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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Learning from the death of Alex Gervais

This CBC story about the death of Alex Gervais helps to continue our needed conversation of how we can learn from the deaths of children in care.

Alex Decarie-Gervais' tragic life in the care of B.C's ministry of Children and Family development is the result of a series of missed opportunities by child protection officials, according to his family and at least one expert in social work.

"The system let him down by refusing my aunt the capability of adopting him," said Christopher Decarie-Dawson, Alex Decarie-Gervais' half-brother, from his home in Hull, Quebec.
Alex Gervais
Alex Gervais arrives in Quebec in 2008 to visit his half brother Chris and Aunt Line Decarrie, who tried twice to get custody of him. (Line Decarie)
Decarie-Dawson remembers a week long visit with his younger brother in 2008 when Alex was just 10 years old.
Social workers arranged for the boy to leave his foster home in B.C. to visit their aunt's lakefront home in Quebec.

Missed chance at a normal childhood

"I spent the week with him. He was very nice but very on edge and very jittery … he was very fidgety and anxious," remembered Decarie-Dawson, who, eight years earlier, was born to the same mother as Alex. 
It's not clear how many foster homes Alex had been in by then.
Christopher Decarie-Dawson
Christopher Decarie-Dawson says he tried to reach out to his little brother, Alex Gervais, for years, but social workers would not help. (Christopher Decarie-Dawson)
His placement, at age 18, at the Super 8 motel in Abbotsford, where he jumped, or fell from a 4th floor hotel room Sept 18., was his 16th in B.C.'s child protection system.
"The system let both of us down because I've gone through the exact same thing. I was abused by my mother as well, but I got lucky that I was taken by my father who was not sick," said Decarie-Dawson, who says his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was unable to care for him or Alex.

Aunts attempts to get custody failed

The elder brother credits his aunt, Line Decarie, for saving him and helping his father gain custody.
Alex Gervais
A then ten year old Alex Gervais enjoys an afternoon tubing during a visit prior to Aunt's failed adoption attempt home in 2008. (Line Decarie)
He is angry her attempts to adopt Alex were blocked by B.C. officials who "refused to give custody to (her) because his father was still around, still alive."
Line Decarie first tried to gain custody of her nephew years earlier, when Alex was four.
She says police called her to tell her he'd been thrown down a flight of stairs by his father but an Ontario judge decided to give Alex's father a second chance.
Lake house
Alex Decarie-Gervais (seated), then 10 , enjoyed riding his cousins's boat and spending time at his Aunt's lakeside home in Quebec in the summer of 2008. (Line DeCarie)
"Alex's father had mental health issues. Why they gave him full custody of Alex I don't understand up to this day," said Decarie, who lost touch with her nephew for several years when his father took him to B.C., where he ended up in foster care.
The Decarie family didn't see him again until he visited their home.
At the request of CBC News, Decarie dug through boxes to locate photos of that trip.
Images of a timid child tubing on his uncle's boat, bonding with the aunt who wanted to be his adoptive mother, and being embraced by relatives paint a picture of a childhood that could have been much different.

Family lost contact

The family says it was more than willing to adopt Alex, so long as it had assurances his father would have no contact.
B.C. social workers refused, and the Decaries lost all contact with Alex.
The next time child protection officials called the family would be to notify them of his death says Decarie-Dawson.
"Because he was in the foster system, so we couldn't get a message to him; we couldn't even find out if he was still alive until we found out that he died," said Decarie-Dawson, angry his brother was placed alone in a motel for nearly three months.
"I'm appalled about what has happened to him.  He should have had help. He should've had someone to call."
B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Families would not answer specific questions about the adoption attempt citing privacy law.

