Part Seven of Nine
Resolving Systemic Problems in Child Protection Services
By Ray Ferris
Ferris retired after a career that included significant years with the MCFD. He has written a book entitled 'The Art of Child Protection.' This is the first in a series of pieces Ray will write here. You can order Mr. Ferris' book entitled 'the Art of Child Protection' by contacting the author directly at email@example.com.
A historical perspective.
In the late nineteen seventies I was family court co-ordinator in the Victoria family court. In those days judges were meticulous in insisting on proper notification for all hearings, even if they were only interim hearings. The main judge also would not proceed unless he was satisfied that the parents had adequate legal representation and he would order the director to provide it if legal aid was not available. He would also order separate counsel for the children, when he felt it necessary. During a period of 18 months about 200 protection cases went through the court. No statutory time limits were exceeded. At the time, care could not exceed two years and by that time a child must be made a permanent ward, or returned home. Most cases were completed within one year and only four cases went to full contested hearings. Many permanent orders were not contested for the simple reason that the parents did not want their children, or had deserted them. In most cases an agreement was made with the parents through negotiation and discussion.
All these cases have certain elements in common and the implications of these things leads to conclusions which are in a very high realm of probability. They graphically illustrate systemic and non-systemic problems and how they interact.
1. The cost of opposing an action by the ministry is far too high for most people to afford and easily outstrips the funds available under legal aid. In addition few legal aid lawyers have the skills to defend such cases. Even selling the family home is not always adequate. A tactic, which seems to be commonly used by the directors, is to call so many witnesses that cases are extremely prolonged and meantime children are held in limbo. The only successful defences were because the family home was valuable enough to provide funding, or where lawyers carried the cases pro bono. It should be self-evident that future of children and their best interests should not depend on having parents with substantial assets. In addition, the public money spent on prosecuting these cases can be astronomical and in the worst case it will be many millions in lawyers’ fees. When one adds in the court costs for twenty or thirty days and the cost of foster care and the cost of all the supervised visiting, a million dollars soon disappear. A systemic change needed is to find some way of providing better funding for defence counsels. This could be done by routinely funding contracted defence counsels just as crown counsels are funded. This would enable a development of equal skills and there could be far more negotiation about screening out weak evidence. Judges could also be much more pro-active in discouraging the calling of witnesses with little to offer and spending days listening to hearsay evidence.
2. Another thing that all these cases have in common is that they involved people at the highest management levels in the M.C.F.D. The actions of the regional staff were fully supported up to the deputy minister level. In some instances there was repeated publicity about the case and it could not have escaped the attention of high management. The expenditure of those enormous sums on legal services could only have been authorised by senior officials in two ministries. In all these cases the stance of the director was always very adversarial. This was true, even in the cases of weak evidence. At sometimes the approach was aggressive to the point when it could have been deemed as hostile.
It seems that in the last 20 to 30 years and adversarial culture has permeated the ministry at all levels. The reasons for this are complex and many things have made a contribution. The erosion of knowledge and skills among protection workers has made them very unsure of themselves. Every time a case gets publicity from cases of child death such as Matthew Vaudreuil or Sherry Charlie, a wave of anxiety sweeps the ministry and many cases are over-investigated and pursued without adequate evidence. In spite of huge increases in staff over this period, the service does not improve, because there is no point in hiring more people if you do not know how to train them properly. There is no clear systemic fix for this type of problem, but it needs good leadership, with a strong commitment to eliminating all these damaging delays to children.
3. Knowledge and skills.
The knowledge and skills needed by social workers in protection work can be defined, taught and trained. I will start with the skills that are most often lacking. The most obvious one is the lack of evidentiary skills. Social workers do not seem to know what evidence is reliable and what is not. They cannot distinguish between factual evidence, eyewitness evidence, expert opinion evidence, hearsay, conjecture, assumption and rumour. Crown counsel should be screening out the weak items in the spectrum of evidence and counselling moderation. This was done in the B. case, but the director ignored this counsel. If the social workers only proceeded on factual and eyewitness evidence cases could be shortened and of course expert opinion evidence should not be accepted without rigorous process.
Another very weak area in social work training is in knowing how to do various social assessments. Risk assessments, parental capacity assessment, general assessments and things like adoption and foster home studies all need the same generic skills and they should fall well within the training range of social workers. All these skills should be based on facts and they used to be commonplace for trained social workers. With the erosion of all these skills, social workers no longer do ordinary assessments, but simply become brokers to hire psychologists, private practice social workers, registered clinical counsellors and various community service groups.
Social workers appear to have no knowledge of guidelines for the proper forensic interviewing of children. Good interministry guidelines were drawn up over twenty years ago, but they have been long forgotten. Because of their lack of knowledge in this area social workers are unable to judge the work of others when they contract it out. Private practice social workers, psychologists and registered clinical counsellors are not trained in child protection work and so we get into a situation where the blind are leading the blind. It has been postulated that the skills should be taught to those who have the legal responsibility, just as is done with policemen and a host of other professional occupations. This will not happen without a strong commitment to training and retention. This will mean increased funding in these areas, but it does not mean increased overall funding. The systemic fix is to define and fund a good core training programme with clear goals and objectives. Training must be guaranteed to every new employee and there should be refresher training for supervisors and senior workers.