Shattered families

Is the chill of ‘Shirley Turner syndrome’ making CYFS over-zealous?

Pam Frampton pframpton@thetelegram.com
Published on October 5, 2013
‘Innocent families have no rights’

The sight of the gas-sniffing children of Natuashish, passed out and still clinging to plastic bags of gasoline, is cause for despair.

This is not what childhood should be, nor what any parent wants for their children.

Child and youth advocate Carol Chafe wants Child, Youth and Family Services to step in, as the department responsible for ensuring the safety of this province’s children.

And Natuashish needs help — both addicted children and their parents — in both the short and long term.

But in other parts of the province, there are those who suggest that CYFS has too strong a presence; that it is too quick to remove children from their homes in the name of child protection.

There are those who say the department — if not the whole system, involving police and medical professionals as well — operates under the chill of “Shirley Turner syndrome,” a reference to the fact that accused murderer Shirley Turner took her own life and that of her child while out on bail.

eople within the system may be terrified that if they don’t err on the side of caution, a child could be put in serious jeopardy.

Having a job that involves helping to shape the decision to take children away from their families must be incredibly stressful and burdensome. Who would want to make such a decision, always wondering whether it was the right one?

Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) does not undertake its work lightly; there are rigorous protocols in place.

As the department explained in an emailed statement, “a child would only be removed from a home when a CYFS manager has reasonable grounds to believe that a child is in need of protective intervention and a less intrusive course of action would not adequately protect the child.”

Who can fault the system for making the protection of children paramount?

Yet I have heard stories where a child was removed from parents who were not abusive or neglectful, and the loss left the family in tatters.

A well-respected family physician called me recently to express concerns that he and some of his colleagues have about children being taken into care without just cause.

“What concerns me is it seems like right now there’s no restriction and no repercussion if they make the wrong decisions,” he said.

“Does there not have to be cause? Feedback? A quality control loop? If a worker has been found to have acted inappropriately, to have removed a child without cause, what are the repercussions for the worker and the system?”

CYFS says if parents feel the decision was the wrong one, they can ask for a review.

“Once concerns are brought forward, the department may do a full review of the case depending on a multitude of factors, such as the history of the case and the employee. A review would then determine whether or not progressive discipline would be warranted.”

•••

(Columnist’s note: the names of the people who shared their stories for this column have been altered to protect their identity and that of the children involved.)

David’s wife had left him and they were going through a divorce when he had the kids over for a visit. Two days later, after his ex spotted a bruise on one child, he was slapped with an Emergency Protection Order (EPO) preventing him from seeing his children. He was subsequently charged with assault.

Spans of weeks at a time without seeing his children and thousands of dollars in legal fees later, the assault case against David was dismissed in court.

“When that EPO expired, the kids ran through my house, wanting to see me,” he said.

“This was just a divorce case, that’s all this was. … As soon as I said (shared parenting was) what I wanted, suddenly I was abusive; I was an asshole. Before that, she just didn’t want me. … The system is way too draconian. These people have got to be stopped. …

“That judge (who signed the EPO) with impunity, just screwed up my life on the ‘grounds of probability.’ It’s wrong what happened to me and it’s wrong what happens to other people. … When an accuser makes an accusation, it’s just like burning witches — we’ve gone back to that. …

“They had (my child) convinced that I was a monster. … The system is turning children against parents. … You don’t know how angry I am.”

David has regained visitation but is still fighting for joint custody.

•••

Beverley’s firstborn was removed from her care because the father was physically abusive to her. She and the man eventually broke up, but her son was not returned to her.

“(He) spent nine months in the foster system and the only way that they would give back my son is if my parents had to take over custody of him,” she wrote via email.

“My ex gave up his rights. My rights, as a parent, was already taken, but I was able to have liberal access. I, as a parent, did this because where my son already lost one biological parent … I knew that if I wasn’t a part of his life that it would be heartbreaking to him, not knowing who his mom was. …

“In my opinion, I know that (Child, Youth and Family Services) felt like they were doing their job, but I feel like they were quick to point their finger at the wrong person. … In my opinion, in my case, it was because I was unwed. I suffered emotionally, physically, mentally and financially.

“Some day I hope to help parents who have trouble with these situations to try and get back their sons or daughters.

“It is not fair nowadays that if the child is being removed that the mother or father can’t go with their child, especially if they believe that the parent is at risk also. … Personally, I feel that oftentimes when women get battered and there is children involved, that they don’t take the time to realize that not only are children at risk, but also victims are at risk, especially when it comes to domestic abusers.

“I feel that I was treated unfairly in such a cruel manner from the government. I never got angry with them. I tried my best with my child, every day up to 12 hours with supervised access. Like, in my opinion, they focused on unnecessary negatives about me as a parent rather than positives. As a result, I will have a lot of anger for the rest of my life. I try to seek answers every day in my heart …”

•••

Mary and her boyfriend brought their child to the hospital with a fever. Something showed up on a chest X-ray and Mary and the child’s father were called to the hospital.