Bias towards biological parents says expert

"There might be some missed opportunities," said Dr. Peter Choate, professor of social work at Mount Royal University in Calgary, who has testified as an expert witness in more than 100 child protection cases.
He says social workers are trained to preserve families, but some give too much preference for parents over aunts and uncles.
Peter Choate
Family preservation sometimes means social workers are biased toward parents in custody decisions says Peter Choate, professor of social work at Mount Royal College in Calgary. (Mount Royal University)
"We can be too biased at times towards biological parents and not contemplate what other opportunities may be there that would serve the best interests of the child," said Choate.
He believes there is a lot to learn from reviewing Alex Decarie-Gervais's case.
"Why did we want to keep Alex in contact with his biological parents as long as we did?"
"Did we do enough assessment to see the impact of mental illness on the capacity to parent?"
Choate hopes an independent inquiry will answer those questions, though he warns against a "witch-hunt" against social workers, who have a tough job.
"You are working with the unpredictability of human behavior … the public has to recognize that these are human beings engaged in very human work."  

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The effects of parental incarceration on children

I have written in the past about the impact on chidlren of incarcerating parents. A couple of new reports in the United States highlight the concerns.

The first report Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to the their Children? really emphasizes that the impact of incarceration on children is not a central part of the conversation. This means that, as a society, we are not talking about the fragmentation of families, the loss of the parent figure, the deterioration of economic and social position and the costs to society when the children are marginalized in this way.

The report is reminiscent of the Adverse Childhood Experiences studies when the authors note:

Previous research has found connections between parental incarceration and childhood health problems, behavior problems, and grade retention. It has also been linked to poor mental and physical health in adulthood 
After accounting for effects associated with demographic variables such as race and income, we found that parental incarceration was associated with: • a higher number of other major, potentially traumatic life events—stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative; • more emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and more problems in school, among children ages 6 to 11; and • a greater likelihood of problems in school among older youth (12 to 17), as well as less parental monitoring (pp.1-2)

The report suggests that looking at why and how we incarcerate is important but also says that we must begin to think more carefully about the ways that we support and intervene with the children. There is very little research (and perhaps even less evidence based programming) on how to work with this vulnerable population.

The second report, Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents with Criminal Records talks about the implications of having a criminal record.  The report notes that the United States leads the world in arrests and incarceration so their experience can act as an important source of learning for us. The report notes:

While the effects of parental incarceration on children and families are well-documented, less appreciated are the family consequences that stem from the barriers associated with having a criminal record, whether or not the parent has ever been convicted or spent time behind bars. A child’s life chances are strongly tied to his or her circumstances during childhood. Thus, these barriers may not only affect family stability and economic security in the short term but also may damage a child’s long-term well-being and outcomes.

The report also helps us to see the effects across all important domains in a family's life:

Income. Parents with criminal records have lower earning potential, as they often face major obstacles to securing employment and receiving public assistance. • Savings and assets. Mounting criminal justice debts and unaffordable child support arrears severely limit families’ ability to save for the future and can trap them in a cycle of debt. • Education. Parents with criminal records face barriers to education and training opportunities that would increase their chances of finding well-paying jobs and better equip them to support their families. • Housing. Barriers to public as well as private housing for parents with criminal records can lead to housing instability and make family reunification difficult if not impossible. • Family strength and stability. Financial and emotional stressors associated with parental criminal records often pose challenges in maintaining healthy relationships and family stability (p.2)

 It's a topic that deserves more attention particularly focusing on helping families and children manage the changes, stay connected and build resiliency to face the impacts of involvement in the criminal justice system.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Termination of Parental Rights

I have just had this article published. It discusses some of the very real challenges we face when trying to address issues if Termination of Parental Rights

Termination of Parental Rights: A Commentary
on Ben-David
Child Studies and Social Work, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada

Ben-David (this issue) introduced us to the complexity of the factors
that courts consider in termination of parental rights (TPR).
It is an opening to understanding which factors are taken into consideration
and how courts make these challenging determinations.
Yet there are other questions that must be asked before we truly
understand the TPR decisions made by courts across a variety of
legal jurisdictions. This commentary argues that we must take the
inquiry deeper, asking questions that will unpack the complexity
assisting researchers and clinicians. Thus, we will want to know
how courts weigh such important issues as the credibility of the evidence.
What is it about such factors as parental competence, failure
of remediation, and other issues identified by Ben-David that cause
courts to determine TPR is the best choice? Consideration is given
to how Ben-David’s work might be extended using a Canadian
Journal of Family Social Work, 18:243–252, 2015

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Make life "everyday" for foster children

I am fascinated by a study from the University of Leicester in the UK which looks at the value of simple everyday activities for children in care. It seems that engaging children in the kinds of typical day to day activities can positively impact the sense of well-being. This can be what seems mundane - take the children shopping; play games; help care for pets; get involved in fun activities like going swimming.

