes much more problematic with older children. This is a challenging discussion but it is one that we need as the new ways for children and parents to find each other demands that we rethink.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Child protection industry conspiracy

Having your parental rights to a child terminated must be a traumatic experience. Whether the parent has intentionally abused a child, suffered from serious mental health issues or intractable addictions, there is a permanent hole in the parent's life when a child is lost to them. Even parents who have children removed on a temporary basis, still get up in the morning and see the place where the child used to sleep and feel the loss. Taking a child into care is a step that impacts all involved.

However, there is also a belief amongst some that child protection workers are somehow rewarded with removals and the subsequent adoption of children. Some theorists argue that funding formulas, such as those in the USA, support states taking children into care as opposed to leaving children in families and then trying to improve the family situation.

An example of this thinking can be found in a YouTube video Documentary on the Child Protection Industry. It is not that well done, but it certainly illustrates the thinking.

Critics are able to point to some high profile cases where child protection really did get it wrong. An example is the death of Logan Marr. She was placed in foster care. The foster mother, who was also a former child protection worker, was subsequently convicted of killing Logan. The PBS program Frontline has done a documentary on the case.

Logan Marr

There are many other cases where errors have led to high profile media reports. Like any system, a child protection system is going to get it wrong at times. The challenge of course, is that the price of errors can be high. At the same time, little pubic attention is given to the multitude of cases where things go well and sometimes, brilliantly. Little media time is given to the child who is alive and well today because of CPS interventions.

Child protection workers are constantly walking the line between protecting a child and preserving a family unit. Most child protection legislation seeks to have this balance tip towards family preservation. The appropriate standard for a parent to keep raising the child is not perfection or even being close to it. The standard is good enough.

As my colleague Sandra Engstrom and I are noting in an article we are preparing for publication:

Budd, Clark & Connell (2011) identiCied three domains that they concluded formed elements of minimally adequate parenting. These include:
  • meeting the physical needs of the child including the provision of a stable and safe home environment as well as meeting such things as medical and dental needs;
  • providing for the cognitive and developmental needs; and
  • addressing and responding to emotional needs including affection and sensitivity, appropriate discipline in order to promote positive behavior (p. 105).
 These same authors also suggest that issues of fit between parent and child form part of minimal parenting capacity. These include child factors such as the developmental stage of the child and the presence of any special needs. Can the parents meet both the needs of the child as well as their own needs? These authors further note that environmental considerations come into play such as culture, socioeconomic status and interpersonal stressors (p. 105). 
However, to suggest that child protection workers, in general, seek to remove children in order to meet the needs of adopting parents, as the above noted documentary suggests, is not supported in any credible research I have been able to find. No doubt, there are some outlier cases where this may appear to have occurred, but there simply is not the evidence to suggest that this is a goal of child protection. Yet, those who have been affected by CPS can well feel aggrieved and seek to shift blame.

My research focuses on child protection errors - cases where they indeed got it wrong and children have suffered. Yes, there are definitely cases of practice errors - Logan Marr is one of those cases. Many errors occur, however, due to systemic problems such as high case loads and insufficient funding of CPS and the intervention systems that can help families.

Social work needs to keep working on the practice errors. Like any system, engineering, aviation, medicine, the profession must learn from its errors. That is essential.

Allegations of conspiracy to take children in order to support adoptions as well as the employment of social workers and other allied mental health professions does little to advance an understanding of the errors. Yet, within their criticisms can be found some powerful areas for discussion as well as an understanding of the deep pain that parents feel who lose their children.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Daniel Pelka: The power of parental evasion and deceit

There has already been much written about the murder of Daniel Pelka. I obtained the sentencing remarks of Mrs. Justice Cox when she imposes a 30 year minimum. She reviews the evidence in her 6 page statement. It is gruesome reading. Within it, are a few powerful lessons about how this case has been evolving. The Serious Case Review which is likely to be published next month will add more details.

