The Chronicle Herald printed a front-page story on Jan. 4 about a Family Court judge who dismissed the province’s request to take a 20-month-old girl into permanent custody, ruling the child’s safety won’t be jeopardized by staying with her troubled family.
In her decision, Justice Elizabeth Jollimore writes: “There is a difference between parents who are poor, and poor parents. Ms. C and Mr. S are parents who are poor.”
This is an extraordinarily important distinction to make.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) recently released the 2017 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia. The report states that one in five Nova Scotian children lives in poverty. Our province has done a poor job of achieving the goal of eradicating poverty for children by the year 2000.
In addition, the auditor general’s report on the state of mental health care services in Nova Scotia states that one in five Canadians will have a mental health care issue, and then it goes on to identify many crucial problems within the current system.
Both sources highlight that our province’s social structures do not meet the needs of the people. Our systems continue to penalize those who are the most vulnerable to the shortcomings of these systems.
The recent Child and Family Service Act changes expanded the definition of neglect. The former minister of Community Services, Joanne Bernard, stated at the time that she was bringing the amendments through the legislature, as these changes were needed to keep children in their homes and to provide support before the family is in a crisis.
The assumption was made that families have timely access to relevant and quality resources to address child protection concerns like neglect, when in fact, as the CCPA-NS Child and the auditor general’s report points out, these services are too often unavailable.
Social workers engage with the most vulnerable in our society. They have the knowledge and skills to competently perform assessments, interventions, negotiations, mediations, advocacy and evaluations. They are trained in inter-professional practice, community collaboration and teamwork. They can tell the difference between intrapersonal issues and structural issues. Social workers labour in solidarity with vulnerable populations to address intrapersonal issues and to empathetically connect with clients on the impacts of structural issues affecting their lives.
But even the most ethical, empathic and altruistic social worker cannot begin to keep children safe in Nova Scotia without the fundamental tools to do so. Without these tools, social workers often find themselves facing the seemingly impossible scenarios of trying to keep children safe.
It is no wonder so many social workers face record levels of burnout. This is the equivalent of asking a doctor to perform a surgery without the proper surgical tools, medical supports or hospital infrastructure, or asking a highway worker to build a highway without bulldozers and shovels.
We need to address the deep structural inequities that exist in our province and reimagine our current political economy to keep children safe.
To do this, we must have meaningful debate and advocate for structural change to address the following:
• The culture of affluence that allows the top 100 CEOs in Canada to make more money by 10:57 a.m. on Jan. 2 than most Nova Scotian workers will make this year. When the culture of affluence is left unchecked and the concerns of the oppressed go unnoticed, there is eroded trust and increased anxiety and illness, which have a lasting impact on a range of social issues.
• The need to work towards the public good. We must make real and sustainable investments in areas such as housing, mental health, food security and domestic violence.
• The legacies of colonialism and racism. We must work in solidarity towards liberation from the effects of oppressive behavioural patterns and work to “unlearn” oppressive attitudes and assumptions.
• Work towards greater democratic participation, building structures that allow Nova Scotians to hold their government accountable, increase meaningful participation in government policy creation to advance the common good. We believe this province is in desperate need of a Child Youth Advocate Office that could facilitate this process in child protection matters.
Ultimately, Justice Jollimore’s decision reinforces that we cannot continue to penalize those who are oppressed by a system that we are collectively responsible for. Her decision again reminds us that the cycle of abuse, poverty and neglect are ours as Nova Scotians to change.
Alec Stratford is registrar / executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.