These various types of activities engage children with the family system and also expose them to low stress and rewarding experiences. It socializes the child in a different way than may be quite different than experiences prior to coming into care. These sorts of activities, the researchers note, help the children to find their place within the social environment. By being successful and belonging, they can then develop a sense of empowerment in their own world - they be become actors who can create positivity in their life and are not driven by protective reactivity.

This can also lead children into finding comfort and reward in activities that link them to prosocial environments and connections.

In the world of increasing budget constraints, ins't it wonderful to think of the power of these everyday types of activities when a child is included in them with the foster family and other peers. This can also mentor children into learning how to manage free time more constructively.

The report notes:

  • The participation of young people growing up in care is constructed in binary ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ terms. This research has found that this perception can lead to facilitated activities being overvalued and everyday participation being undervalued. The self-expression found in some forms of everyday participation feeds into young people’s sense of autonomy, yet this is not always recognised. 
  • Participation facilitated by the corporate parent and foster carers of young people in care has a positive influence on the choices young people make regarding their own everyday participation. But this works both ways and what they choose to do in their free time in turn influences their decision to engage with the types of participation on offer. 
  •  Safeguarding the well-being of young people in care is a priority for social services and carers. Ensuring and upholding this priority affects and takes precedence in different aspects of the young persons everyday life, including their participation. The requirement to safeguard can interrupt or even prevent participation inside and outside of the home. This leads to young people in care being treated differently and at times can lead to their exclusion.  
  • Participation for young people exists in different geographical locations. However, when a young person in care moves placement, participation can be disrupted or even discontinued. 

The latter point speaks to the need for stability so that children can make connections that they can then hold onto allowing them to expand their sense of place, belonging and worth.

If you would like to look at the report go here and follow the links.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

BC Child welfare system broken?

The Representative for Child and Youth in British Columbia, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, suggests that the child welfare system in her province is broken. She made the comments in a report presented by the ATPN media. One issue that she raises is that, for Aboriginal children, too often funding is linked to the child being in care versus prevention efforts to keep children out of care. Turpel-Lafond has many case examples to back up her worry.

Prevention needs to address issues that child welfare is not set up to manage. Poverty is the main reason that Aboriginal children are in care. Child welfare cannot solve that. They can only respond to the effects of poverty which are typically seen in the form of neglect.

As a new federal government takes shape in Canada, now is the time for at least three core  Aboriginal child welfare issues to be tackled:

  1. Start fully funding child welfare on reserves across this country;
  2. Implement prevention programs to keep children out of care; and
  3. When it is necessary to provide protection to child keep the child within the community and family system by providing needed supports for kinship care to be successful.

In my view, these are priorities. We should be getting them on to the agenda of this new government.

To view the ATPN report, go here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth Nails it Again

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is the Representative for Children and Youth in British Columbia. She has just issued a report, The Thin Front Line that analyzes staffing and related problems in the province's child welfare system. It's a read that is relevant to child protection authorities across Canada and likely elsewhere.

She states that "The problems are systemic and have accumulated over time, worsening and not improving." She adds that the complexities of working in child protection have increased over time but there are fewer workers to manage these caseloads. This should sound familiar in many places.  She notes that workers have had to struggle with budgetary cuts, staff shortages, high turnover and pressure to meet strict timelines.

The government of B.C. says she is working with old data. Perhaps so, but the issues that Turpel-Lafond raises are hardly new. Thus, there may be some improvement but one doubts that the picture is much out of focus given what is seen in scrutiny of child protection throughout the Western world. Indeed, her themes very much mirror my own research on child protection errors. Her conclusions also strongly mirror reviews done by many authors.

