Albertans might well be wondering if the child protection systems in Canada are falling apart. Well they might. In December the Calgary Herald / Edmonton Journal ran a series of articles detailing concerns arising from the deaths of children in care. This was followed by Alberta Human Services Minister Bhullar announcing even more deaths. Recently Justice Ted Hughes’ report into the death of Phoenix Sinclair in Manitoba was released. He determined the death was preventable by the very system that should have saved her. This past week, the Coroner's Jury made 103 recommendations to arising from the death of Jeffrey Baldwin in Toronto a decade ago.
Canada has had over 50 public inquiries into children who have been killed or harmed while child protection has been involved in their lives. Each report has detailed errors made by social workers. Each has left readers shaking their heads that professionals could have done such a bad job. The reports, of course, only focus on the “big” cases where things have gone badly wrong. Truly, these are stories that deserve to be told. They should not be hidden from the public as no system can sustain any level of confidence when it is not open to scrutiny. Such reviews though should highlight what goes well and what does not. The stories of the successes also need to be told such as the three young women at the Minister Bhullar’s roundtable on child protection who have spent significant parts of their lives in the care of child welfare. These young adults who are taking steps to transition into adulthood showed their individual strength overcoming adversity. They had the support of an effective child protection system.
Child protection is hard work. Imagine showing up at a family’s home, knocking on the door and announcing that you are there to investigate an allegation of abuse or neglect. You cross a boundary. We view the family unit as a basic of society that should largely be left alone to get on with the task of being a family. Child protection steps into that world with the force of law. The social workers will need to determine if the child is safe and, if not, what needs to be done to ensure that child’s safety. Sometimes, that means removing the child from parental care for a temporary period. In a small but profound number of cases, that may lead to the permanent removal of the child. Even when parents have acted quite dangerously towards their children, these removals are almost always traumatic for both parents and children. There is a delicate balance between sustaining the family unit and achieving safety.
There are checks and balances. A child protection worker removing a child is subject to the scrutiny of the courts. For the parent who has lost their child, that can be little solace as they wander down the hall and stare at the empty bed that only a few hours ago was occupied by their child.
Imagine, however, if there were no child protection system. There would be more children dying at the hands of caregivers. Simply put, there would be more stories like Phoenix Sinclair. That is not a world that appeals to me. A child protection system that is not subject to review is equally unappetizing as there can be no belief except by faith that they are getting it right. Courts are one way that scrutiny happens. As the roundtable noted, there needs to be more transparency. The public should be able to get data that tells them how the system is doing.
Yet, there is no child protection system that can guarantee that another child will not be seriously harmed or killed by a caregiver. This is very human work in which social workers must make decisions with highly imperfect information. There are no tools, nor will there ever be, that can come even close to absolutely predicting the risk that a parent presents. There is only probability. To expect that social workers can prevent all deaths of children by parents is to expect the impossible.
Child protection also cannot solve poverty, unemployment and lack of appropriate resources across this country. Yet, child protection is asked to pick up the pieces of these social problems. Thousands of children would not be in care if these problems were better addressed.
If we want better child protection services, fund them appropriately so that case loads are manageable, prevention and healing work is achievable and bring in social programs that will help to reduce the need for child protection across Canada. This also means that the federal government must start funding First Nations child welfare programs at the same rates that provincial programs are funded. Why should an Aboriginal child on a reserve receive less funding than a child under provincial authority?
The system is not broken, but it is certainly imperfect. Thus it must be transparent. The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal took four years to get the records on child deaths. That is just wrong and erodes public confidence.