PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. - A Saskatchewan judge has scolded the province's child-welfare system for ignoring court orders to arrange regular visits between two children and their rehabilitated mother.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Geoffrey Dufour said he was impressed with the young woman's remarkable turnaround from a prostitute and addict to a healthy and devoted mother. He recently ordered the children be returned to her this week.
Dufour was not as impressed by social workers. He issued an ultimatum: explain your blatant disregard for the courts or face further action, such as criminal charges of contempt of court.
"A court order trumps the ministry's discretion. It was obliged to comply with it. Full stop," Dufour wrote in his latest decision two weeks ago.
He described the 26-year-old woman as "a mother who has escaped a life of prostitution and squalor and bested addictions so that she might have the ability to parent her two children.
"Despite the odds and the recommendation of the Ministry of Social Services, she will have the opportunity to do so."
The judge recommended the department file a report explaining its mistakes by Feb. 1.
Andrea Brittin, an official with the ministry, said Thursday she can't comment on the case, including on whether the children are now living full-time with their mother at her apartment in Prince Albert.
She also wouldn't say whether a report on how the file was handled will be submitted to the judge. She said, in general, court orders regarding parental visits vary between being vague and specific.
"We are always continually reviewing our processes in order to ensure improvement of the services that we provide to children and families."
Court documents show the mother, who cannot be identified, grew up in a neglected household and was living on her own and selling her body for alcohol at age 14. She started injecting drugs at 16.
Her two children, a boy and girl who she has said were probably fathered by johns, were placed in foster care at birth. The woman was diagnosed as HIV positive after her first child was born and passed the disease onto her youngest child.
Dufour wrote that the woman has always indicated her children were important to her. She has never missed a scheduled visit, often arriving with a duffle bag full of toys, crafts and games.
It took several attempts to clean up her life, but she finally did. Dr. Leo Lanoie, who runs Prince Albert's methadone treatment program, told court she was a "model patient."
Lanoie also diagnosed the woman with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and found she had been self-prescribing herself with Ritalin for years. He now prescribes her a slow-release form of the drug that helps her concentrate.
Psychologist Brian Chartier testified the woman poses a high risk to abuse and neglect her children because of her own childhood.
But the judge noted that Chartier fell asleep on the couch during one visit to the woman's home. A social services official later berated him and probably skewed his opinion by making it clear the ministry wanted the children to be put up for adoption, said Dufour.
He also questioned the testimony of a case worker who was concerned with the woman's ability to parent because she fed her children fast food from McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken twice in one day. Dufour said after the worker raised concerns, the mother replaced the food with healthy alternatives, such as homemade barley soup.
He described the children as well-adjusted. The five-year-old boy is polite and inquisitive and the girl, nearly four, is spunky and does not yet require treatment for HIV.
Their mother has morphed from a dishevelled waif who appeared in court two years ago into a healthy, well-groomed and confident woman who plans on upgrading her education, said Dufour. The woman carried a well-thumbed and dog-eared parenting advice book with her into court and excitedly described how she would decorate her children's bedroom.
Dufour agreed the woman lacks parenting experience and a bond with her children. "Of course, she would have had more experience as a mother had the ministry complied with court orders."
— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton