Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Society's Children" A Blog Series on At-Risk Kids in Care in Alberta

As regular readers will know I have published a number of blog posts on the recent Alberta Court of Appeal finding of contempt of court against the Alberta government Director of Child, Youth and Family Enhancement. You can read them here, here, here and here if you are not familiar with the case.

I have followed the contempt of court issues since the filing of the original decision by Mr. Justice Cote on July 23, 2009. These contempt of court posts are amongst the most widely read in the three years of this blog. The final legal step in the contempt of court issue was August 11, 2009 with the Court of Appeal penalty decision.

Government Contempt for the Rule of Law = Jail Time:

The court ordered jail time for the bureaucrat who was the subject of the contempt of court finding. The option of spending 8 days in jail or 40 hours of community service did not diminish the impact that incarceration could be the clear consequence for a civil servant acting like they were above the law. Feedback to this blog from workers in the department said they were “astonished” by the jail time and felt like they have been “kicked in the gut.”

Well the Court of Appeal just delivered a very loud and clear wake-up call to Alberta’s public servants. That message is that the rule of law trumps administrative complexity and any corporate culture of indifference to the law and ignorance of the law. You break the law or show contempt for the law, you risk going to jail.The precedent is established!

Moving on and Digging Deeper:

While that phase of this sad narrative is essentially over, there are two other fundamental issues that emerge from this litigation that Albertans need to think about. It ought to be a major concern to every Albertan that the actions of some in the Department of Children, Youth and Family Enhancement makes it apparent that they believed they could ignore the rule of law. It makes one wonder what other government of Alberta departments feel the same way. Albertans need to be concerned if their government is willfully blind or just plain indifferent to the impact and import of ignoring the rule of law. The natural consequence of this is chaos like we see on the streets and in the prisons of Iran today.

There is another critical outstanding and largely ignored issue. Where the best interests of the child at the centre of all this controversy served by the system? How do we know the answer one way or another? How are we as citizens to judge and evaluate the actions of those involved in the real case of the real child who is behind the contempt of court concerns?

I intend to investigate and comment on these two issues. In the coming weeks I am going to take you on a journey into facts, implications and consequences of this file. I will be working fromthe court records and anything else I can uncover. I will deal with perspectives on the government being subject to the law and what happened to this child and was it always in his best interest. for the record, I am not hired by anyone to do this. This is a pro bono project pure and simple.

I will try to give you some context and insight surrounding the facts and events and the implications and consequences that flow. I will do this through the eyes of a lawyer and a concerned citizen. I am not trained or experienced enough to judge the quality of the work outlined in the various reports and reviews of this child’s situation on file. However, I do feel qualified to ask questions and to write public policy and political commentary on what I read. I hope to hear blog comments from other people inside and outside government who are in fact qualified to make informed comments on those other aspects.

Telling the Story Behind the Contempt of Court Case and Learning Some Lessons:

I intend to tell the story in a series of blog posts that will be written every 2 or 3 days in the weeks ahead. I will do my best to describe what happened to this child in as much detail as I can under the circumstances. My posts will be based solely on the filed court records and other background material that is in the public domain. There are limitations on what I can say and they will be explained in the next blog post.

Like any good story, there are heroes and villains. But as in any critical and important human condition, it is complicated. It is not all black and white nor cut and dried. There are nuances and interpretations, especially around the question of has the best interests of this child been served. Has our government, the one you and I elected to act on our behalf, done their job, especially about ensuring the best interests of this child? Have the professionals involved made the right tough judgments about these intricate and emotional human conditions? This is not about second guessing or Monday morning quarterbacking. It is a quest for the right questions and gaining a better understanding of the context and consequences to the child in this case.

This series of blog posts will be a case study in process, policy, public interest, professional duty, politics and competing personal interests. It will be a quest for questions about what happened and why things happened the way they did. It will be a chance for Albertans to consider and make suggestions on how to fix the system to ensure our child protection system is improved in ways to better serve the best interests of the child. This has to be done on the ground and in real life, not just in theory or in some departmental business case Mission and Vision statement. It is not easy stuff to deal with so it demands that the best and brightest, most caring and capable people be properly equiped and enabled to do their jobs.