The urine stained mattress; the door of the room Daniel was kept in with interior handle removed and a
model of how emaciated he was at death

Yet, some of what Justice Cox has to say reminds practitioners of just how duplicitous parents can be, particularly when they are engaged in a campaign of torture as was happening in this case. The decision outlines how the mother and step father lied, avoided contact with authorities. When they did have contact, they created stories that were just plausible enough.

These caregivers, step father Mariusz Krezolek and mother Magdelan Luczak, if they can be called that, picked on Daniel as opposed to the other children making him the targeted child. Justice Cox seems perplexed at this but it is not an uncommon phenomena. She also notes that the siblings were coached to tell the story that the parents wanted told. These combined efforts made piercing the veil to find the truth difficult. Certainly there were signs that the Seroius Case Review will probably highlight.

Parents who engage in this behavior are more difficult to work with, and even get any meaningful connection in the first place. They may be amongst the hardest population to gain any significant relationship with, much less progress.

Mariusz Krezolek, the step father,  testifying before Mrs. Justice Cox

Some examples from Justice Cox's decision:

Both of you constructed a careful and wholly untruthful account that Daniel had a serious eating disorder and learning difficulties, which he may have inherited and for which he was receiving medical treatment. This account was deliberately designed to prevent interference by school, medical and welfare personnel, and to perpetuate the brutality being meted out to him. You instructed and encouraged Daniel’s older [sibling] to tell lies to the authorities if she were asked any questions about what was happening at home.  (p.3)

I am in no doubt that, before you made that call, you had deliberately planned the detailed lies you would tell in an attempt to deceive the authorities and save your own skin. That plan was put into action even in the call to the emergency operator. 
Before your arrest you made concerted efforts to remove evidence by deleting the computer search history, attempting to tidy the house and concealing the stained mattress from the box room. You lied persistently when you were interviewed by the police. (p.4)
Both of you carried out a deliberate and cynical deception of teaching, welfare and medical personnel, which was designed to conceal what was happening, to prevent any help being provided for Daniel and to enable you to continue your ill treatment of him without interference. You instructed and encouraged Daniel’s older [sibling] to tell lies to anyone in authority about what was happening at home. 
Once you became aware that Daniel had stopped breathing, you made a concerted and deliberate attempt to deceive the authorities from the outset, and to seek to remove evidence of your involvement in Daniel’s abuse and death. (p. 5) 
The media has also noted that the mother kept Daniel away from medical care, missing appointments and avoiding contact.

There are deficiencies in how people did respond to what was before them. But, in my view, we must also bear in mind that parents can put up significant barriers to accessing children. We must not be daunted by the barriers but, rather, be prepared to challenge. Having an empathic mind in child protection is important, but so is having a curious one where you challenge the data before you - ask whether it makes sense? Does the explanation intuitively seem to explain or is it off?

I raise the notion of intuition because, at times, it is paying attention to our gut feeling that can cause us to ask further probing questions.

This is a case where there were opportunities to ask - the paediatrician who saw Daniel shortly before his death; school officials who saw many signs of concern (bruises, stealing food, eating large quantities when he could get food, rummaging for food in garbage cans, declining attendance). A curious mind might well have probed beyond the parental explanations. Assembling even the school data might have caused one to say, "There is just too much going on here." Yet, the mother suggested that there were problems and that she was getting help from a doctor. Just the kind of response that assures an observer that the issues are known and being taken care of.

It will be easy to point fingers in this case. I hope that those considering it will not lose sight of the power of parental evasion and deceit which can be very effective in keeping inquiring eyes away.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Child protection's inconvenient truth: Is Daniel Pelka an example?

Media in the United Kingdom are swarming around the death of Daniel Pelka. He was four years old at his death at the hands of his mother, Magdelena Liczak and step father, Mariusz Krezolek, . They have now been convicted of his murder. He was starved and treated cruelly for at least 6 months prior to dying.
Daniel Pelka

The media reports are slowly leaking into Canada, although they are not creating the sensation that even a casual reading of UK papers suggests is going on there.

