September 14, 2021
Dear Minister MacFarlane,
Thank you for agreeing to serve Nova Scotians as Minister of Community Services… Governing is about people… You have been chosen for Cabinet because of your track record and capabilities as a problem solver, as a “solutionist,” as someone who gets things done and is not deterred by complexity… As Minister of Community Services, you will…
Honourable Tim Houston
Premier of Nova Scotia
• • •
Beth hadn’t even known until the doctor at the hospital told her. The moment she found out, she knew she had to change the life she was leading because it was leading her down a “scary” path.
She was not even 18, a continent away from where she’d been born, estranged from her family, living in a British Columbia treatment facility for adolescents with “behavioural problems,” problems that had gotten worse, not better, since Nova Scotia’s child protection services dispatched her here and forgot her five years before. She could be violent, she drank too much, she’d gotten “wrapped up in the drugs.” Her boyfriend was “running from people that wanted to beat him.” And now she was pregnant!
As soon as they left the hospital that day in 2004, Beth’s boyfriend “went to a dealer.” He met up with her back in a nearby park a short time later. “He wanted to do stuff,” Beth recalls, “and I was like, ‘No. If you go ahead, you can stay here. I’m not doing that no more.’ And that’s when I decided to make a choice and to leave for the better of myself and my child.”
I would like to tell you that Beth and her child lived happily ever after. But I can’t.
This isn’t that kind of story. This is a story about child welfare in Nova Scotia, and those stories almost always end badly.
We’ll come back to Beth’s before-and-after story in a moment.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve been writing random sad-news stories about Nova Scotia’s child protection system since at least 2004. Whenever I do, those stories prompt far more me-too emails and messages than I can handle. Beth’s is one of perhaps a dozen I received in response to a two-part series I wrote this summer for the Examiner called “Child Protection: Catch-22 All Over Again. Again and Again.”
After reading the story of “JC” and her experiences with the child welfare system, Beth told me, “I felt like, ‘Okay, this is me, without me being me.’” As awful as JC’s experiences were, she added, “it’s nice just to know I’m not the only one dealing with the same stuff and that it is a pattern that is happening, and it needs to be stopped some way.”
Are you listening, Minister MacFarlane?
• • •
Let me tell you about Beth. Beth, of course, isn’t her real name. The law prevents me from naming her. But her story is very real, and all too common.
Beth’s mother, she says now, “was unfit. She drank a lot. I have memories of other people raising me. I have memories of her throwing parties and I’m underneath the table, drinking beers. She was violent and abusive towards her partner. I know she stabbed him or tried to. I don’t really know the context of what or why, but I can tell you that from my recollection she was unfit.”
When Beth was three, her mother had another child, a girl who was immediately taken into care by child welfare authorities and put up for adoption. “But I was left in the home,” Beth says now. “I was not apprehended; I was not taken. If their mandate is to protect children, why would you take one child and leave the other child in the home?”
It didn’t get better. Beth found herself shuffled from her mother to her grandparents, to well-meaning family and friends, to the IWK, to group homes… but always ultimately back to her mother. “I think maybe some part of me knew I was abandoned by her and some part of me was pissed because I knew everybody else raised me.”
Beth acted out. “Finally, my behaviour got very physically violent towards her, and she couldn’t control it anymore.”
That’s when the authorities finally did step in. Beth became a permanent ward of the government. But since there were no appropriate treatment programs for kids like her in Nova Scotia at the time, she was shipped off to a facility in British Columbia.
She was 12 years old, and she was alone.
Her memories of the five years she spent in BC are bleak. “No one says, ‘How are you feeling? What’s going on? Do you have questions?’” For much of the time, she adds, “I wasn’t allowed to attend school. They said I was too violent to be in school. But they never actually gave me an opportunity to prove myself. They just went with what had happened in the past” with her mother. After Beth was finally permitted to enroll in a school, “I wasn’t allowed to go to school dances, or to even have friends without a chaperone.”
She lived in a home with two workers who kept eyes on her 24/7 in eight-hour shifts. “They had to document everything I did, by minute, hour, everything I did.”
She acknowledges she was frustrated, often violent and “frequently restrained.” She ran away so often the local police told the home to stop looking for her. “She’s 16,” the cops would tell the workers. “She just ran away from home. I don’t know what to tell you, but you’ve got to stop calling us.”
Which is around the time Beth became pregnant and decided on her own to change her life for that new life inside her… the child she didn’t want to end up like her.
But when she came back to Nova Scotia to have the baby, she says child welfare authorities here — she hadn’t yet aged out of care — “told me right away that my child would be taken from me and put up for adoption. I didn’t even have a chance. They came right in and told me from the beginning that they were going to take him, and they did… I had just come out of the delivery and gotten into the room, and there was somebody sitting in a chair with papers saying that I needed to sign them. I have no idea still to this day what I signed.”
What she does know is that she didn’t get to go home with her son.
Instead, during the baby’s first year, Beth was only allowed supervised visits with her son, initially for an hour at a time at her apartment. But then, she says, the social worker told her there was another woman living in the same building as her with whom the agency had had “significant involvement.,” and that the woman was living with a man the worker didn’t feel safe to be around.
