Children’s Aid Society: ‘Powerful as God’

There’s more to say about the video entitled “Powerful as God” on the Ontario Children’s Aid Society.  That’s primarily because there’s a movement afoot, in Arizona at least, to vest still more power in child welfare agencies for the specific purpose of taking more children from families.

As I said in my previous piece, sometimes there’s a good reason to take children from parents.  Some parents, sadly, are dangerous to their children, through either their abuse or neglect of them.  But there’s also a reason why CPS agencies have, as part of their mandate, family reunification.  That’s mainly because biological parents tend to be better parents than any other person or collection of people.  A wealth of social science has shown that for decades.

So it’s worth seeing the reality of what people who urge greater family destruction by CPS are really arguing for.  I don’t doubt that people like Laurie Roberts want children protected from harm.  But their naive belief that ever more children consigned to foster care by overworked, underpaid and undertrained CPS workers will solve the problem is misguided at best.

And that’s just what the video documentary “Powerful as God” shows – the direction in which Roberts and others would have us go.

Like most bureaucratic institutions, Ontario’s CAS prefers to act in secrecy.  It calls it “confidentiality,” and it justifies the curtain behind which it acts as necessary for the well-being of the children it takes into care.  But, as one interviewee points out, the secrecy is far more for the protection of CAS and its case workers than for the children.  After all, when a child is taken from a parent who’s done little or nothing wrong, and is turned over to a foster mother who tries to drown him, or one who sexually abuses her, CAS could look bad. 

So secrecy serves to keep those cases from scrutiny by a public that might not understand the need to take the child in the first place.  Of course, the better to recruit public sentiment to its side, CAS often ignores its rules about “confidentiality.”  It does so when there’s a case that makes it look good and in those, it not only publicizes the case, it names names.

According to the video, a salient feature of CAS’s worldview is that of adversary, i.e. the bunker mentality of “us against the world.”  Like the matter of secrecy, that mostly serves to protect the agency against questioning by irate parents, lawyers, judges and the like.  Protection for children is secondary.

So, much of what CAS case workers do is with an eye toward possible litigation.  And when that inevitably happens, CAS circles the wagons and defends its actions, whatever they may have been.  A case in which a child’s welfare is involved then, becomes a case not of what’s best for the child, but one of how best to justify what CAS did or failed to do.

As Alfred Mamo, an attorney who has represented CAS in court, said, that process “has nothing to do with parenting.”  What’s best for the children gets lost in the antagonism of legal charge and countercharge.

That concept of their jobs as part of permanent litigation against them and CAS leads, unsurprisingly, to illegal and unethical behavior on the part of case workers.  One attorney said he’s “seen it too many times” that case workers have suppressed evidence and perjured themselves to defend their actions toward a child.  “Cross examination to a case worker is like garlic to a vampire,” he said.

Inevitably, the implicit threat of lawsuits skews not only what case workers testify to, but how they conduct individual cases.  Thus, a case worker may choose not to interview a particular person if she suspects that person won’t support what the case worker did or wants to do with a child.  In that way, contradictory evidence never makes it into the child’s file.  But of course that evidence also doesn’t make it into the case worker’s assessment of whether or not to take a child into care.

That absence of a concept of the child’s welfare carries over into all aspects of CAS’s day-to-day behavior.  As one parent who was having trouble dealing with her ADHD child said, “No one ever asked ‘how can we help you?”  The “solution” to all parenting problems is foster care.

And as lawyers, parents and former CAS case workers point out, that’s a curious approach to child welfare.  One of the lawyers interviewed said that a foster parent in Ontario gets $30 a day for a child; that’s $900 a month.  As several of the interviewees point out, maybe that money would be better spent helping parents deal with specific issues of childcare.

So maybe Parent A is struggling with an ADHD child.  Why not connect that parent with a professional who can help?  Could that be done for $900 a month?  You bet it could, but CAS has one solution for every problem – foster care.

Of course there are cases of child injury and abuse that won’t be helped by that sort of intervention.  There will always be a need for foster care.  But Ontario CAS, like many similar institutions in the U.S., often errs on the side of family break-up rather than family unity.  The point is that money spent on foster care could often be better spent to assist parents become better at the important job they’re trying to do.

After all, as former CAS social worker Tammis Smith said, the research showing that kids do better in foster care than in parental care is “missing.”

Misconceptions about what foster care really consists of abound.  Many people believe that children taken into foster care go to healthy families with a mother and a father.  Sometimes they do, but often they go to group homes in which many children are thrown together under the care, not of one set of parents, but of employees of the home.

One such former employee, Nick, said that group homes are strictly money-making operations.  If one child goes back to its parents, that means a loss of income that must be made up by the addition of another child.  Empty beds mean lost jobs and empty wallets.

Putting many unrelated children together can always lead to difficulties, but when many of those children have behavioral problems, a bad situation gets much worse.  For that, the group homes have a handy solution – medication.  One psychologist who used to work with CAS said that, in her experience, “almost every child in group homes” is on some sort of psychotropic medication.

“It’s all about control,” echoed Nick, the former group home worker.  

What pretty much everyone in the video agrees on is that CAS should dispense with its self-protective secrecy and open its decision making to public scrutiny.  That’s certainly a good idea.  Public institutions that operate out of sight of the public that pays every cent of their operating budgets, invariably abuse the privilege, so greater openness is indeed required.

On that note, it’s interesting that one of Laurie Roberts’ pet peeves is that Arizona CPS refuses to turn over records in various cases to her or the Arizona Republic newspaper.  In other words, it’s behaving the way any governmental institution cloaked in secrecy behaves.  And rightly, Roberts is unhappy about it.  Like any journalist, she thinks the public has the right to know what its servants are up to.

So it’s odd to say the least that she calls for more of the same – greater power for CPS to break up families would mean all the things the people in “Powerful as God” complain of, including greater secrecy.  After all, CPS in Arizona wouldn’t want enraged parents going to a newspapers with their stories, now would it.

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