Where she gets the story quite straight is in her major themes:

  • Workloads are high and complex;
  • Processes change and are not necessarily clinically focused;
  • The issues that must be dealt with are often connected to long standing inequities that may be beyond the capacity of a worker to solve. An example is the legacy of the Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop which decimated the parenting and family structure in Canada's First Nations communities;
  • Bureaucracy is a burden that takes many hours away from clinical work;
  • It's tough work so people leave and it's hard to get replacements quickly;
  • The geography of Canada (in this case B.C.) means that many rural and remote communities get spotty services;
  • Clinical supervision is required regularly but there are not enough supervisors to manage the needs;
  • She found too many offices operating in crisis mode which tends to lead to "band aid" social work, as she put it.

Turpel-Lafond offers several recommendations which include:

  • Sufficient budgets to address the staffing and workload issues;
  • Improve the management systems to reflect the complexity and volume of cases;
  • Track performance and respond to gaps or poor results;
  • Get more First Nations workers in place.
She notes that there have been some positive steps such as the introduction of the Family Development Response to help support families with lower intensity issues. 

These are not new issues so perhaps the one question she did not ask that needs asking is "Why do these issues keep happening, time and again, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction?" In other words, we are consistently getting it wrong. So how can it be done better. Public reviews need to start talking about that versus repeating themes and recommendations we have seen so often --- or is that governments are not really committed to child protection beyond the band aids? Is that governments don't really want to tackle the complex socio-economic factors that lead to children being at risk - poverty, inter-generational trauma, mental health and addictions and so on?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Investigation in British Columbia may be asking the wrong questions

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced in B.C. what has been hailed as a groundbreaking investigation. They will look into the actions of care workers who were involved with a First Nations youth, Paige, who died as a young adult from a drug overdose. Paige's case was the subject of a scathing report by the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Paige as an infant, child and youth

In that report, social workers are noted to have failed to properly assess her needs; failed to communicate between regions as she moved around the province; didn't persist in trying to work with her as she became more challenging to engage; allowed her to live in some of the most dangerous, drug addicted areas of the province and often saw her without arranging further contact with child protection authorities. She died at the age of 19. She had many problems including Marfan syndrome which left her with very challenging eyesight, medication and cardiac health issues along with her addiction, trauma history and likely mental health issues.

As the CBC reported on September 18, 2015, "Paige as taken to hospital or detox at lest 17 times after being found unconscious or incoherent; she changed schools 16 times; and she featured in more than 40 police files, mostly for public intoxication." Yet, these incidents generally did not result in filing a report to child protection in accordance with provincial legislation. Like most Canadian provincial child welfare legislation, B.C. requires professionals to contact child protection whenever they suspect that a child is in need of protection.

It is the failure of authorities to make these reports that is the subject of the police investigation. But are they asking the right questions? It's tempting to be satisfied that the police may hold these workers accountable for their failures. That may make many professionals more aware although that might also lead to flooding the system with reports and more children coming into care. There can be a "fear chill" arising from such police efforts.

Despite the merits of a police investigation, it may be that the wrong questions are indeed getting asked. I find myself wondering (as I have with virtually all of the over 900 child welfare practice reviews I have read) what structural conditions lead to these kinds of failures.

  • What causes professionals to believe that a report should not be done?
  • What allows workers to believe that hard to reach youth are so challenging that you let them be in dangerous situations?
  • What circumstances lead workers to fail to gather data from others who have worked with a youth?
  • What did professionals believe would make a call to child welfare not worth doing?
  • What is that professionals did not understand about their duty to report or has past experience caused them to believe that such calls are not worth doing because they cannot see any changes occurring?
  • What kinds of supervision exists to support these decisions?
Yes, it is worth asking why these workers did not do what should be done but the questions are much broader. There has never been a prosecution under this section of the B.C. legislation. Turpel-Lafond hopes that this will be a turning point. I fear it may not be the one she wants. How many professionals will now decide that working with child protection cases should be avoided, for example.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Taking a resiliency approach

One of the challenges in child protection, is being faced with an onslaught of significant problems. There is the daily dose of abuse, neglect, addictions and violence. It is not hard to become overwhelmed with the repeated stories of tragedy. Case loads, when high, also make it challenging to get out from under.

