The long-term effects of child abuse and neglect can last through generations. When decisions by children’s aid societies, whose mandate is to protect children from abuse do more harm than good, that is not a small matter.
It becomes critical for racialized communities that are already burdened by negative perceptions from various institutions as they function in society.
That is precisely the concern regarding relations between the Black community in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and local children’s aid societies. Black youth, those under the age of 18, make up just over eight per cent of the youth population in the GTA but by some estimates are almost half the population of children now on children’s aid society files. The Toronto Black Experience Project gives that number as 65 per cent, in other words outnumbering children of the larger population. The Toronto Children’s Aid Society (CAS) had a caseload of 11,285 client families in 2013-14, with close to 2,200 in foster care.
Often, the critical point of initial contact for many of these children by CAS is not the family itself. Misinterpretation of cultural norms of various Black communities by teachers in schools, for example, can be what brings about the call that leads to an investigation by a children’s aid society.
A CAS worker may then show up at a private home, even accompanied by police, but also accompanied by bias about race and culture. That is the ongoing concern, so that CAS workers may in many cases be seeing problems where there aren’t any, and then take steps in line with CAS rules to remove a child from a home where there is no genuine need for such action.
Furthermore, across the range of Black cultural communities, the appearance of a CAS worker represents a historical trauma of children removed from parents within a system of chattel slavery. Therefore, need for change in the CAS protocol affecting Black families has been wanting for far too long.
In recent months, the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) has raised the alarm concerning how CAS handles these calls. In light of this concern, we applaud the recent gathering of Black child protection workers from across the GTA, organized by Kike Ojo, senior program analyst with the Peel CAS. Their goal – to prepare a guide in response to this ongoing dilemma—is long overdue and would be welcome.
We would expect to see recommended that when visiting a home to make an investigation, a representative of the community accompany CAS workers, as the CAS worker is frequently not a member of the community. Even further, given the disproportionate number of Black children in care, there is need for a greater number of staff members that reflect the community.
The ACLC has recommended the formation of a CAS specific to the community. That would also be a welcome move, and would not be without precedence since other culture specific children’s aid societies have already been formed including Aboriginal, Catholic and Jewish children’s aid organizations.
It bears repeating that poor parenting is not a characteristic of any particular ethnic or racial group, but that there are cultural differences in parenting. CAS must therefore take responsibility for ensuring that all workers have ethno-cultural training and that they be required to demonstrate competency in cultural awareness, especially as it relates to parenting. For too long the problem has been that the measure for acceptable parenting has been taken from the dominant group. The effect has been to do tremendous harm to families whose traditions of parenting are not reflected in the dominant society.
There is also need for more Black families willing to foster children taken into care by CAS. Failing that, the families that are fostering Black children in association with CAS must have competency in understanding Black culture, including how Black children express themselves verbally and emotionally.
It is well that the children’s aid societies in this region have come to realize that they must respond to this dilemma. We are hopeful that proactive efforts by all the groups working for change across all CAS associations will identify a new platform for best practices for the sake of the children who are most at risk.