Part Nine of
Resolving Systemic Problems in Child Protection Services
By Ray Ferris
Yesterday Ray continued with his 'Analyses of commonalities in cases and the subsequent probable conclusions illustrate systemic and non systemic problems and how they interact, and added Lawyers and Mediation to previous observations of prohibitive costs of legal action, MCFD adversarial culture, lack of training and evidentiary skills among social workers. There are two more today.
The ministry seems to have no clear concept about what access is appropriate and what is not. The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies does have guidelines and these are vastly different from what is practised in British Columbia. There seems to be no differentiation from case to case as to when close supervision of access is needed and when unsupervised access would seem more appropriate. The rationale appears to be that any protection action means that there is risk to a child and therefore there would be dire risk if unsupervised access were allowed. This is not rational. If the director is seeking a continuing care order, then this is a reasonable assumption and it might well be argued that access should not be allowed at all to parents who are so hopelessly unfit as to merit permanent loss of their children.
However, shall we say that due notice has been served on the parents that a temporary order only is sought and the plan on the presentation report was to return the children, then access should be supportive of such a plan. Every person who has had children in care, even for fairly short periods reports the same sort of thing. Any visits are tightly supervised and every word and gesture is tightly monitored, as if the parent would suddenly attack the child. This is so irrational that it strikes people as paranoid. When parents have no history of child abuse, but perhaps it is a case of borderline neglect, there is no reason to waste public money on such over-caution.
The Ontario guidelines also advise social workers to arrange all access visits to be in the family home whether supervised or not. This is to keep the children in touch with familiar things and to lessen their anxiety. I have had hundreds of foster children under the care of my staff and me. We seldom found it necessary to supervise visiting. When parents were able to pick up their children at the foster home and take them out for the day, it gave us good opportunities to evaluate the progress of the parent. If parents were consistent and reliable, it became positive evidence. I would introduce the parent to the foster parent first and our foster parents were often good mentors for the natural parent. If a supervised visit became necessary, I preferred to do it myself, so that I could evaluate the situation first hand.
The systemic change would be to draw up clear guidelines on visiting and to make it part of core training for protection workers. Old staff should be retrained on this matter. Such a device would save a great deal of money.
Registered social workers have a code of ethics, which was drawn up by the BC Association of Social Workers. This code is fairly general and open to interpretation, but it does provide some sort of guidelines. When the social workers act was first passed and registration started, a good number of registered social workers were employed in child protection and related work. One children’s aid society urged all eligible employees to become registered. The registrar recently told me that they do not need to devise practice standards for protection workers because no members do that work any more. The director of the BCASW told me the same thing.
This situation came about after years of registered social workers having a rocky relationship with the children’s ministry. When an ethics complaint was filed against an employee, they found barriers to them giving information to the registrar that would help their defence. It seems that the managers regarded registration as serving two masters and blocked communication under an interpretation of protecting confidentiality. Many other registered professionals work for government and it is usually accepted that their registrars have a right to professional accountability from their members.
A problem that began to plague the complaints process was that the board decided to hire a lawyer on a regular basis. Immediately the registrar became more adversarial. All complaints were treated with the same heavy hand, however trivial. An example of this aggressive approach happened after the Gove report came out. The registrar initiated ethics complaints against all registered social workers who had handled the Matthew Vaudreuil file. They were accused of breaching various standards of practice. However, there were no specific standards of practice and so the registrar had to resort to making them up retroactively. (For years I offered to form a committee to draw up standards of practice in child protection, but the registrar declined the offer.)
The end result was that most of the registered social workers involved just resigned their registration, because it became too stressful to deal with it. This started a general trend. The registrar was usually so aggressive in handling complaints, that most people just gave up their registration. It became too difficult to defend oneself and as registration was voluntary it made no difference to employment. Most registered social workers nowadays keep their registration because it is important to their livelihood.
Social work is not a rigorous profession and does not have the sort of objectively framed standards of practice that so many other professions have. They do not undergo the same examination of applied skills that goes into all the medically related professions and other science based professions. So any practice complaints must be based on the general clauses of the code of ethics. If we look at the case examples that I quote in the earlier pages, it is easy to see numerous examples of blatant breaches of the code of ethics from a number of social workers and other officials employed by the children’s ministry. There were examples of untruthful and misleading statements, distortion of the facts, abusive behaviour, neglect of duty, denial of right, downright malice and more. Often one was led to wonder if there was any moral or ethical sense at all. How does one make any systemic sense of this sort of thing? How does one find a systemic remedy?
I suggest that it is high time that the senior administration construct a code of ethics for protection staff at all levels and make it a vital part of core training and retraining. It is high time that the senior staff set the example instead of supporting and defending the bad behaviour of field staff.
Use of technology.
Technology has its uses, but it also has its limitations. Good child protection depends on high qualities in the staff. Protection social workers need intelligence, integrity, compassion and courage. Without these qualities they cannot achieve the difficult skills needed by protection workers. If these qualities are lacking in staff, no amount of technology will help them. Just as this paper is being written using a sophisticated computer, the technology is only as good as the knowledge and writing ability of the user. Fixing problems by using technology often becomes another piece of wishful thinking and a vain search for the quick fix. People at every level of government can be beguiled by this hope. This can be just another attempt to fix non-systemic problems by systemic means.
A form of blackmail
It can be noted that many people, who write for advice on child protection advocacy websites, report that they only agreed to a protection finding out of desperation. They stated that they were told that should they contest, it could take months or years to see their children except on a very restricted basis.