Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 49
What is child protection all about, and how would a child protection social worker become involved in a siutation?
Child protection is exactly what it says – protecting children from neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. Social workers become involved when someone from the community calls to report a concern about a child. The Child, Family and Community Services Act requires social workers to investigate child protection reports. These calls may come from professionals such as police, hospital staff and teachers. Neighbours and family members may also call to report concerns.
Many of these reports are not serious enough for investigation or intervention. Social workers get involved when a parent is exhibiting clear symptoms of untreated mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction, and when children are noticeably neglected – such as always being hungry, having poor hygiene, being transient, or chronically absent from school. Children’s behaviour that is sometimes an indication of a problem at home includes being either very aggressive or very withdrawn. Sometimes the reporters of abuse are the children themselves. Some children talk about wanting to kill themselves or begin to self-harm.
What would the next step in the process be after a worker has been contacted, and what options are there for a parent with mental illness to make the initial contact(s) safer or to help them show their strength or capabilities?
Sometimes the initial contact is in the form of an unannounced phone call or home visit. Though most people’s initial reaction to contact from a social worker is fear and anger, try to remember they are only doing their job and that responding to the social worker’s concerns in a cooperative way is helpful in establishing trust (easier said than done).
If the first contact is a phone call requesting an inperson appointment, you can have someone with you during that interview – for instance, an advocate, friend, trusted family member, or a professional who is involved with your family such as a counsellor or teacher. If at any time during your involvement with the Ministry of Children and Family Development you feel unfairly treated, you can ask to speak to the social worker’s supervisor or make a complaint with Quality Assurance at (604) 981-0165.
What are other options for support during the process?
Many times, the result of an investigation will be the conclusion that the child protection concerns can be addressed with support from the community. Programs such as parent education, daycare for the child, family mediation, mental health or addictions counselling, or support groups can be helpful for the parent and child. When a parent begins attending these recommended services, often the file will be closed as it is determined that the family is getting help in the community. Showing that parents and children have a healthy supportive network goes a long way in reassuring the social worker that the child or children are safe and cared for.
Under what circumstances would a child be legally removed? What options would a parent have in these situations?
If the social worker determines that your child is in need of protection and more intrusive legal action is taken – including removing the child(ren) from the parents’ care – alternate dispute resolution such as mediation and family conferencing is available. These are ways for a neutral person to facilitate the discussions between the social worker and parents and among family members. In mediation, the neutral person (the mediator) is always in the room with the participants and all the issues are discussed together. In family conferencing, part of the meeting allows for the parents and their support network – extended family members, friends, and other supportive people such as neighbours and church members – to meet privately without the social worker or facilitator to discuss a safety plan for the child(ren) and present it to the social worker and supervisor. Alternate dispute resolution only works if there is some acknowledgement by the parents that there are issues to be resolved in the family. The social worker must also be open to a negotiated care plan allowing the family to make all or some of the decision.
Mediation and family conferencing allow for the family to have more ownership of the problems and the solutions. Sometimes a child does need to be out of a parent’s care while the parent attends treatment, finds safe and stable housing and works on the issues that resulted in social worker involvement. In these situations, if extended family or friends can provide the placement for a child, some financial support can be provided. Social workers know – and research shows – that in most cases families provide the best support for a child during periods of high stress or a crisis, or even for the long term.
If an alternate dispute program is not successful or appropriate – all participants must be meeting in good faith with an openness to resolving the issues – then court action is likely the next step. Contact legal aid to get a lawyer to attend all court matters. Even if legal action has been taken, court can be postponed to convene an alternate dispute meeting, if that option has not already been tried. If a child has been removed from the parent’s custody, sometimes children are returned under a supervision order whereby certain conditions must be met. Examples of the conditions are to attend counselling, to not have contact with a certain person (a violent boyfriend for example), or to ensure the child is always supervised.
What about the concern by parents with mental illness if they ask for mental health care, then this might make them more likely to have their capability to parent questioned?
If parents are seeking mental health care, social workers see that as a sign of strength and health in the family. That shows acknowledgement and acceptance of the illness, and it is well known by social workers that most mental illness can be successfully treated. Some parents work out a Ulysses Agreement with their support network and social worker, so that if a parent begins to have symptoms which could compromise their ability to parent, a safety plan is in place for the child(ren). When mental health care is in place, child protection files are usually closed because the child protection concerns are being addressed in the community.
Any other advice you could offer?
Remember that removing children from parents and family is a very last resort and is done only under extreme situations. Social workers, like most people, do have their biases and weaknesses and can sometimes make ill-informed decisions. However, in most situations, social workers work cooperatively with the family to strengthen the family’s capacity to parent their children. Let the social workers know your strengths and stories about all the good and loving things you do for your child(ren). But at the same time, if you are having struggles, and are making poor decisions that negatively impact your child(ren) and need help, tell the social worker that part too. There are many resources that can help you and your children.