B.C.’s Child Protection legislation states, “Children are entitled to be protected from abuse, neglect and harm or threat of harm.”
That is laudable. No argument.
There are inherent themes in our BC system of child protection.
It is acknowledged among us that natural (birth) parents of a child should have full rights over their child. ‘Full rights’ is termed custody or guardianship or parental rights. Custody changes only when by agreement or court order full rights are removed to someone else. Our government can and does intervene to apprehend a child from parents. In such a case all or most of the ‘full’ rights are removed from the natural parents. The Child Protection Ministry then has custody of the child pursuant to the statute which empowers it.
Within B.C.’s Child, Family and Community Service Act, is clearly stated that within our free society there are expectations of natural parents or other caregivers for that matter to provide for necessities of life to children.
Any time a child has been or is likely to be harmed or abused physically, sexually or emotionally or if the child is deprived of necessary health care or when a parent is unwilling or unable to care for the child, then a child is deemed to be in need of protection. And this list of justifications for intervention is unrestricted, that is, the Ministry is authorized to extend this list to accommodate situations where protection seems the safest course of action. For instance here is a quote from the ACT, “A director may, without a court order, remove a child if the director has reasonable grounds to believe that the child needs protection and that the child's health or safety is in immediate danger, or no other less disruptive measure that is available is adequate to protect the child.”
What makes many of us uncomfortable is that extravagant endowment of power over lives of children and parents when coupled with another feature of our child protection legislation. I refer to the mandate, the command that everyone must report any child needing protection. In fact, it is considered an offence not to report. At first glance such good Samaritanism seems appropriate if protection of children is important to us. A second glance through a lens of experience and the flaws are glaring. The B.C. Government helpfully suggests examples of such reporting scenarios which in my mind can easily be interpreted as meddlesome and intrusive and dangerous. The examples include (1) a school teacher noticing bruises on a child which the child and family cannot explain; (2) a person notices that a child is often ill or unclean or falls asleep.
A child can be apprehended on the basis of such a report. Then a court hearing called the Presentation Hearing is required speedily. Parents and families and friends are distressed with this step because the parent's essential and comprehensive challenge of the evidence is deferred to a later Protection Hearing. Parents are virtually helpless here. Their children’s lives are significantly interrupted by such an abridged process. How appalling must it be for a parent that a child can be forced to stay with strangers while suspicions, sometimes bogus, and anonymous allegations of abuse are investigated.
Do I think that apprehension decisions by the Ministry are made lightly? No, I don’t. I believe that as a society, as individuals, as policy makers and as social workers we concur that there must be exceedingly strong grounds for surrendering ‘full rights’ or removing ‘full rights’ of natural parents. I honestly believe that in most cases a judge does seek to make an unbiased and careful decision. Yet I also observe that we have certified a system that reduces the stringency of these ideals when it comes to apprehending children based upon suspicion. The worst scenario but not uncommon is that children engaged in a cycle of protection hearings may remain in the Director’s custody for a long time, in some cases this has been to the age of majority. Of course many parents become exhausted, disconnected from help, hopeless and impoverished by legal service bills. They give up. They become embittered. In desperation and anger they unite in online support and advocacy groups to raise awareness of abusive treatment. And an uninformed constituency and a self protective Ministry enterprise can write them all off as flakes.
I am more convinced each day that there is room for improvement if not comprehensive reform of our Child Protection training, policies, accountability structures, methodology and procedures.