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A Toronto Star report exposed serious flaws in Ontario's child-protection system. Some social workers say the simplistic coverage bring new risks to vulnerable children

“Getting Away with Murder-Of children” and “Missed Clues-Lost Lives” read the headlines in The Toronto Star a few weekends last spring. Inside the paper pictures of doe-eyed children stared up at readers, as if pleading for help. These children had been killed by those who were supposed to nurture them, and failed by the system that was supposed to protect them. Once again, brutal child abuse was on the front page. But many of the complex realities facing the child-protection system were missing from the coverage.

Nancy Andrews, 35, is one of the child-protection workers the reporters interviewed. She works in a field where the lives of society’s most vulnerable children rely on careful thought and decisive action. Andrews is an intake supervisor with the Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto (CASMT). She believes that the children under the supervision of her staff have a story to tell, and that society needs to hear it. That’s why she was willing to be interviewed

At the time, she had been an intake social worker for six years. The Star reporters spent about two days with Nancy, meeting some of her clients and talking with her about the frustrations and dilemmas of the job. Like many others in the child-protection system, she hoped the issue of child abuse and neglect was finally going to get more in-depth coverage than the usual “oh-my-God-someone-killed-a-baby” and “how-could-this-happen!?” stuff.

But when Andrews read TheToronto Star the morning of April 19, 1997, she was shaking with anger and hurt and almost in tears. There, on the front page, beneath the headline “Cry For the Children,” the deck said, “They’re fragile, desperately needy. Yet youngsters under the protection of Ontario’s child-care system are likely to end up even more damaged, a Star investigation shows.” This was the first article in a series called “Cry for the Children”, by reporters Kevin Donovan and Moira Welsh. It helped the Star win a Michener award for meritorious public service in journalism.

“Cry for the Children” covered the children whom the Children’s Aid Society fails in a way that the issue had rarely been covered before. The series ran front page, plus one or two full pages inside, on five Saturdays and Sundays between April 19 and June 21, 1997, and Welsh and Donovan wrote several other articles related to child protection. They provided background on how the children had lived and what professionals had contact with them, and analyzed patterns that appeared in the cases they studied. But their research was limited to children who had died in Ontario over a five-year period, and 200 Crown-wardship cases, drawn randomly from the QuickLaw database.

No other story by Donovan or Welsh has ever generated as many letters and phone calls. An entire page, headlined “Crying for the Children” ran in the Star‘sInsight section on April 26. Readers wrote in demanding abusive parents lose all rights to children, and that the system be made accountable for its errors. They were shocked by the detailed descriptions of the miserable lives these children had led, and were outraged that the CASs were allowing these tragedies to happen right under the noses of child-protection officials.

Those within Ontario’s child-protection system had mixed reactions, however. Mention the series in the hallways of the North York office where Nancy Andrews works and a common response is, “Don’t even get me started.”

“When you’re doing the best that you can within a system that is difficult, and you pick up a paper that basically says that a child is better off not having contact with you or your agency, the only word is devastating,” says Andrews. But others were glad that the issue of child abuse was at least making it onto the front page and into the spotlight. Mary McConville, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, has some concerns about the way the information was presented, but was “pleased to see that a major paper would devote so much time to the issue, and follow it through.” The downside, McConville felt, was that “there was an attempt to position the Star as uncovering the problem, as if the Children’s Aid Societies weren’t doing anything.”

The public only hears about the work that CASs do when there is a tragic failure. Child-welfare professionals like Andrews realize that there are some serious flaws in Ontario’s child-protection system. They want the public to understand how the system works so that the public can help fix it. But by telling their stories through reporters, they lose control of the message. As a result, only one side of the child-protection storyÛthe bad news-makes the front page.

In the spring of 1996, Moira Welsh had just finished covering the end of the criminal trial of Lisa Olsen and Michael Podniewicz, who were convicted of second-degree murder in the death of their six-month-old daughter, Sara Nicole. Sara had succumbed to pneumonia after a short life of chronic neglect and abuse.

Welsh had been at the Star since 1991, and had worked as a general-assignment reporter and photographer at several newspapers across the country. She’d never done any long-term investigative projects before, but the Podniewicz trial left her wondering how many other children were living in the same conditions as Sara Podniewicz, and why Children’s Aid wasn’t doing more to protect them.

Kevin Donovan, 35, had recently finished another major project, as editor on the Star‘s award-winning series on spousal abuse. It tracked 133 cases through the court system and uncovered some serious flaws in the way these are prosecuted. Despite the fact that the two reporters had been at the same paper for nearly five years, they had never worked together. In fact, they had never really spoken much at all. Then one afternoon, before a going away get-together for a colleague, Donovan found himself at Welsh’s desk, discussing stories they had recently covered. Later, at the get-together, Donovan recalls Welsh asking: “So what do you think about child abuse?” Both reporters were particularly interested in the subject because Welsh had a one-year-old son and Donovan’s wife was eight months pregnant with their first child.