There is a serious case review in the matter, but its publication has been delayed until next month. Apparently the SCR panel learned information in the trial that it must now consider. That, in itself, is a fascinating statement suggesting that those working on the case had information gaps. At this point, it is not clear the child protection had a significant, or even any role in the family. The case is, none the less, highly reminiscent of many cases such as Jeffrey Baldwin, Victoria Climbie, Khyra Ishaq, Logan Marr and so on. Here in Canada, we have another tragic case subject to a public review that has just finished up. This is the case of Phoenix Sinclair. It will be several months before we hear what the commissioner, Justice Ted Hughes has to say.

In all of these cases there are valuable lessons to be had on child protection practice. These cases highlight the ways in which case management and interventions can go wrong. They also help us to see the sorts of common errors that occur. It is those errors, in particular, that need avoidance.

Cases such as these raise the delicate balance between protecting children and preserving families. The challenge with these cases is that they inevitably result in several things:

  1. A scapegoat will be sought. In Daniel's case, the politicians are already doing this;
  2. In some fashion, a politician will also state that the protection of children is paramount and that they intend to get to the bottom of this so it will not happen again;
  3. New procedures will be introduced, manualized and bureaucratized; 
  4. New training will be recommended; 
  5. Social workers will become wary and fearful of making a mistake; and
  6. Another child will die.
I am reminded of the article by anthropologist  China Scherz in the United States who looked at how social workers try to put into place good judgement while also trying to manage that balance between protection and family. She looked at the introduction of actuarial tools to help better identify risk. Her article is well worth reading. What one concludes is that there is a real risk that we create what looks to be science (e.g. actuarial tools, structured decision making processes, formal assessment processes) which mask the reality of child protection in science. It is a false mask.

While I am a supporter of these various types of tools, there is still the reality that a front line worker is going to have to make decisions from that information - leave the child in the home? close the file? remove the child? offer services? Scherz's article shows that this still is a very individual decision that a worker must make, and that there can be a wide variance in the ways that workers see a case.

There is no way to remove the worker and the personal decision making from the work. Workers bring training, experience and, yes, beliefs into the day to day interaction with families. No matter how much structure and science you try to wrap around that, this truth remains.

Which leads to the inconvenient truth in child protection - mistakes will be made, children will be subject to further abuse and maltreatment that might have been avoided if a different decision was made, and a small number of children involved in child protection will die - but most will not.

To expect perfection in child protection is unrealistic. Let these tragic cases continue to serve as educational opportunities so that the common mistakes can be highlighted and the highly unusual errors can also be brought to light.


Scherz, C. (2011). Protecting children, preserving families: Moral conflict and actuarial science in a problem of contemporary governance. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 34 (1), 33-50.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Know thy case - History does matter

It was several years ago that I was watching the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, The Fifth Estate and its story on the death of Jeffrey Baldwin. I have written in an earlier post the full details of the death, but simply put, as the CBC summed it up, Jeffrey died of starvation at the hands of his grandparents in one of the world's richest cities, while those who could have stopped it did not.

Like all cases where a child dies with child protection involvement, there were many factors at play. One was certainly information that was buried in child protection files about past convictions for child abuse involving both grandparents. In addition, there had been some form of parenting capacity assessment that had apparently concluded that the grandmother was unfit to parent.

Jeffrey Baldwin

I was reminded of this as I read an excellent review from Child Family Community Australia titled Rarely and Isolated Incident. One of their main conclusions:

Practice and policy responses to children who experience single maltreatment events should be different to those for children who experience multiple maltreatment events. Survivors of multiple maltreatment events are more likely to experience complex trauma and the negative effects of cumulative harm, both of which require more comprehensive intervention and treatment. 

They note that there is a lack of success in interventions with children when maltreatment or abuse are seen as isolated or single events. They identify that research shows quite the opposite - that the majority of children experience multiple events and often in multiple forms.  They also note that children who have these experiences inside a family are also quite vulnerable to experiencing them outside the family as well.