Workers faced with this, have a natural tendency to see deficits as the story of the client or the family. Further, the majority of assessments tend to emphasize those issues. Many of the mental health and psychometric tools are largely focused on the deficit or identification of problems. Mental health practitioners look for diagnostic clues which can skew their perspective to a symptom based analysis.

I have become interested in the notion of resiliency in child protection as a way to shift not only our view of the client but also the nature of the relationship that we have with them. There is research that tells us that the relationship is the most powerful tool that we have in our work. I am reminded of the work of Maiter, Palmer & Manji which notes:

Parents appreciated workers who were caring, genuine, empathetic, exceptionally helpful, non-judgmental, and accepting. Negative qualities of workers identified by parents were being judgmental, cold and uncaring, poor listeners, critical, and insincere.(from the abstract, 2006)
To gain trust and be effective, we also need to have patience and begin to understand the ecological reality of the client - including their strengths. What got me thinking about that is a TedTalk by Dr. Gabor Mate speaking about addiction. He suggests that we ask the question "What is right about it?" Imagine asking that question with our clients. We begin then to explore the value of what the client has been doing even when we can easily see it as harmful. 

The power of the relationship can also be seen in a Canadian study in 2012 by Gladstone et el.:

 A relationship was found between workers' perception of parent engagement and parents' perception of their own engagement, as well as between the perceptions that workers and parents had around their own respective engagement. Workers who were satisfied with service outcomes were significantly more engaged than those who were unsatisfied. Parents thinking that their children were safer as a result of intervention were significantly more engaged than parents who thought that their children were less safe. The strongest reason given by parents for positive change was being able to trust their worker (p < .001) and believing that their worker was knowledgeable about parenting (p < .01). (again from the abstract)
I reflected further on this when working with a client recently who has a substance abuse problem, mental health issues and self harming behaviours. It is quite easy to get focused on the problems. But when I went to Mate's question, I began to see how she had survived and coped with a long list of traumas in her life. Her support system had collapsed and her internal resources were overwhelmed. She had found a way to exist. Reframing the behaviours in this way changes how she is seen but most importantly, how she reacts to the relationship.

One of the barriers to change can be what we believe is possible. If we do not see that it can be done, then it takes a strong client to prove us wrong. Not to be mistaken, there are clearly situations where clients resist change or it is just too much for them.

There are also now indicators that, just as trauma can pass between generations through DNA (e.g think of the study of epigenetics) there is also data that suggests that recovery, resilience and strength can pass as well. For an interesting brief read on this, you might look at Dr. Laura Kerr's blog

There is also research out of the United Kingdom suggesting that it is worth looking at the child's well-being. The Children's Society has recently published the 2015 Report, The Good Childhood. I like this report as it invites us into a broader and richer view of seeing how a child is doing. The report starts by noting:

Though it is easy to slip into a shorthand of happiness, well-being is about so much more than this. It is about how young people feel about their lives as a whole, how they feel about their relationships, the amount of choice that they have in their lives, and their future. Wellbeing matters as an end in itself, but also because it is correlated with other outcomes in life such as physical and mental health...

In essence, what this all begins to tell us that there are very good reasons to be hopeful in many of the cases we work with - not all - but many. It is also worth remembering that our goal is not perfection but good enough (Choate & Engstrom, 2014).


Choate, P.W. & Engstrom , S. (2014) The “Good Enough” Parent: Implications for Child Protection, Child Care in Practice, 20:4, 368-382,

Gladston, J., Dumbrill, G., Leslie, B., Koster, A., Young, M. & Ismalia, A. (2013). Looking at engagement and outcome from the perspectives of child protection workers and parents. Children and Youth Services Review, 34 (1), 112-118. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.09.003

Maiter, S., Palmer, S. & Manj, S. (2006). Strengthening social worker-client relationships in child protective services: Addressing power imbalances and 'ruptured' relationships. Qualitative Social Work, 5(2), 161-186. doi: 10.1177/1473325006064255

Pople, L. The Children's Society, Rees, G., Main, G. & Bradshaw, J.. (2015). The Good Childhood Report 2015. London: The Children's Society. 