That question resulted in more than half a year of research. “The Star was really committed to this story, we had a lot of time to work on it,” says Welsh. “They felt really strongly about it. The amount of time and the amount of play that was given to it was excellent and Dave Ellis, our editor, gave us a lot of freedom and respect to go out and do our work.” Donovan and Welsh pored over court transcripts, followed child-protection workers around, worked with coroners, police officers and social workers across the province, and interviewed families involved with the child-protection system in order to piece together the stories behind the deaths of Kasandra Shepherd, Sara Podniewicz, Jennifer Kovalskyj England, Shanay Johnson, Tiffani Coville and many other children who had been killed in Ontario since 1991. They also examined the court transcripts of more than 200 Crown-wardship judgements (cases where the children were still alive) and the results of criminal trials involving child deaths. All of this information was plugged into three separate databases. The stories and statistics that the research produced shocked TheToronto Star‘s readers.

When Welsh and Donovan approached the Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto about the series, the agency was excited that a major newspaper was going to devote so much research time and space to the issue of child abuse and neglect. Staff there hoped that the series might provide a chance for the public to see the range of services CASs provide, from front-line child protection to foster care and supports for young adults who have grown up in the care of the Children’s Aid Society. After some discussion with John McCullough, the manager of communications at the CASMT, and meetings with Bruce Rivers, the executive director, the agency invited Welsh and Donovan to spend time with workers in a range of services, so that they could see for themselves the pressures that child-protection workers deal with and the services that they provide. Donovan and Welsh were also talking to the Catholic Children’s Aid Society and meeting intake and family service workers from different agencies.

It soon became apparent that the CASs and the reporters had very different agendas. Welsh and Donovan didn’t meet with workers from foster care and other areas of the CASMT, because they were primarily interested in children who had died while under the protection of a CAS and with living children the system had failed to protect.

“A newborn baby is found in the trash, and suddenly there are hundreds of calls from reporters, we hold a news conference, it’s in the headlines, and then the media go on to something else,” complains Bruce Rivers. “There are a few journalists who are really committed to the issue, but short-term attention is more typical.” The problem with one-shot coverage is that the public never gets to see the system as a whole. People rarely learn, for example, that CASs in Ontario receive $420 million in funding, with which they must provide services for about 107,000 families, including 150,000 children, about 21,000 of whom are being cared for outside of their homes. The public almost never hears that typical caseloads at the intake and family service levels are between 20 to 40 families per worker, or that each case involves all the children in the family, and includes phone calls and visits to the family, as well as doctors, teachers, day-care staff, other relatives, and anyone else who can provide information on a child’s well-being. All of these factors affect a worker’s ability to protect a child, but if the public never hears about these issues, external pressure on the government to make children a priority is badly weakened.

In fact, child abuse makes it into the headlines so rarely that headline writers don’t know the terminology involved in child protection. The effects can be disastrous. On March 25, 1997, just before the series ran, an article by Donovan and Welsh carried the headline “Children’s Death Rate ‘High’ in Care.” The term “in care” actually means that a child has been removed from the family home and is being cared for by the Children’s Aid Society. Donovan and Welsh’s story was actually about the high number of children who had died even though their families were involved with a CAS. Donovan and Welsh didn’t use the term anywhere in the story, but nonetheless, the headline writer’s mistake was costly for many child protection workers. Nancy Andrews had just brought a child into foster care the night before that headline appeared, and the next day the child’s mother called, crying, convinced that her child would be killed in foster care. After the series, Andrews said, “I had many people say to me: ÎI know what you guys are all about nowÛI read the papers. You guys don’t know what you are doing.’ That happened numerous times, from clients I was trying to work with. So their trust level went down, and so did our ability to work with them.”

Many social workers were getting the same reaction. One worker was trying to bring a teenager into care and the teenager asked her: “Are you going to kill me? Social workers kill kids.” Another worker was taking some children into court to ask that they remain in care, when a lawyer said to her that the children would be safer with their mother than with the CAS.

Social workers need the trust of the families they are working with, so they can help them find solutions to their problems with drug abuse, stress due to poor housing and economic situations, or a variety of other issues.

Deaths and Crown-wardship cases are only a fraction of the child-welfare story. The Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, published in 1994 by Nicolas Trocme of the Centre for Applied Social Research at the University of Toronto, found that applications to child-welfare court were made in less than 10 percent of cases, and less than 0.3 percent of cases ended up going to trial. By contrast, Welsh and Donovan’s database of living children included only those whose cases went to trial. And while any deaths are too many, the system as a whole was judged on a small percentage of the cases it handles. “There is merit in looking at such cases, but if the public ends up perceiving that the majority of typical cases is as serious as the cases that have led to a death or to a trial, then there is a risk that the public will put pressure on the Children’s Aid Societies to move toward a more interventionist approach.” says Trocme.

