OPINION
03/27/2020 17:10 EDT

Amid A Pandemic, Who's Watching Out For Canada's Unprotected Kids?

Child protection, like other systems of care responding to the COVID-19 crisis, has reduced services.

In 2007, seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson was found brutally murdered in her caregivers’ Toronto apartment. Injury, upon injury, upon injury on her frail body. Her room was smeared with blood and feces. There was also a note. Katelynn had written over and over: “I am A awful girl that’s why know one wants me.”

Katelynn was not murdered by her single mother. Her mother, struggling with her own demons, had placed Katelynn with caregivers through a court decision. It was the caregivers who had murdered Katelynn.

Two child protection agencies in Toronto were formally responsible to serve Katelynn. Yet what we learned through the inquest into her death was that she was largely invisible to her social workers — they simply never saw her, failed even to ask her how she was doing and took her caregivers’ word about her well-being instead. Being hidden in plain sight was the key factor in her suffering and death. 

The damage done by the pandemic will be lasting, and children will be hurt emotionally — if not physically.

This was the result of a strained system on a “regular day.” The situation is made even more dire by the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching the resources of our child protection and family support systems in an unprecedented way. 

I wonder what Katelynn would say to us if she were still alive today, quarantined in a home with her abusers. Perhaps she might say something like what this former youth in care wrote on her Creating Roots Facebook page, where she raises funds to give young people leaving the system permanent homes:

 

Child protection, like other systems of care responding to the novel coronavirus crisis, has had to reduce non-essential services.

The system, designed to protect children from abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents or caregivers, in their own home, is not built on “social distancing” and “self isolation.” It is built on relationships formed face to face with children and families. Yet the pandemic has caused many home visits to be suspended. Visits and reunifications have gone virtual or over the phone, or placed on hold entirely; court-ordered requirements placed on parents are nearly impossible to carry through.  

The needs of potentially thousands of children and families in need have been hidden in plain sight with the closure of places of worship, daycares and community centres: places where teachers and staff working with children are in a unique position to flag things like unexplained bruises, a child confiding in them about dangers at home, or unusual behaviours that could indicate distress to child protection agencies.

No agency in this country, no matter its source of funding, should have to spend a moment worrying whether its workers have the money to do what is necessary.

With such points of protection lost during school and community closures, there is almost no commitment to putting eyes on children. If children are not seen and heard; if calls are not being made to child protection — or calls are made, say by a concerned neighbour, but social workers can’t follow up at a child’s home — certainly some kids will be in danger. 

Moreover, many foster parents and guardians are left with little or no support at this time, including parents with children living with disabilities. Families already under stress are being asked to self-isolate and further strained by the shrinking of services, such as respite care, that held them together. Nutrition, counselling and addiction support is limited, if available at all. Job loss, children at home 24/7, worries of eviction, the closure of playgrounds where children can let off steam, loneliness — they all create a recipe for trouble for a struggling family. 

Katja Kircher via Getty Images
Canada's government must see the kids this pandemic has hidden in plain sight.

Let’s be clear: there are good people in child protection, from foster families to social workers. The majority are caring, committed, dedicated professionals and caregivers stuck between a rock and a hard place in a system that has been destabilized and neglected by government indifference (and even scorn) because of the cost. Prior to COVID-19, Ontario child welfare groups had not even received their budgets and were operating in a state of limbo.

It is a system that has been fundamentally flawed, and acknowledged as such, for years now. Today, that system already at its breaking point will be forced to operate under increasingly difficult, and what could become seemingly impossible, circumstances.

An essential service by any measure

The Canadian Government recently committed billions of dollars to backstopping struggling businesses, large and small. Provincial governments have been clear in their messaging. Businesses will have what they need. That is respect. There is no doubt this is appropriate.

Governments now — right now — must make the same pledge of support for our country’s most vulnerable children and families. In the actions of our governments and in their rhetoric, they must demonstrate they recognize children connected to child welfare systems as worthy of support. 

They must act and speak like they see these children and their families. 

Governments across this country must direct child welfare to keep their eyes on our children.

No agency in this country, no matter its source of funding, should have to spend a moment worrying whether its workers have the money to do what is necessary to protect or support a child or family in need. Not one. This commitment must extend to the organizations, both grassroots and institutional — children’s mental health, special needs, parent support associations.

All children’s service and family support organizations must be given the freedom and encouragement to work collaboratively in whatever ways they see fit, crossing mandates, funding agreements and service contracts as necessary. 

Governments across this country must direct child welfare to keep their eyes on our children. They must acknowledge the public health challenges in doing this, but require that services determine how this be done.

Governments at all levels must pledge publicly and privately that they will support child protection services in any way that is required, without reservation or delay. Whatever personal protective gear needed — such as N95 masks and hand sanitizer — must be provided, so that workers can go into homes and do their job. Communication must be open, transparent and respectful. Requests for support must be met by swift action.

Amid this public health lockdown, essential services will be up and running. What would it say about us as a society, if we don’t deem to physically protect children and vulnerable families an unequivocally essential service?

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