National Post Barbara Kay: Attacking the root of children’s aid societies’ rot

National Post - Wednesday April 24th, 2013

On April 11, Progressive Conservatives and NDP members of the Ontario Legislature joined forces (with one Liberal) to pass the second reading of Bill 42, an act that would allow the province’s ombudsman “to investigate any decision or recommendation made or any act done or omitted in the course of the administration of a children’s aid society” (CAS).

CAS oversight is desperately needed. As Ontario Ombudsman André Martin said in a recent Toronto Star article: “Every year my office is forced to turn away hundreds of people complaining about children’s aid societies. We are powerless to investigate these cases.” Since 2006, there have been “more than 2,500 people we have been unable to help.”

But nobody should assume that even an ombudsman with new powers to match those of other provinces will significantly alter the systemically flawed culture of these powerful organizations. Although Ontario’s CAS network is the most vilified by its proven and alleged victims, frequent accusations of CAS-facilitated injustices to children and parents crop up everywhere in Canada.

It seems to me that in concentrating on the heartbreaking, emotive stories that make it to the front page – like that of Jeffrey Baldwin who starved to death in the care of grandparents with well-known histories of abuse, or Katelynn Sampson, murdered by guardians with a history of violence – we are bewailing the blighted leaves, instead of inspecting the deep, tangled roots, of a diseased tree.

We know what the twisted “branches” are: lack of accountability and oversight; unusual powers without checks and balances; impenetrable secrecy; and a business model of per capita funding that subtly encourages apprehension as a first, rather than last, resort. We will not solve the problem by pruning branches here and there. We need to treat the invisible cultural assumptions that hold the tree aloft.

The first Canadian CAS was the brainchild of Toronto journalist and social activist John Joseph Kelso. His vision did not spring from altruism for children enduring poverty, neglect or family conflict. Rather it was based in a dehumanizing revulsion from the lower classes. Kelso’s contempt for “street Arabs,” as he dubbed Toronto’s poor children, inspired a solution modelled on the contemporary humane movement for dogs and cats.

There have been far too many stories of abuse at the hands of foster parents — inflicted upon children taken in by the state to protect them from abuse

In 1893 Kelso began a 40-year term as Ontario’s first superintendent of neglected children and used his influence to create what he considered a positive social cleansing paradigm. He believed that by removing children from homes deemed unfit, and by placing children with “good” middle-class families, children would, like rescue dogs, happily acclimate to their new surroundings and become model citizens. Kelso bragged to then-premier of Ontario Oliver Mowat that the system would empty the prisons and purge society of riffraff.

It was exactly along these class lines that the residential school system for “savages” was founded. The utopians who conceived these social-engineering systems did not accord inherent rights to children, nor did they consider the inherent weaknesses and temptations to the abuse of power implicit in state care of the vulnerable.

We ended the residential school system when it became clear that wrenching children from their biological parents, even when their family home is far from ideal, is traumatic and morally wrong. No “superior” home or Church-run institution can compensate children for their loss, nor can parents and grandparents ever heal from the torment of what bereft parents often consider an outright “kidnapping.”

We’re still fiddling with branches when we should be digging up moribund roots

Of course some dire situations demand removal of a child. Of course many foster parents are wonderful, dedicated people. But no one can deny that there have been far too many stories of abuse at the hands of foster parents — inflicted upon children taken in by the state to protect them from abuse!

So, while an ombudsman with the power of oversight is better than an ombudsman without the power of oversight, we’re still fiddling with branches when we should be digging up moribund roots. Children are not pets. We need a standardized, rights-respecting, power-checked, transparent children’s aid model in which child removal is the exception, not the norm.

An adaptation of the aboriginal “talking circle” model makes sense to me. In this takes-a-village paradigm, nobody holds absolute power. The objective is family unification: the child maintains his family connection safely with the participation of parents, foster parents, community elders, clergy and social workers.

Alberta recently passed a law that you can’t remove a child from a family on the grounds of disability. The idea is to help the family adapt to the child’s need instead of removing the child.  Helping all “disabled” families become functional while remaining intact should become the new 21st century roots for all Canadian CAS’s.

National Post