One of Nancy Andrews’s former clients was willing to be interviewed by Welsh and Donovan. She had a terrible childhood, and had been introduced to drugs by her parents. She became a drug addict by the time when she was around 12, and ended up addicted to crack and heroin. But when she found out she was pregnant, she tried to get clean for the first time in her life. She entered a series of drug rehabilitation programs, but had two relapses. When her baby was born, he tested positive for cocaine, so Andrews went to the hospital and brought the baby into care. The mother was devastated but decided to work with Children’s Aid to get her baby back. She went into a rehabilitation program, found 24-hour supportive housing where she and the baby could live, and travelled across the city every day to a visitation centre in Scarborough to learn parenting skills and to be with her baby. She submitted to random drug screenings and after about four months the baby was allowed to go home with her on the condition that Children’s Aid would continue to monitor them.

Shortly before the baby was to be returned to his mother, Welsh and Donovan interviewed her. At one point during the interview, she looked down at her son and said: “You know, if I started using again, I’d call Children’s Aid myself. How could I hurt him?” After about an hour and a half there were tears in everyone’s eyes. But Welsh and Donovan decided not to use this woman’s story in the series because they wanted people who would go on the record, so they could put names and faces to the people they wrote about, and this woman did not want her real name used.

When asked why the series had such detail on the tragedies, but only mentioned one “success story,” Donovan says, “We did it this way because it was all we could do. I would love it if the Children’s Aid Society would let me go in and look at all of their files. I believe it would be a lot worse than what we wrote. I think there is altogether too much confidentiality in the Children’s Aid in this province, and that’s one of their big problems.”

There is a difficulty balancing the public’s need to know how the child-protection system works, and consideration for the privacy of the CASs clients. Welsh and Donovan followed Andrews around for a few days, but they couldn’t follow her inside clients’ homes, since many of her visits are unannounced. When intake workers are first investigating a family, they often arrive on the doorstep without warning so that they can see the home as it really is, not how the family wants to present it to the CAS. Put yourself in the place of parents who open the door and find out that they are being investigated by the Children’s Aid Society and may lose their children. Imagine finding out that a major newspaper wants to come inside as well.

Ontario’s child-protection system has been put under the microscope recently. It is faced with a decision: open up to journalists and hope that the stories they produce will raise public awareness of child abuse and neglect, and the difficulties the child-welfare system is facing; or retreat from the past wounds the media have inflicted and allow the fate of thousands of desperately vulnerable children to fade out of the public’s and the politicians’ view. “I’ve spent an enormous amount of time talking to our workers, reminding them that we mustn’t let the overriding negativity of some of the coverage [including the Star‘s] prevent them from wanting to spend time with the media,” Bruce Rivers says.

On June 21, 1997, the last article in the series, headlined “How to Save the Children,” appeared on the front page of the Star. It advocated a seven-step plan to fix Ontario’s child-welfare system. None of the suggestions were new to child-welfare professionals. They had been saying the same things for years, but their reports and complaints had been ignored. Donovan and Welsh openly admit that all of the suggestions they printed were made by people within the system long before they appeared under their joint bylines. In fact, the Star‘s recommendations are almost identical to the recommendations of the final report of the Child Mortality Task Force.

The Child Mortality Task Force was formed in April of 1996, because the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies and the chief coroner’s office realized that they really didn’t have any information or statistics on child mortality in Ontario. Each of Ontario’s 55 CASs is required to report any “serious occurrences,” including child deaths, but no records of these reports have been kept or statistics gathered. Welsh and Donovan say that the task force wasn’t really doing anything until they approached deputy chief coroner Jim Cairns late in July with a list of questions about child mortality. They didn’t hear anything until mid-September, when the task force held a press conference to announce that it was going to look at child mortality in terms of a list of questions, that to Donovan and Welsh, seemed very similar to their own list. There is a great deal of bitterness over who started what, but both the task force and the reporters agree that making sure the recommendations are put in place is more important than fighting over who started the process.

One of the recommendations made by both parties has been put in place. The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies has adopted a risk-assessment tool to be used by all of the 55 Children’s Aid Societies in the province. Another recommendation, that there be a province-wide database so that CASs can share information on parents who may move from one area to another, is being studied by the Ministry of Community and Social Services. The ministry has also announced that it is conducting its own review of the child-protection system. Mary McConville worries, however, that if the pressure is not kept up, the recommendations will not become legislation before the current provincial government’s mandate is over. “These are complex projects, and we can’t afford to let them slide off because some new political priority has come to the government’s attention,” she says.

Unlike other vulnerable groups in society, abused and neglected children do not have a voice. They can’t vote, they can’t lobby the government and they don’t have any consumer clout. They need journalists to tell their stories. It is difficult to hear these stories without wanting someone to pay or to exact revenge for the loss of an innocent life. But we need to consider carefully the best interests of the children still living in the child-protection system before we call for sweeping changes based on the stories of the dead. As I leave Nancy Andrews’s office, we are still discussing the role of journalists, and she says, “I don’t think they realize how much power they have. I really don’t.”

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