“I, too, was a victim of false accusations …,” she wrote. “As soon as we got there a doctor brought us into a room and questioned me if I had dropped her. Had she fallen off the change table?

“I then asked, ‘No, why?’ … He then said, ‘Your daughter has a broken rib.’ I was devastated. I thought, how? How does a baby get a broken rib? And then it hit me when he asked did I ever get angry and squeeze her or shake her. ... I knew this was not good. But I also knew that I did not or would not harm my precious baby. …

“CYFS came and interviewed myself and my boyfriend, asking about drug and alcohol use. I offered to take a drug test right then and there. I was furious, angry, hurt, heartbroken, confused. … I couldn’t eat, think, stop crying. My life was turned upside down. I thought my family was thinking that maybe I did do it. Nurses were looking at me like I was some kind of monster.”

There was some uncertainty as to whether the rib was actually broken. The parents were eventually sent home with the child, but had to be supervised by a family member 24/7.

“I lost my mind,” Mary writes. “I could not take my baby for a walk alone. I could not bathe her alone. I was sick to my stomach. …

“I demanded a CT scan to be done on her; they would know for sure then. But I was told it was too much radiation. So we moved out of our house and into my mother-in-law’s. Thank God — if we didn’t have family our daughter would have been put in foster care.”

Three weeks later, a re-test determined the child had been born with an abnormal rib; it had never been broken. Before the parents could move back home with their daughter, a social worker had to assess the home situation.

“He came and done a check and when he was leaving, when he couldn’t find a reason to take my child from me, he said, ‘Thank you, have a good day.’ Not ‘sorry.’ I couldn’t believe he did not apologize for putting me through all of that emotional stress. He left as if nothing happened, like he didn’t care one bit. It was shameful.

“We contacted lawyers, but … they wouldn’t take on a case like that. Said, ‘It happens all the time — Child, Youth and Family Services have a right to do what they do.’ But innocent families have no rights. It’s pathetic.”

•••

Angela and Roger have been together for

25 years in a loving, stable relationship. Both have jobs. She is a professional caregiver, and has cared for children and adults for 30 years.

They were unable to conceive a biological child, so when Angela heard her brother had fathered a child out of wedlock and that the child had been removed from the mother and put into foster care, she and Roger resolved to adopt the little girl.

They jumped through all the hoops, talking to social workers and lawyers. The couple spent $8,000 on private lawyers’ fees, fearing they would have to wait too long to access Legal Aid. Angela worked two jobs as they tried to get the child out of the foster care program.

Roger decorated a room for the daughter they hoped they would soon welcome home.

“We’ve got the bedroom all done up for her,” Angela said. “My husband decorated it all for a little princess girl.”

A background check of Angela by Child, Youth and Family Services raised red flags. There was an incident of sexual abuse from the past involving one of her family members, but not Angela.

“It was from years ago, from when I was a little girl,” Angela said. “What was I supposed to do? … It’s not fair to judge me like that. Yes, some of my family is screwed up — that’s not to say that I am. … The department certainly needs to not judge a person on somebody else’s background. (With the background check), your life becomes an open book. We weren’t afraid to open our hearts and our home to these people.”

Roger asked CYFS to let them go through the process again, with a different social worker and a fresh start.

“They didn’t want to do that. They’d already made their decision,” Angela said.

The child, a toddler, remains in foster care and the foster parents plan to adopt her.

“I understand they have a bond with the child, but she’s in daycare five days a week,” Angela said. “If she lived with us she wouldn’t be a cost to the state. … The government is out there wasting money, and they’re always talking about saving money.

“‘That little girl’s best place would be with you’ — that’s what a psychologist said who has known me all my life. … The department really needs to change their ways, especially when a family comes forward. … They say they’ve got her interests at heart, but they haven’t. … I don’t want this to happen to another family. I don’t want them to go through this ordeal. …

“That child needs to know where she came from. Everybody needs to know where they came from. … I just want her to know we tried our best.”

•••

Four stories. Four families left shattered or broken or empty or incomplete.

I absolutely believe that Child, Youth and Family Services is dedicated to protecting children. I also believe that sometimes the system can get it wrong.

But there is no easy fix. If children deemed at-risk are not removed from the home and come to harm, the government is responsible.

And a child’s life lost cannot be returned.

But that’s cold comfort to parents who care for their children, but lose contact or access or custody as the result of a flawed assumption or a false accusation. They may not always be wrongly accused in the criminal sense, but they feel wrongfully accused all the same.

And there is no remedy for the heartache, the anguish, the sleepless nights, the strained relationships, the stigma, and the hefty financial and emotional costs.

You simply can’t get back lost time.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton