CAS AND THE AFRICAN CANADIAN COMMUNITY
By: KC Agyeman May 29th 2017
**Disclaimer: I write this piece as a member of the African Canadian community, and make no representations on behalf of any of Ontario’s Child Welfare Agencies. The following is based on my experience as a Child Welfare Worker and should be considered as a guide rather than a precise rendering of what occurs when African Canadian families come into contact with Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies**
Over the past 2 years, there has been an increased focus on the experiences of African Canadian children and families in contact with Child’s Aid Societies (CAS’s) across the province of Ontario. This attention, particularly by the media, has been warranted by years of differential treatment of African Canadian families by Ontario’s Child Welfare System. The ominous nature of CAS’s presence is the African Canadian community is fueled most prominently by the disproportionately high number of African Canadian children and youth in the care of the system, and the negative experiences these young people have upon being separated from their families and communities. Although some ground-breaking work is currently underway with the One Vision One Voice movement (OVOV), there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done, some of which can be accomplished by implementing the recommendations put forth by OVOV.
Some of the key recommendations are:
1. Collection of Data on Disproportionality and Disparities
2. Engagement of the African Canadian community
3. Education, Training, and Supports for staff
4. Dedicated Resources
5. Strengthening the ability of caregivers to provide appropriate care and support to African Canadian children and youth
(Source: One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System To Better Serve African Canadians. Practice Framework Part 2: September 2016)
While some agencies are taking the recommendations under advisement and determining how best to work towards their implementation, many members of the African Canadian community may be left wondering what they can do if CAS comes knocking at their door. Below, I highlight some of the common occurrences leading to CAS involvement, what you can do upon contact with CAS.
COMMON OCCURENCES LEADING TO CAS INVOLVEMENT
Physical Abuse/Use of Excessive Discipline – This is defined in the Criminal Code of Canada (http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/fv-vf/mcb-cce/index.html). Most CAS’s take the stance that physical discipline should be used as a last resort, if at all. The general understanding is that physical discipline should not include the use of an instrument or closed fist. It should also not be used above the shoulders or below the knees.
Sexual Abuse – This is self explanatory, however, it is important to note that even in the absence of a disclosure by a child, or physical evidence of sexual harm, suspected sexual abuse or harm may also warrant an investigation. This may seem intrusive, however, given that many children often do not disclose sexual abuse, these investigations are an important part of the CAS mandate.
Suspicious/Unexplained Injuries – These are injuries that are not likely to have happened during the course of a child’s regular day-to-day routine. These injuries are either unexplained or the explanation offered is not consistent with the nature of the injury. Depending on the seriousness of the injury, caregivers can expect that the police and medical professionals will be a part of the investigative process.
Neglect Of Child Basic Needs – Not providing adequate food, clothing, or shelter. This area tends to be subjective as poverty often looks like neglect; also, personal biases play a role in the way that neglect is defined.
Lack Of Supervision – Not providing appropriate supervision of a child. It is important to note that the age of a child is not the only factor to be considered when leaving them home unattended. Parents and caregivers need to ensure that the child is mature enough to respond to an emergency should one arise in their absence. A great way to accomplish this is to establish a safety plan and ensure that your child is aware of the plan. Consider a trial run through of your safety plan with your child. This will help to reinforce the plan and increase your confidence that your child will be able to respond appropriately in case of emergency. Have an emergency contact person near by that can attend the home if necessary. Ensure your child is aware of how to contact this person, and that they know when to call 911. Parents should also ensure that the home environment is safe and comfortable, ie. There is a working phone in the home, utilities are operational, there are functioning locks on all doors and windows, there is adequate food in the home and that the child is able to prepare the food in a manner that is safe and age appropriate.
UPON CONTACT WITH CAS
Know Your Rights – All child welfare agencies have literature that outlines the rights of children and youth that are taken into the care of CAS. Some agencies also have similar literature for families that come into contact with CAS. You should request that this information be provided to you so that you are informed of your rights. Another helpful tool is the Child And Family Services Act (https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90c11 ). This act is lengthy, however it provides useful information for families engaged with CAS.
Be Honest and Encourage Your Children To Do The Same – The last thing anyone wants is for the story of their family to be written without their input. Providing context about the incident that has been reported to CAS allows the investigation to move forward more smoothly, and may lead to the file being closed in a timelier manner.
Accessibility Matters – If you require assistance to ensure that you are able to fully participate in the investigative process, make sure you access those that you already have, or request them from CAS. The most common support offered to families is language translation. It’s important to maximize your ability to understand what’s happening to your family by ensuring the right supports are available to you.
Provide Feedback – Child Welfare Agencies can only get better by being made aware of the concerns experienced by the community. Please take the time and opportunity to share your experience with CAS, and make sure you are aware of the complaints process should you need to utilize it.
Be Involved – When children are taken into the care of CAS, there are a serious of case conferences and/or planning meetings that allow parents and caregivers to get updates on how their child is doing, and to update their worker and CAS about their own progress towards addressing the child protection concern(s). These meetings are a critical aspect of CAS’s work with families, and therefore should not be missed. Depending on the nature of the child protection concerns, parents and caregivers may also be granted access to their child (supervised or unsupervised). These access visits are important to maintain the relationship between parents and their children, and sometimes may be the child’s only connection to their racial, cultural, or spiritual community.
The best-case scenario would be to never have contact with CAS in the first place, however, there is no guarantee of this. The follow are strategies you can use that will support your navigation of the child welfare system should your family become the subject of a CAS investigation.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Educate Yourself on The Legalities of Physical Discipline – The following is a link to the criminal code regarding physical discipline. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/fv-vf/mcb-cce/index.html
Understand “Duty to Report” – This will help you understand why a teacher or community member contacted CAS before having a conversation with you. In this regard, it is sometimes useful to establish open communication with your child’s school or other community agencies that have regular contact with your child. This will help them understand you, your child, and your family, and know what to expect in terms of behaviours, etc. You still may not get that courtesy call you’re hoping for prior to CAS being called, but at least you’ve established open communication, this may inform how the incident/information is reported, which may in turn influence the trajectory of an investigation. The following link explains Duty To Report In Ontario http://www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/childrensaid/reportingabuse/abuseandneglect.aspx
Establish a Village – Taking care of and looking out for one another is a great way to ensure the needs of our children are met. Your village can also be active by advocating for meaningful change at your local CAS. Also, in the unfortunate event that your child is removed from your care, members of your village can be put forward as Kinship options for your child. Some examples of a village are: your family, friends, neighbours, community groups, and spiritual or religious communities. The following is a link to Ontario Associate of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) description of Kinship Service. http://www.oacas.org/2016/05/friends-and-family-first-how-childrens-aid-keeps-children-out-of-care/
Get Involved – Volunteer with your local CAS, inquire about how you can join the Board of Directors, attend community engagement events hosted by your local CAS or OACAS.
Although CAS has an overwhelmingly negative reputation in the African Canadian community, it’s not all bad. There are many child welfare staff on the front lines and in management that are actively working to integrate the principles of Equity, Diversity, and Anti Oppressive Practice into their work with families, and they are making a difference. Despite this, there is great deal more that needs to be done, so that every African Canadian family that comes into contact with CAS has fair and equitable treatment. One Vision One Voice is not only a callout to our community, but a movement that is putting Ontario’s Child Welfare system on notice that the African Canadian community is watching, and we are expecting radical changes for the betterment of our children and families. This is only the beginning, let us always bear in mind that we are stronger together, and that our collective voices matter.