    Sunday, July 26, 2015

    Dissenting opinions really matter

    Imagine being in a case conference and not feeling that the assembled group has considered all of the needed information. Imagine as well, that you are a junior in the room. What typically happens, is that the junior will keep quiet. They may try to explain their concerns to a trusted colleague later but their ideas are lost to the group.

    The aviation industry has considered this problem as contributing to airline accidents. They have been working at creating an environment where all in the cockpit feel comfortable speaking up. The risks for a plane are a bit more obvious - if the error occurs it might crash killing many. But it is in the analysis of prior accidents that it has become clear that speaking up can save lives.

    Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics has pointed out in earlier writing that we should learn from other industries who have taken time to dissect how to prevent disaster. She believes that there are lessons to be learned. I agree.

    For too long, however, we have relied upon the courage of a dissenting member of the group to speak up rather than encourage dissenting opinions. When that occurs, we tend to see group think - this is where the group coalesces around the opinion of the majority. In particular, the group tends to conform to the opinions of the more powerful members. This leads to errors in thinking and decision making because it assumes that the powerful member or the group has it right.

    The group may, however, in seeking consensus, also filter out data that contradicts the group or power member opinions. Thus, they become selective in what data they consider rejecting data that strays from the group opinion. It leads to conformational thinking as opposed to critical thinking.

    Serious case reviews and similar reviews of death and injury in child protection cases has identified this concern.

    The minority opinion can often contain insights or perspectives that have not been given much consideration or analysis. These opinions can open up new perspectives or link previously unlinked data. They can also act as a way to ensure various options are considered.

    It shouldn't take courage. Rather, it should be encouraged. The group leader should seek the conflicting opinions. The challenge is that it takes time - typically in short supply in high demand, high caseload environments. Yet failing to do so places people at risk.

    For the minority opinion holder, there is also the use of language. Certain terms and words catch the group's attention more than others. Indicating that you have serious concerns, serious reservations, you are quite uncomfortable with the direction being taken, you think that the plan is unsafe,  are all terms that can garner the group's attention. How we say it matters as much as what we say.

    By encouraging this approach, we can reduce harm to children and families.  In a previous blog I spoke about the B.C. Supreme  Court decision that held social workers liable for their decisions to place children in the care of an abusive father. The judge's decision illustrates that contradictory data did exist. This might be an example of how group think occurred and dissenting opinions were either squashed or not voiced. There are many other examples.

    But it is up to managing leaders to create an environment where various points of view are welcomed. When a dissenting opinion occurs, how can it be seen as needed and explored? Management can act in a way that sees the opinion as needed or do the opposite. Thus, the quality of the supervisory environment serves to encourage or discourage the voicing of minority ideas. Otherwise, it can be very lonely to be the "other voice".

    Thursday, July 16, 2015

    BC Child Welfare is found to have caused injury to children through misfeasance

    Imagine, if you will, that child protection authorities get it so wrong that the children are placed in the care of the abusive parent with the active support of child protection. Imagine that, as a result, the children having been sexually abused but not believed. Imagine that the youngest will be sexually abused by the father while the child is in the care of child protection. Imagine, as well, that the misfeasance is led by a supervisor who develops a closed mind on the case. If imaging this and more seems possible, then you can well imagine the case of J.P., her three children and the father, B.G.