I am isolating one case out of some 13,000 at-risk children who are in some way or other under the care and control of our government. I think there is lots of blame to go around about this child and likely many others that we will never hear about. Confidentiality is a shield and sometimes a shroud.

Much of the blame in this instance has been “fixed” in the contempt of court proceedings. More blame on others may be attributed in the future and the Departments of Child, Youth and Family Enhancement as well as Alberta Justice and Attorney General conduct further investigations. Iwill be monitoring progress on those fronts in subsequent posts as well.

Fixing the Blame is Necessary but NOT Enough to Fix the Problem:

Fixing the blame is fine but it is not the way to fix the problem. Fixing the problem is about attitudes, values, culture and character. Getting serious and being successful about fixing the problem is the real test of our political, governance and policy delivery systems. It also speaks to the character of the citizenship we have in our Alberta society. First we have to really understand the problem or problems to be able to help resolve them. If we don't care enough, then why should our government and public service rise to the challenge to fix the system. After all in a democracy, our government is merely a reflection of us.

We need to be clearer and better informed about what challenges our policy maker, their expert advisers and public servants face on the front lines. What resources, tools and techniques do they have to help them deal with these kids and their troubles and tribulations? How do they solve problems and how can we as a society and as individual citizens begin to help them and the children they care for? How can this be done effectively when there are serious budget cuts coming and staff hiring freezes already impacting the capacity to do the job?

How do Albertans individually and together through social service agencies and government programs help our vulnerable at-risk kids to learn and adapt and become positive contributing members of our society? With each and every one of these children there is a story. Some sadness, some hope, some tragedy and some happiness is likely pervade each one of these young lives as they try to find and make their way in the world. We should not give up on them and we should not write them off.

It's Time for a Public Conversation About At-Risk Children in Alberta

I am looking forward to the journey and I hope you are too. I hope you will read the posts and forward the posts to share them with your friends and family. I also hope you will comment on the blog posts and help create an informative, respectful and enriching public conversation about this file and its larger implications. Albertans need to know more about these larger issues in children youth and family enhancement services. We need to care more about the vulnerable at-risk children who are, in the end result, the responsibility of our society. That's you and me! There is no "them" here.

These vulnerable at-risk kids started out as somebody’s child and some parent’s responsibility. That relationship broke down for some reason or other so now they are our mutual responsibility as a society. They are truly “Society's Children.” So we Albertans have to step up to the plate, learn more, care more, provide the required resources and create capacity for those who out there trying to do the job for these kids. And then we must require more of ourselves, our government and our social services system to do what it takes to effectively serve the best interests of our society’s at-risk children.

Tomorrow I will post some background on the Court of Appeal file on this matter and how I got to read the unexpunged version for background on the coming blog posts. If you are on our Cambridge Strategies distribution list you will be getting regular notices of new blog posts. Otherwise I suggest you subscribe to this blog through the FeedBlitz widget on the righthand sidebar.


  1. Someone who wants to know5:57 pm

    Bring it on Ken; this area seems so complicated it's hard to know where one fits in the entire equation. There are lots to criticize, but little by way of understanding the big picture on how to have the best system possible, as well as describe what is presently going on. The question is, is Alberta ready to demand and do the best, or do they enjoy the convenience of not knowing?

  2. Ken - I love that you are interested in these questions, but you seriously need an editor.

    You could have a world-class blog.

  3. I know Barb, an editor would be helpful but there is only so much time for research, reflection and writing while running a business too. I beg your indulgence for my linguistic shortcomings.

    These issues are difficult and I am going to have to be very careful with this series to ensure that I do not divulge the names of the parties because a child is involved.

  4. AB_Baby1:27 pm

    I'm looking forward to this series, Ken, as I believe there is much more to this story than what we've been told in the media.

    I also believe that, in general, the Alberta government has a disdain for the law, so it is not surprising to me that this attitude would be prevalent among government departments as well.

    From my experience working within the system, I have concluded that there are some very serious and deep-rooted problems in how vulnerable children are treated in Alberta.

