Quebec has set a high bar for removing children from their parents’ homes
Some of those involved in the system say that puts children at risk
July 6, 2021, 3:43 pm ADTLast Updated: July 6, 2021, 3:43 pm
On April 29, 2019, a seven-year-old girl was found in critical condition in her father’s home in Granby, Quebec. She had been living there for almost three years, despite multiple reports from relatives of sexual and physical abuse.
The next day, she died in hospital, next to her grandmother.
Her death made news across Quebec, and the director of youth protection in the Eastern Townships came under fire for allowing the young girl’s file to slip through the cracks.
Many blamed the system for taking too long to process reports of child abuse and for allowing children to return to dangerous situations.
In Quebec, the evaluation is a three-step process. In the first stage, reports are filed by acquaintances and community members, family, teachers, police officers and non-profit employees, including shelters. Following this is the evaluation and orientation stage where a child protection worker is sent to analyze the home and parents of the child. This is where child protection workers attempt to build a case strong enough to hold up in court.
Finally, there is the application of safety measures, in which a child is placed into an urgent-care foster family and will stay with them anywhere between 24 hours and 30 days before being relocated to a regular foster family.
From 2019 to 2020, the Eastern Townships, including Granby, received 1,602 reports, 36 per cent of which were moved to the evaluation phase.
Reports of Abuse in the Eastern Townships by Marianne Lassonde
Myriam Briand, director of youth protection in the Laurentian region, north of Montreal, said the system puts children at risk. She said a lot of child protection workers are fresh out of university and want to change a faulty system. But without an eye for details that hold up in court, cases often don’t meet the threshold for removal.
Part of the job requirements of an urgent-care foster family is to provide a temporary home for children while social workers build a case to warrant the permanent removal of a child. Foster families in this situation can expect calls in the middle of the night and often deal with severely traumatized children. According to two urgent-care foster families, they are often scared and confrontational.
“Sometimes you get kids at around 5 a.m.,” said Lise Bolduc, who was an urgent care foster family from 2010 to 2012. “Often time (these children) are in the middle of a crisis. They are not necessarily angry at you but they don’t care about you.”
Speaking with The Signal, a second foster mother, who wished to remain anonymous for the safety of the children she houses, recalled an incident in which two children were removed from a highly neglectful situation. The young girl’s teeth were rotting inside her mouth whereas her brother could only communicate through growls.
They were returned to their biological parents a day later.
“There are a lot of criteria that need to be met to remove a child from their home,” she said. “If there are no bruises or physical signs of abuse, then it is very hard to prove (a child is being abused).”
This continues to be something that troubles Julie Lemaire, a former child protection worker in Ontario and current planning agent and researcher for out-of-home care in Quebec. In fact, Lemaire remembers interventions in Ottawa as quicker and more efficient and said cases of psychological distress were not taken lightly there.
Part of her discouragement stems from her own experience with treating reports in both Quebec and Ontario, two provinces with similar foster systems but with small differences in their youth protection laws.
One of the striking differences between the two deals with conditions to consider when removing a child from their biological parents’ home. Ontario’s Child, Youth and Family Services Act has a specific “emotional harm” clause.
Section 74 of the act says a child is eligible for relocation if they have serious symptoms of “anxiety, depression, withdrawal, self-destructive or aggressive behaviour or visible developmental delays”.
This provision is not found in Quebec’s Youth Protection Act.
Instead, it groups emotional abuse in with “psychological ill-treatment.” This refers to serious or repeated behaviours that may affect the developmental health of the child, including “indifference, denigration, emotional rejection, excessive control, isolation, threats, exploitation, particularly if the child is forced to do work disproportionate to the child’s capacity, and exposure to conjugal or domestic violence.”
A lot is left to interpretation and could account for slower processing, according to Lemaire, who recounted a case in which most of the evidence of mistreatment stemmed from the lunchboxes and haircuts of two children from the same home. She said one of the children would often have rotting vegetables and ungroomed hair whereas the other would have a “five-star lunchbox.”
“That would have never been evaluated in Quebec,” Lemaire said.
Reports Evaluated in Quebec from 2019 to 2020 by Marianne Lassonde
As it turned out, the lunchboxes reflected an unstable home life where grandparents took out their frustrations with one child’s biological father by neglecting the child. When Lemaire arrived at the home, she saw a room stripped down to a pillow and a blanket.
“The room was so bare the child had to fold a pillow in half to see out the window.”
Meanwhile, the child’s sibling had a room “like a Toys ‘R’ Us store.” Based on this as well as psychological evaluations of the family, Lemaire was able to build a case and have the children removed from the home.
Not only was this particular case an example of negligent behaviour but under the “emotional harm” clause of Ontario’s law Lemaire could prove the situation had caused the children to develop anxious behaviors.
According to Quebec’s 2020 summary report, written by the directors of youth protection from all 16 regional youth centres, negligence or the threat of negligence remains the biggest factor in the retention of a file, with a third of cases moving on to the evaluation stage.
That being said, a significant number of children remain in their biological home due to a lack of sufficient proof to persuade a court to allow their removal. In Quebec, 63 per cent of children considered for care stayed in their existing homes in 2020.
The Child Protection Act gives the benefit of the doubt to the biological parents and expects social workers to act as preventative measures for abuse.
“Our system deals with the priority of parental authority and the well being of the child. It’s two fundamental rights that often conflict with one another,” said Briand.
“Parental authority always has to be prioritized. Do we wish the child’s well being was placed before the parent? Of course. But do the legal processes swing that way? Not really.”
Under the Quebec act, parents of children under a year old have 12 months to prove they are able to provide and care for their child. Parents of older children have 18 months to two years. This revision was put in place in 2006 to avoid going back and forth between the child’s biological home and foster homes.
And it was this revision that allowed the father of the young girl in Granby to regain full custody of his daughter in 2013.
The commission set up in the wake of the Granby tragedy released its final report on the child welfare system last month, and the government has promised reforms. Lionel Carmant, junior minister of health and social services, announced he will propose new laws on youth protection this fall.