    A decision on this case has been issued by The Honourable Mr. Justice Walker of the British Columbia Supreme Court. He lays out the cause of action this way:

    The plaintiffs’ claims are framed in negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and misfeasance in public office (“misfeasance”). The essence of those claims is that the Director and her agents failed to assess and investigate the reports of sexual abuse; wrongly apprehended the children and then misled judicial authorities during a subsequent apprehension proceeding; and, permitted B.G. unsupervised access to the children despite a supervised access order of this Court, with the result that the youngest child was sexually abused by B.G. The plaintiffs further allege that what gave rise to this misconduct was an unreasonable and unyielding belief on the part of the Director, one wholly unsupported by the available information, that J.P. had mental health issues and was unfit to parent, and that B.G. was the parent best capable of caring for the children. 

    Justice Walker will find that the child protection authorities are indeed guilty. In particular, he will be highly critical of the supervisor whom he determines developed a fixed view, based on uninvestigated and false allegations which he would expect staff to also accept. Justice Walker further notes that the behaviour of the supervisor adversely impacted the police investigation.

    Justice Walker states:

    ...The children described sexual touching, including digital touching of genitalia and the anus, oral copulation, and partial penile penetration by their father. B.G. denied all of the allegations. 
    [14] The Director failed to assess and investigate the report of sexual abuse of the three older children as well as required by the standard of care….

    social workers involved in the case disregarded evidence supporting the sexual abuse allegations and failed to ensure that the Director carried out her own assessment and investigation 

    Justice Walker goes on to describe how child protection developed a view that the allegations of abuse were fabricated and related to a mental illness suffered by the mother - a conclusion that Justice Walker concludes had no merit to it. Further, Justice Walker, in measured language of the court, makes it clear that child protection misled courts and lied about information. 

    By February 2010, nearly all of the social workers involved with the case had determined that the children should be returned to the care of their father, and they actively supported B.G.’s claim for sole custody. 

    The decision goes on to note:

    [24] Until mid-December 2011, the Director continued to deny the veracity of the sexual abuse allegations. On December 14, 2011, however, during the First Trial, the Director admitted in a written statement that was handed to the Court shortly thereafter that it was possible that the children had been sexually abused by their father. The Director continued, however, to support B.G.’s claim for sole custody and guardianship. 
    [25] Suddenly, and following her appointment of new trial counsel, the Director reversed her position on March 29, 2012, after some 64 days of trial. She withdrew her protection concerns about J.P. and advised the Court that the children should be returned to their mother. The trial of the issues between J.P. and B.G., including the allegations of sexual and physical abuse, continued and concluded in May 2012. I found that B.G. had sexually and physically abused his three eldest children and physically abused J.P., and ordered that sole guardianship and custody go to J.P. I also ordered that B.G. be denied access to his children. 

    Justice Walker concludes:

    [35] I have determined that the infant plaintiffs have established the liability of the Province for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty owed to them. The plaintiffs, including J.P., have also proven the misfeasance claim. I have determined that the Director and certain Ministry social workers acted well outside of their statutory mandate and the duty to protect children. The nature of their tortious conduct varies depending on the individual. It ranges from intentional misconduct, bad faith, reckless disregard for their obligation to protect children, breach of the applicable standard of care to unreasonably supporting the custodial interests of the children’s father even if it meant he sexually abused them. 

    [36] Fault for the ongoing failure of the Director and her agents to carry out their obligations to act in the best interests of the children and to protect them from harm is not attributed solely to a single Ministry employee. The Director had many opportunities to carry out a proper assessment and investigation of the reports of sexual abuse and to assess the information and evidence provided to her on an ongoing basis, including during the Apprehension Proceeding. Different employees are at fault for different and not necessarily mutually exclusive reasons depending on the point in time. 

    [37] A key feature of the Director’s conduct in this case is that she and many of her agents approached the case in front of them with a closed mind, having concluded at a very early stage, before the children were interviewed, that there was no merit to the sexual abuse allegations and that J.P. had fabricated them and had coached her children to make their disclosures. The Director’s focus turned away from the best interests of the children and on to J.P. As I previously noted, until the 64th day of the First Trial, the Director’s steadfast position was that the sexual abuse allegations were groundless and that J.P. was unfit to parent because she was suffering from mental illness or instability that posed a risk of emotional harm to the children. J.P.’s persistence in her claim that her children had been sexually abused by their father was held against her by the Director because she thought the manner in which J.P. continued to act on her belief caused and would continue to cause emotional harm to the children. The Director supported B.G.’s claim for custody of the children at an early stage in the case, and then unreasonably and aggressively stuck to that plan until March 29, 2012, to the detriment of the children. 