    I have seen far too many power-tripping social workers terrorizing families, threatening them with apprehension and forcing them to comply with unreasonable demands, expecting them to live up to some artificial definition of what constitutes "good" parenting, with standards set by newly-graduated young workers who have enjoyed a privileged upbringing within a traditional family, and who have plenty of book learning but very little practical knowledge or experience.

    The good, caring, social workers are too often overwhelmed by heavy caseloads that severely hamper their ability to do an effective job. Because they care, they take on too much, and many are at risk of burnout.

    The day-to-day monitoring of children at risk is farmed out to a number of agencies who pay their workers far less than government wages, meaning lower skill levels and high turnover among these workers tasked with the responsibility of supporting families as they try to meet the standards set by the government social workers. Because these agencies are funded per child, there is a certain motivation to take on as many files as possible, move them through the system and close the file quickly to take on new ones.

    So there are several layers of detachment between the child at risk and the actual decision-makers at the top. In a system that is so distant and disconnected, it is extremely difficult to make informed decisions that are in the best interests of the child.

  5. Thx for the comment AB_Baby. With a mandated $2B in budget cuts coming next year, will those cuts be on the backs of vulnerable Albertans like these kids, seniors and persons with developmental disabilities?

    We have another $1.5B committed to subsidize the conventional oil and gas drilling business. That money could be used here instead of messing around in the marketplace. Or is that just me?

  6. Anonymous10:48 pm

    "13,000 at-risk children who are in some way or other under the care and control of our government."
    Are these children "at risk". Maybe these CW just like the power of taking away children.

    Reading this actually sent a chill up my back.
    "Because these agencies are funded per child, there is a certain motivation to take on as many files as possible, move them through the system and close the file quickly to take on new ones."

    Story "14 year makes allegation of physical abuse". 14 year old get put into a foster. Over a year goes by, no evidence..nothing. Court cases keep getting adjourned so prosecutors can gain more evidence. Child still in foster care.
    As of today there 13001 "at risk children". Why? Same mother just gave birth. Day 2 of child's life and still at the hospital, mother gets out of the shower to breast feed child. There child services and cops are waiting. "This is your last moment with your child, make the best of it". Shortly after they take the child from the mothers arms. Why?
    "Allegations" by a 14 year old of abuse.There has been no trial a year and a half later. Where is the justice? Due process?

    Anyone? Please. Where does this mother go? What does she do? Who will help her? No money for good lawyers. MLA's have been powerless. Legal aid Lawyers unhelpful.
    All that is needed to take away your child is allegations. The stigma attached to telling someone that child services took my child is a terrible thing. In most peoples mind... you are bad parent, not matter what.

  7. Anonymous10:08 am

    As someone who was in support of a family directly affected by a very power-hungry social worker, I support your investigation into how social services works, who's working for it and how they're doing - or not, in our friends' case - their jobs.

    I also have direct experience of someone who worked in the system and who tried very hard to protect a child. Because their good judgement was over-ruled by an overzealous judge, the child, a two year-old female, was returned to her family, where she'd been brutalised since birth and where she was raped and killed by her father.

    The system has few checks/balances and those in place are extremely poor. Disgustingly so.

  8. Anonymous10:26 am

    Ken, interesting coverage.

    I wonder what would make a career bureaucrat take such a rash action? I suspect a working life-time devoted to protecting neglected children would make an ethical bureaucrat (perhaps not an oxymoron?) risk personal disrepute and employer action. I wonder if the individual making the decision had the opportunity to carefully consider the deep political and philosophical complexities, or if he simply acted in the best interests of the child based on the information they had.

    What more can we ask of the individuals charged with the protection of the vulnerable but that they use their hearts, minds and eyes to act in the immediate interest of children?

  9. Anon @ 10:26 - After reading the Court of Appeal file I can tell you the Director Mr. Ouellet relied on statements of others but he did not read the information that he was given. If he read the file - as he should have - I am sure he would have responded differently.

  10. Anonymous4:25 pm

    Yes, keep going. there is so much more to this story that I am sure of.

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