Ray Ferris is a frequent commentator and occasional post writer here. Ray speaks and writes from a vast experience of 31 years in public service in general public welfare and child welfare, child protection, as a social worker, district supervisor, work among aboriginal peoples, long term foster care supervisor, family court coordinator, director of alcohol and drug counselling. Ray is the author of 'The Art of Child Protection'. He is a decided critic of aspects of MCFD policy as exemplified by the manner in which the Bayne family were treated these past four years. He has written today's piece.
THE MYTH OF SYSTEMS FAILURES
Whenever a new tragedy befalls some poor child in this province, how often do we hear the explanation expressed that “the system” failed little Cherie. Or poor Matthew seems to have fallen through the cracks in the system. How very, very convenient that we can always find this convenient “system” that we can blame. This nondescript entity which seems to have a life of its own and it has nothing much to do with people.
What do we really mean by a system? It can be a mathematical system, or an air-conditioning system, or a heating system. Yes indeed, such mechanical systems can fail due to wear and tear and we expect them to need repair from time to time and that is why we have a system for training and employing people who repair various systems.
Or we can have a system of production and distribution and to make this easier, we have invented a monetary system. Farmers grow food; truckers take it to the wholesaler who re-distributes it to the retailer. For this system to work we need people with reliable skills who are predictable in their behaviour. We live in a complex society, with many complex interdependent systems. The wonder is not that the systems occasionally fail, but rather that it happens so rarely. Human error is called what it is in most cases. Just recently we had some very foolish behaviour by a number of highly placed bankers who nearly ruined the financial system. The system did not fail. They took a lot of risks and indulged in highly irresponsible behaviour.
So what do we mean when we talk about the child protection system? We have a number of people working in a hierarchical organization who have specific duties and responsibilities under various pieces of legislation. The legislation is the linchpin of the system and it defines the duty of employees to protect children from harm and goes so far as to specify various conditions deemed harmful. The act sets out strict procedural rules and guidelines. These are designed to ensure speedy resolution of child protection matters. Delays one way or the other can be damaging to kids. Children should be returned home or given alternative long term care within one year for instance. There are rules and procedures to ensure that there is clarity of process. Rules regarding notice and time lines. Parental rights are protected and clear notice and disclosure must be given within a time frame. This is the blueprint for the system.
Like all co-operative human systems, they can only work properly if all the people who play a part have reliable knowledge and skills. Social workers, supervisors, foster parents, lawyers and judges must all be well trained and have specific areas of expertise. Not only that they must be relied upon to do their jobs with integrity and diligence and strive to ensure that the legislation is followed in both letter and spirit. If any one of these people is lazy, or indifferent, or greedy there is a weak link in the system. If you have a whole staff each of whom is unskilled and untrained, the system becomes a disaster. If staff turnover is so high that employees never gain the necessary experience, then the system will always be dysfunctional. Not because the system as devised is inherently bad, but because the people in it are dysfunctional.
Not surprising then that all the many child welfare disasters in the western countries turn out to have been caused by human failings. Matthew Vaudreuil died because numerous staff ignored compelling evidence of the risk to him. Sloppy, lazy work killed poor little Cherie. Anna Climbie died in England, because social workers turned a blind eye to her bruises and other injuries.
Ayn Hoare is in care because staff members are abusing their authority and are unable to see the many strengths in the home. Not only that, we can guarantee that the father will not get his day in court within statutory requirements. Presentation within seven days of apprehension. Hearing within 45 days, due notice served and all disclosures fully made. That is how it is supposed to work. Social workers, lawyers and judges all know it. Wink wink; nudge nudge let us not let the law be an inconvenience.
The Bayne kids are in care and about to return home after nearly four years. No, the system did not fail. A series of very bad decisions condemned the children to risk of severe emotional harm. They were not victims of a system. They were victims of ignorance, stupidity, hostility and indifference by various human beings. The case should never have gone beyond seven months at the very outside.