So, Beth’s visits with her son were moved to a nearby Tim Hortons and Beth’s occasional hour with him became 30 minutes. “You can’t parent a child properly at a restaurant. How are they supposed to tell my demeanour as a parent from sitting for 30 minutes at a table? I don’t get that.”
It didn’t matter. Before the year was out, Beth’s son had been put up for adoption.
Her last visit with her son happened at the community services office in Sackville. Since Beth lived in Spryfield, she had to travel by bus for more than an hour and a half just to get there. There was traffic, and she was late. “My hour visit turned into 20 minutes because everything was late,” Beth tells me. “They denied me more time because they said they only had the room for an hour. So, that’s all I get… I only really got there and then they took him.”
That was 15 years ago. Beth never saw her son again.
• • •
Beth’s story will sound sadly familiar, its inter-generational outcomes dismally predictable.
No one — not the overworked, understaffed social workers trying to cope with messes they didn’t make in a bureaucracy they can’t control, not the family court lawyers and judges tasked with enforcing the unreasonable, not the family and children’s advocates trying to change the unchanging, and certainly not the parents and children trapped inside their unheard pleas — believes Nova Scotia’s child welfare system is working for the welfare of families and their children.
A new government, a new minister offers yet another new opportunity to press pause and reset.
There are no simple answers or quick fixes, of course, but change needs to start somewhere. Why not with Karla MacFarlane, Nova Scotia’s new minister of community services, as well as the minister responsible for the status of women and the office of L’nu affairs — all of which have a vested interest in the future of families and child protection? MacFarlane herself is already on the record as supporting the idea of a child and youth advocate.
Premier Tim Houston’s mandate letter to MacFarlane earlier this month was generic when it came to her biggest department — “provide services under … the Children Youth and Family Supports Program” — but that offers both a challenge and an opportunity for a woman the premier described as a “’solutionist,’ as someone who gets things done and is not deterred by complexity.”
Nova Scotia’s child welfare system could certainly use someone who isn’t deterred by complexity, someone who gets things done.
Are you listening, Minister MacFarlane?
• • •
Today, Beth is a mother to two other children, a boy and a girl. They have never been in care, but Beth says there is an “open file” on them — and her.
“It’s like, no matter how old I am, no matter how many kids I have, they’re still gonna come as long as I try to exist and be a human in society and forget about my past and just be a person… My kids are 10 and 14. What could you possibly think is wrong after this long? They’re just trying to find that needle in the haystack, because there is a history, and they’re just waiting for that moment for me to fall because of this past.”
Beth says she and another woman, who is also “currently dealing with ongoing stuff with them,” have begun trying to bring together other people who want to launch a class-action lawsuit to make the government pay attention. She isn’t optimistic. “There’s just not anybody really that wants to take them on. I don’t know if it’s fear or just they don’t think they can.”
Today, she thinks of all she has missed. “I never had a prom, I never had a driver’s licence at 16, I never had a graduation, birthday, bridal showers, baby showers. I’ve missed everything that everybody experiences. I’m 35 and missed all of it because of my upbringing, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
And neither, she says, is what’s still happening. “To still sit here and have to look over my shoulder for something that my mother did is not fair, it’s not right, it’s unjust,” she tells me. “I have come a long way. I have struggled a lot, but I have done everything I can to ensure that my kids do not and will not go down the road that I did.”
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I have come to understand, after a very long time, that the system is not broken. The system (all of them together, as well) does exactly what it was designed to do. And that is why all the years of tinkering with the system, of trying to “fix” it have not, will not, and are not intended to, fundamentally change anything for the better.
Where it’s housing, income inequality, the legal system, policing, child welfare, or any of the other government responsibilities, there is no fix for the current system which is first and foremost based on cost. In the end it all boils down to keeping taxes low for the wealthy and the corporations and an ideological belief that each individual is responsible for himself, so pull up your socks and get on with it.
Thanks for this piece Stephen. As I read it I thought about how,rather than take on such challenging situations here in Atlantic Canada, we ship citizens, who are so-struggling, off to B.C. or Cinnamon Hills, Utah,USA. (residential facility that houses youth who have been found uncontrollable, etc.) The cost in 2008 for one Canadian ‘patient’ at Cinnamon hills was $115,000.00 per annum.
Hasn’t it been demonstrated that ,with incarceration ,inmates do better if they are close to family and loved ones? I know that this woman was never an inmate, but she clearly felt like one and still feels so.
Establishing a Child and Youth Advocate does not amount to setting policy. Karla MacFarlane’s job will be to draft policy that will show in legislation and which will effect needed changes. Hopefully, a part of this process will be considering the building of capacity not just in Nova Scotia , but FOR the Atlantic region. (I have had this conversation with a local municipal politician in 2016-17, and there was no uptake; also had this conversation in 2009 with NDP MLA for Pictou East, re: why not here, rather than Cinnamon Hills?) This is a can that should not be kicked further down the road.
I’ve heard the police say: “she’ll be sixteen soon, and there is nothing you can do”, and it was sobering to say the least. Who, at sixteen knows much about the world? And who at sixteen is prepared to take on motherhood without the support of family? Is paying the teen mom a mother’s allowance and setting them up in an apartment somewhere an answer? Clearly, sending people to distant ‘treatment’ programs many hundreds of miles away is not either.
Yes, the system needs a total re-vamp, and I believe that Karla is “listening”. Mandate letters set the clock; it’s ticking!