12/12/2012 12:51 EST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 EST

Saskatchewan advocate says rehab mom, kids not treated fairly by child welfare

SASKATOON - Saskatchewan's children's advocate says two kids and their rehabilitated mother were not treated fairly by child welfare officials.

Bob Pringle said Wednesday it was correct for Social Services to take the boy and girl from their mother, who was a drug addict and prostitute. Pringle also said ministry staff initially took the right steps to reunite the family by working with the mom to help her get better.

But those efforts stopped when the ministry sought permanent wardship of the children in 2008 — even though policy says it should have continued.

That was unfair to both the mother and her children, Pringle suggested.

"We believe the decision to not provide concurrent planning and continue to work co-operatively with (the mother) may well have affected the bond between the children and their mother," he said in a report released Wednesday.

Pringle said once the relationship between child welfare workers and the mother dissolved, "adversarial positions became entrenched."

That led to fewer supervised family visits — even though they were court ordered — and a lack of consideration of the parent's progress or options other than permanent wardship for the children, he said.

The advocate's report noted that the mother turned her life around.

In April 2009, she told the ministry that she was addressing her health needs. She got her own home and completed two addiction treatment programs.

"This information was not assessed as progress ... and was not given due consideration in reducing the assessed risk," said Pringle.

The report said Social Services could have withdrawn the application for the permanent wardship and that the decision not to do so — with evidence of progress made by their mother — "was substantively unfair to the children."

"(The mother) and her children experienced shortcomings in administrative fairness. This needs to be acknowledged," wrote Pringle.

"To help this family move forward, we would like to see optimal, not average, supports put in place. Their road will not be easy, and every effort should be made to help this family succeed."

Pringle launched a rare administrative fairness investigation into the case in January after a court decision garnered media attention.

Last fall, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Geoffrey Dufour scolded provincial child welfare for ignoring court orders to arrange regular visits between the children and their mother.

Dufour said he was impressed with the young woman's remarkable turnaround from a prostitute and addict to a healthy and devoted mother. He ordered the children be returned to her.

The judge 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.

The government said in February that a provincewide review was underway to ensure compliance on all court orders. Ministry officials also said annual department audits would start to include a review of whether court orders were followed. Staff training was to emphasize that.

The advocate made five recommendations to the ministry, including two to review staff compliance with existing policies.

Social Services Minister June Draude said the government accepts the recommendations.

"We really regret that there were issues. I don't like the fact that the family was taken away from its mother, but at the same time I really believe that the social workers worked in what they believed was the best interest (of the children)," said Draude.

She said the ministry has learned from the experience. There are new protocols and systems in place to try to prevent something similar from happening again.

"I can't ever say the word 'never,' but I can say that our goal is to ensure that we minimize (it). We don't want it to happen," she said.

"We want to be supporting families and keeping children safe."

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina