National Post Barbara Kay: Seeking an alternative to Children’s Aid Societies

National Post - Wednesday March 6th, 2013

Isaiah Duplessis, 2 years old, plays at the Toronto Children's Aid Society. In an effort to end the cycle of violence and the continuous return of children to their care, the Toronto CAS decided that it needed to teach people how to be good parents.

There is no more ignominious epitaph on a public policy’s tombstone than “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” When residential schools were first mooted, they probably made eminent political sense as a means for “civilizing” native children. Unfortunately, “at the time,” nobody took human nature into account.

The schools’ travesty taught us hard lessons: that children typically prefer their own parents, whatever challenges they face, to competent fostering; that tearing families apart for anything less than serious abuse is traumatizing to both parents and children; and that absolute power over children separated from their natural protectors invites predatory behaviours.

These are lessons that must be understood not only in the context of residential schools — which do not exist anymore — but also in the very much ongoing institution of Children’s Aid Societies (CAS), which can and do remove children from parents deemed unfit to provide proper care.

I wrote about flaws in the child-service system in my column last week: 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. I concluded that in spite of high CAS ideals, governments should conduct a wholesale review of the current outmoded program model.

At the end of my column, l suggested readers watch the 2011 Canadian documentary film Powerful as God at The film illuminates the pain the system often causes through the narratives of alleged victims and former CAS-affiliated lawyers, psychologists and social workers.

I won’t review the witness statements of the parents, child survivors and foster parents. Moving and persuasive as they are, we don’t have the other side of the story (CAS was asked to participate, but declined).

More important from a policy perspective are the words of professional insiders: of, for example, Alfred “Alf” Mamo, a family lawyer in London, Ont., who has represented both CAS and the Office of the Children’s Lawyer. Mamo says that CAS injustice “can happen to anyone,” and that the millions used on CAS litigation could be better spent actually helping people.

There is also Michael Clarke, a family lawyer in Hamilton, Ont., who has done extensive research on child welfare issues; Clarke says there is an “imbalance of power” between CAS and clients, whose social workers are “holding all the cards.”

Then there is former respite worker Lyndsey Cara King, who “felt morally obligated to quit my job” at a Toronto agency over well-documented abuses of would-be adoptive parents’ rights.

Filmmaker Esther Buckareff is a former foster parent. Her inspiration to make Powerful as God as part of her Ryerson University master’s thesis sprang from two sources: her personal, disillusioning experiences with the CAS and her study of film-making in Cuba, where, she wrote me, “people are bullied and silenced in a dictatorship. Fear of the state bureaucracy was palpable, just like ‘clients’ of the CAS.”

There are more children in state care now than there ever were in residential schools. Not surprisingly, aboriginal families constitute an enormously disproportionate clientele of child-service agencies today. Ultimately, Buckareff’s exposure to the “Talking Together Circle,” an alternate aboriginal model of dispute resolution offered through a Thunder Bay legal clinic, gave her hope.

It seems appropriate that the film lingers over First Nations’ unique approach to healing broken families.

In the film, Celina Reitberger, executive director and legal counsel for the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation in Thunder Bay, explains how the talking circle can work at any stage of family crisis: preventatively or at any point up to the courthouse steps.

In the talking circle, she says, nobody holds absolute power. Family unification, with the child maintaining his family connection safely throughout the process is always the paramount ideal. Transparency is key to success. Everyone participates: parents, foster parents, community elders, clergy and social workers. Watchwords are “respect,” “openness” and “fairness.” The goal is not to pass judgment but to “restore harmony.”

Although I don’t approve of two-tiered justice in criminal cases — prison for white criminals, sweat lodges for natives — I do find the “circle” model for healing dysfunctional families a more compelling and civilized alternative to the apprehension-and-sequester model that creates so much distress in many CAS cases.

One First Nations man Buckareff interviewed was astonished to find the “devil work” of the CAS was not only his own culture’s problem. “Oh my God,” he exclaimed after watching the finished film, “it’s happening to the white people, too!” Then added: “Finally, they know what it feels like.”

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