    In the end, Justice Walker will hold child protection liable and will also determine at paragraph 1086 that "Immunity afforded by the CFCSA to good faith discretionary decisions is not afforded to the Director and social workers in this case." In essence, Justice Walker determines that child protection did not act in good faith.

    This case has the risks of the specific social workers being targeted (as happened in the United Kingdom with the Baby Peter case) and the real issues of systemic problems in child protection not getting discussed. In my research of hundreds of cases where things have gone wrong, there are some strong themes that we see in this case. Yes, it appears that the social workers here did not do their job well, but it is the fact that many practice issues seen here are not unique to this case. Therefore, one must conclude that there are some fundamental issues with how child protection is done that we see these issues repeat across cases and across jurisdictions both within Canada and elsewhere in the western work.

    Here are some of the themes in this case and others:

    1.     Hostile divorce matters are often not well managed in child protection. Many times, they are not seen as a child protection issue. In this case, child protection did get involved but then, without proper investigation, took sides.

    2.     Not understanding domestic violence – the mother, who was passionate about trying to get people to hear her concerns, was labeled mentally ill (partially at the instigation of the father). Yet, in domestic violence cases, it is often the more “hysterical” party who is telling the truth. It is the calm, cool one who is often the perpetrator. It takes skilled investigation to sort through this.

    3.   Mental health issues need professional assessment – child protection workers do not possess the advanced training, in most cases, to determine the presence or absence of a mental illness. Experts in the field need to be brought in (not done in this case). Even then, the presence of mental illness does not preclude a parent being appropriately concerned; does not determine parental capacity; and does not make the other parent more capable.

    4.   Group think – in this case, a unified view of the case was developed, led, it seems, by the supervisor. There did not appear to be room for dissension which is one of the most important voices in case management. It is dissension that often leads to critical thinking.

    5.    Ethical practice means being willing to go against the group or the leader. There were some hints that others may have been open to seeing the problems in the case management. Justice Walker talks about deception, lying and misleading courts. Here is an example why child protection workers need to be licensed professional social workers who can be held accountable for ethical practice. I do not know if these individuals were, but it does show how having child protection worker behavior linked to a code of ethical practice is important.

    6.    The best interest of the children was lost. They were not properly assessed or heard which means that their voice was not at the forefront. Other cases have shown that the voice of the child needs to be central to the case. 

    7.    Using selective data and filtering out competing information – good case management means being open to competing data. This does not occur when workers believe that they know it. It is an imperative that each new piece of data be seen as adding to, detracting or altering present understandings – but which is it?

    8.    Interagency communication adds to good case management. Justice Walker noted “The Director delayed in delivering documents requested by another branch of government…” It has been shown time and again that information held and not shared diminishes effective case management.

    The leadership was deficient - it did not appear to offer balance, critical review as well as an instance on continual data gathering and review.

    This case matters because it shows how poor practice gets compounded as the case goes along, ideas become fixed and unchallenged, children get lost and are harmed.

    The BC Representative for Children and Youth has called for the case to receive a full inquiry. This is the kind of case that should because there are many systemic issues to be considered. These children have been damaged, and likely will suffer life long impacts. How we can avoid such harm from bad practice needs to be understood. These are common errors of reasoning that front line practitioners need to better understand.

    August 8 2015

    Since I wrote this post, three important things have occurred:

    1. The Minister has appointed an independent officer, former senior government official, Bob Plecas, to investigate this case.

    2. The Representative for Children and Youth, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, has been bypassed to conduct the investigation even though it would fall within her jurisdiction. She has issued a press release saying she may yet use her powers to investigate and thus, will not work with Plecas. She has powers to take evidence under oath which Plecas does not. It is curious that the government has by-passed the Representative. 

    3. The BC Government has appealed the decision which the mother has called cruel.