The backstory to my series on Nova Scotia’s child welfare system in last week’s Examiner — “Child Protection: Catch-22 All Over Again. Again and Again…” Part 1 and Part 2 — had its beginnings in a mid-November 2020 email that landed, unbidden, in my website’s inbox.
“I am very concerned about the family court system as it now is being rolled out across the province…” it began.
I recognized the sender’s name. The person had been intimately involved with the system but was no longer part of it. The sender had chosen me because “you were always concerned about what that department was up to…”
I supposed I was… but in a random, unfocused, journalist’s kind of way.
Over the years — as a journalist and a columnist for various outlets, including the late lamented national magazine, Elm Street, and now-dead, dead-tree local newspapers like The Daily News and Metro, not to forget very much alive-and-still-lively publications like The Coast and the Halifax Examiner — I had written individual stories about child protection issues. Most of them fell into my lap. Those stories occasionally led me to others.
- In 2004, it was a 67-hour armed standoff between Halifax police and a couple who claimed Children’s Aid had seized their five-month-old daughter, not because of anything the couple had done to the child — in fact, evidence indicated they were loving, capable parents — but because they’d each been accused of abducting children during acrimonious custody battles in previous relationships.
- In 2006, there was the story of the 16-year-old whose mental health issues had never been addressed in foster or group homes. She ended up in court where a frustrated judge ordered the then-minister of community services — the girl’s legal guardian — to explain what had gone wrong. The minister never testified. Instead, the case was shuffled to the sidelines. I wrote about the girl’s mother — who’d grown up in care herself and then lost her own child to the system — in a feature for The Coast in 2006. Three years later, I wrote about the daughter as she turned 19 and aged out of the system.
- Through that now-young woman, I met a boy-man who’d been shipped off — against his parents’ wishes — to an Ontario residential treatment centre called Bayfield. He was only 12. He’d been “incarcerated” there for five years, he told me. Bayfield hadn’t helped. He was just prescribed more and more drugs. Once he aged out of that institution, Nova Scotia child welfare, which had sent him there in the first place, washed its hands of him. When I met him, he was living on the streets.
- Writing about Bayfield then led me to the story of a 15-year-old Cole Harbour boy who’d also been sent to Bayfield. He didn’t do well there either. By the time he was pushed out of the Ontario facility in 2010, his grandparents/guardians, who’d tried to raise him, had been squeezed out of his life too. Back to Nova Scotia, child welfare authorities claimed they didn’t have the facilities to treat him.
I should have seen the pattern.
The most recent previous child protection story I’d written was for the Examiner. That early 2018 column looked at a then-recent family court case to ask how much of what child protection authorities refer to as “poor parenting” is simply the result of being parents who are poor. After hearing the evidence in the case — child protection had taken a couple’s two children into care — the judge wrote acidly: “The parents cannot be faulted for their inability to afford homes in better neighbourhoods.”
I’d only learned about that case thanks to the excellent reporting of the Chronicle Herald’s Chris Lambie, who told me he had begun reading family court decisions “because someone [at the paper] once said, ‘we never report on family court stories…’” He decided he would. “There are some really compelling stories in them,” he explained at the time. There are.
The problem is how to tell those stories. As I wrote then:
For a variety of reasons, the complex human dramas that play out every day inside the bubble of family courts rarely break the surface of media and, therefore, public consciousness.
In part, that’s because family courts, which deal with “all family law matters except divorce and division of property,” tend to focus on very personal matters — what to do with a child who stops going to school, or how to decide which parent gets to spend how much time with which child on which weekend and under what circumstances — that matter most to the individuals and families concerned, and not so much, in their specificity, to the rest of us.
At the same time, family court cases have always been problematic for journalists to cover. We’re used to being able to name names and provide identifying details that will help our readers put context to the issues we write about. But under Nova Scotia’s Children and Family Services Act, “information that has the effect of identifying a child witness, a child participant in a hearing, or a child who is the subject of a proceeding… cannot be published or made public. Nor can information that has the effect of identifying a parent, guardian, foster parent, or relative of the child.”
As reasonable as those prohibitions are, they often leave reporters scrambling to make human sense out of what Stick Person X did to Stick Person Y, and how that affected Stick Person Z. Hardly the stuff of compelling narrative. Or deeper understanding.
Given shrinking newsroom budgets and the shriveling size of news holes in newspapers — the only media that traditionally had the resources to routinely cover what happens in the courts — there is now almost no coverage of anything except the most dramatic and sensational stories from inside those family courtrooms.
And that’s a shame. Those very personal matters that matter most to the individuals and families concerned should often concern us too.
Until I read that email last November, however, I hadn’t taken the time to connect all the dots from the individual stories I’d written to the larger picture of the system they painted. And I had no idea — or perhaps only the vaguest, news-today-gone-tomorrow sense — that Nova Scotia’s Children and Family Services Act had been significantly amended in 2015. I had no clue that many inside and outside the system believed the situation for children and families was now worse even than the cases I’d written about so randomly over the years.
“This must be addressed,” my emailer admonished, adding: “Maybe I can help get this on the radar. Email me if this may work.”
I did and, bit by bit, my correspondent connected me to various reports and documents and cases, as well as to the individuals who could provide context for them.
In the end, I decided to focus the series on the case of the “Minister of Community Services v J.C.”, both because it was compelling and emblematic, and also because it seemed to highlight a few of the many major issues with the system.
As I burrowed deeper into the issues, I realized that even a two-part feature could only touch on the many systemic elements that conspire to keep the poor poor and their children next-generation victims of the same hopeless future.
With a provincial election almost certain to be called soon, perhaps it’s time to ask those who seek to represent us in government what they will do to fix that broken system and make it actually live up to what the Children and Family Services Act describes as its “purpose and paramount consideration: to protect children from harm, promote the integrity of the family and assure the best interests of children.”
The clock is ticking.
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