Column

The real problem in handling child abuse

The state must be accountable when dealing in family matters. Secrecy and confidentiality only serve the bureaucrats.

Barbara Amiel March 2 1998
Column

The real problem in handling child abuse

The state must be accountable when dealing in family matters. Secrecy and confidentiality only serve the bureaucrats.

Barbara Amiel March 2 1998

The real problem in handling child abuse

The state must be accountable when dealing in family matters. Secrecy and confidentiality only serve the bureaucrats.

Barbara Amiel

Column

In the late 1960s, I worked as a story editor in CBC public affairs television. My work wasn’t memorable, but I did uncover a nasty case of child abuse. “Peter” was in the care of a southern Ontario branch of the Children’s Aid Society. They had placed him in a foster home where he was tortured by the foster mother. This was not altogether surprising as the foster mother’s own first child had been found dead in an outhouse.

She was acquitted of murder in that case, but briefly confined in a psychiatric institution. After her release, the CAS sent her Peter, whom she dipped in scalding water and suspended from the shower rail while beating him with a wooden stick with nails in it. After the death of one child and the torture of the second, the CAS was in the process of sending off yet another foster child to that same mother—until our CBC filming began. I wasn’t much of a journalist at the time, but I tried very hard to get access to the files about Peter and the decision-making process that had sent him to such a woman. I couldn’t.

I remember Peter’s small white face every time I write about child abuse. These days, different sorts of cases are surfacing. In Britain, several dozen parents in a small village are suing social workers for the return of their children. In a separate incident in Bristol, a mother took her son, who was on anti-convulsant medicine, to the hosptial for observation. A doctor decided that somebody had overdosed the child—he didn’t know who, he said, but that was not his business.

To be safe, he took out an order removing the child from its mother. What she was never told was that the son continued having up to seven fits a day in hospital. The boy was sent to an adoptive home where he was abused—luckily, I suppose, for the mother, or else she would never have got him back. The abuse case led to a reopening of the files and four years after his removal, her six-year-old son may finally come home.

Now in British Columbia, we have the mothers in Quesnel, B.C., who are demanding that the province’s ministry of children tell them why 71 of their children were taken away from them. The very existence of the children’s ministry, in turn, is the consequence of another case, that of Matthew Vaudreuil, who had been seen by more than two dozen social workers, 24 different doctors, and died in 1992 at the hands of his mother when he was five years old, having eleven fractured ribs and weighing 36 lb. Public outcry over the negligence was so great that in the wake of a judicial inquiry, the social services ministry was dismantled and replaced by the children’s ministry—same outfit, new name, new guidelines.

The confusion today that the mothers in Quesnel face is the result of the old adage that hard cases make bad law. The Vaudreuil case was a horrible business, but the solution was not rational. Clearly, a number of people in the child protection business didn’t do their duty to Matthew, which the law amply enabled them to do at the time. The political response to this negligence was to allow the same class of people to have the same unfettered discretion, but on a different principle.

The original set of guidelines told child protection workers (doctors, social workers, bureaucrats, etc.) that the overriding state interest was to keep families together except in extreme cases. Since they had all proved so foolish and inept at exercising good judgment, the guidelines were changed to give them even more power. Now, the overriding state interest would be to resolve matters on the side of interference by these dolts.

How can we help our children? Any civilized society has to have a mechanism with the power to interfere in family matters when children are involved. But the onus must be on the state to justify that interference, and to make it accountable. I think we begin with one basic reform: making the process transparent. Confidentiality and secrecy serves the interests of no one but the bureaucracy. The sealing of court proceedings allows negligence to be covered up. Social workers and bureaucrats don’t have to answer anyone’s questions, and no normal investigation of their decisions can be made.

If we want to make sure that in certain cases names or photos are not published, that can be achieved by requiring the media to use pseudonyms or initials under penalty of law. The identity of an abused child can be protected. What we should not allow is a bureaucracy to hide behind a confidentiality rule to protect its interests. This bit of common garden sense goes against today’s received wisdom reflected, as ever, in the stances of our mainstream institutions such as the CBC, Southam newspapers, Maclean’s and The Globe and Mail. Commenting on the Quesnel stiuation, the Globe pointed out that “since names and even circumstances must remain confidential,” it’s hard to say whether the authorities have overreacted or not. Perfectly true. But the Globe does not see the answer to that rather limp Gordian knot. Instead, it continues: “... authorities must begin to act at the first sign of trouble. Keeping families together may be an important state interest, but it cannot be the primary one. Children are. It’s a delicate balance. But more benefit of the doubt belongs to the children alone.”

It sounds very mother’s milk, but it isn’t. When the rules require everything about these cases to remain confidential, who weighs the “delicate balance”? The media can’t even act as a watchdog, as I once tried to do, because of the secrecy rules. In all these cases, the “benefit of doubt” doesn’t go to the children, but to bureaucrats who acquire an almost unfettered discretion. The Globe may be ready to give carte blanche to some new Ministry of Love to rule over Canada’s families, but I wouldn’t.