Drawing upon a wide body of research, the authors take time to share with the reader the various important categories that child protection workers must consider when assessing the histories of children:

  1. multiple type maltreatment which would include sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological maltreatment, neglect along with witnessing domestic violence;
  2. polyvictimisation which outlines how a child may have various sources of maltreatment within the family and the community (including bullying);
  3. complex trauma which is greater than presently thought of through the lens of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It involves disturbances to the cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions of a person's life. This reflects the prolonged nature of the disturbance and the impact on multifactorial functioning on into adult life. Psychological and physical health are impacted. This is combined with high rates of subsequent victimization in adulthood;
  4. Cumulative harm describes both the cumulative harm of multi victimization along with the multiple harms of multiple types of maltreatment from multiple sources. However, cumulative harm can also occur with multiple victimizations to single perpetrator events (the victims of Ariel Castro come to mind).
The implications for practice are profound, not the least of which is that, given the high probability that single maltreatment events are low, that investigation should seek to consider a longitudinal view of the child and family. Maltreatment should not be seen as a discrete event. That a previous complaint led to investigation, services and file closure should not suggest that this meant the issues were resolved. Research keeps telling us that many of the interventions used in child protection are not leading to long term changes in many families.

For clinicians, this also means that there is a need to think about the ways in which therapy is approached. Psychological, behavioral as well as developmental concerns are likely requiring attention in the recovery process. My own work with assessing and treating those with addiction (both in and out of the child protection system) speaks to the validity of seeing these four categories as extremely relevant to our work.


Price-Robertson, R., Rush, P., Wall, L. & Higgins, D. (2013). Rarely and isolated incident: Acknowledging the interrelatedness of child maltreatment, victimization and trauma. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The use and misuse of research in child welfare

I recently came across the notes for a speech by Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet on this topic. The link is below for this fascinating work which challenges to a great deal of research in the field of child welfare that has become accepted as de facto truth.

Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet
Harvard Law School

One very strong point that she offers is that "overall the research in this field is skewed in an adult-rughts direction..." It is this that is the foundation for much of the belief that family preservation is the foremost principal in most legislation in North America. 

Prof. Bartholet also raises questions about the ways in which research, funded by private agencies with agendas, are prone to have research developed that will support that agenda. For example, she walks the reader through material that shows the growing prohibition on international adoption is premised upon flawed research. Yet, it has become the basis for a common voice among the agencies that are involved in international child welfare opposing international adoption. 

Her comments also caused me to reflect upon the family preservation agenda as being very skewed towards the rights of parents. It results in strong efforts to keep children in family homes. As Prof. Bartholet suggests, this means that the focus becomes more about keeping the child within the family home - it is the measured goal. As she states, the goal is to avoid removal or apprehension by CPS as opposed to asking what is the risk for further abuse or maltreatment if the child is left in the home. 

In my experience, many social workers are worried about further abuse but they work with family preservation as a priority, along with increasing budgetary pressures that limit alternative placement options. At the same time, foster care is not a good permanent solution for children. Yet, she reviews good quality research by Putnam-Hornstein & Needell that 82% of children in California referred for maltreatment before their first birthday were kept at home. Of those kept at home, more than half were referred again before the age of five. Out of those kept at home following substantiation of the charges and receiving services, 65% were re-referred by the age of five. Thus, a family preservation agenda may be good, although it may be that we are not providing the kinds of services that really do work.

In research, it truly matters what you decide to measure. If the measure is reduced removals from families, then other forms of questions may be ignored or minimized - such as what are the rates of further abuse or maltreatment if the child is left in the home. If we research to support a political agenda that is adult focused, we may well not be serving the needs of the children for whom child protection exists.


Bartholet, E. Creating a child-friendly child welfare system: The use and misuse of research. Unpublished manuscript. Boston, MA: Harvard Law School. 

Putnam-Hornstein, E. & Needell, B. (2011). Predictors of child protective service contact between birth and age five: An examination of California's birth cohort. Children and Youth Services Review, 33 (11), 2400-2407.