Monday, August 24, 2015


This is an opinion piece by my colleague and guest writer, Ray Ferris appeared in The Times Colonist. Ray sent it to me after it was published there. whom you know as the author of 'The Art of Child Protection,' and as a frequent contributor here, as well as an advisor to countless parents as well as lawyer and members of parliament. You can order the book at

The Walker judgement and several others have made it evident that an adversarial and even hostile culture permeates the ministry responsible for child protection. There are probable causes for this. One is that provincial social workers used to be responsible for both financial assistance and child welfare. The deep-seated antagonism to assistance applicants rubbed off on child welfare cases, often the same cases. The three children’s aid societies were kinder, because they handled no assistance. All services were amalgamated by the first NDP government.

The courts used to function well. In the late seventies I studied about 200 cases which went through the Victoria court. No cases exceeded statutory time guidelines and judges were vigilant in demanding proper notices and other parental protections. Only four cases went to contested hearings. Most cases were settled by negotiation. There were many registered social workers and there was a sense of professionalism among the staff members.

There was a marked deterioration after the Gove report. A major reorganisation was followed closely by the enactment of a long and complicated Act. Chaos followed and the courts virtually ground to a halt. More and more lawyers appeared in family court and of course their well-established adversarial culture did nothing to help matters.

The British Seebohm commission of the sixties noted that there were many non-systemic problems in the social services and they would not be remedied by systemic changes. This basic lesson was lost in BC and every time there has been a big child welfare mess only systemic fixes have been tried and of course they have not worked. Following the Gove report, major systemic fixes were tried, which made things worse. The same for the Judge Hughes report.

The most important non-systemic problem is that the staff members do not have the knowledge and skills required to do protection work. Administrators only understand systemic remedies. They tried to reduce protection staff into bureaucratic functionaries doing everything by formula. If you think that filling in forms and checklists produces good social work, then you probably think that painting by numbers is great art. Competent, experienced staff were shown no respect and professionalism was slowly stifled. This led to increasing dysfunction and a toxic atmosphere with a resultant high staff turnover.

As professional skills eroded, social workers no longer did assessments and other work needing skills. Instead they became brokers, contracting out the work to psychologists, private counsellors and social workers. Also they depend increasingly on lawyers and often call in counsel to attend routine meetings with parents. If parents contest a protection complaint, the social workers will fight it tooth and nail, no matter how weak the evidence, while young children can stay in limbo for years. It is not unusual for parents to sell or re-mortgage the family home to pay legal costs.

The search for remedies is complex. Both Gove and Hughes noted that social work schools do not teach the skills of child protection. Hardly surprising because until the sixties only Freudian psychology was taught. This started the trend for following all the latest psychological gurus. As the main qualification for registration is a social work degree, so it is hard to see how registration would benefit. Indeed many of the staff involved in the tragic Vaudreuil case were registered and they did just as badly as anyone else. The registrar recently told me that no registered members are employed in child protection.

What are the remedies? The main problem is that untrained staff are given difficult responsibilities. There is no point in just hiring more workers who do not know what they are doing. The knowledge and skills for protection workers are definable, teachable and trainable under good mentorship. I have written on the topic many times. What is ntrainingeeded is a good core training programme lasting several months which teaches these skills. The first hurdle will be to find someone with the ability to teach and mentor and many of the supervisory staff may need to be retrained. The system has become ruinously expensive. Perhaps the Hon. Stephanie Cadieux should start her inquiry by inquiring into the competence of her senior staff.

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