A group of 34 non-governmental agencies condemned Canada, in November 1999, for not living up to its commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child because daycare and early education programs are inadequate. There are other disturbing rights violations in the spotlight too
In 1997, child-welfare officials across Canada reported a growing number of child-abuse cases. No one was sure whether the incidence of abuse was growing or simply the public’s awareness of it. In Montreal alone, in a four-year period, the city’s anglophone child-protection agency (the Batshaw Youth and Family Centres) had 65% more confirmed cases of physical abuse in which the agency seized custody of the child — up from 108 cases in 1992 to 178 in 1996. The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Metropolitan Toronto reported a 10% to 15% increase in the number of child-abuse cases over the year before the report appeared. The CAS credited the increase largely to greater awareness, which has prompted more people to report problems. The Society also links the abuse to unemployment and the financial stresses that places on families, as well as the use of drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin.
New Brunswick’s child protection officials were also under harsh criticism after two toddlers were neglected to the point of death. The government later admitted that it needed to put the welfare of children ahead of the desire to keep families together, and that, in order to do that, it needed to hire more social workers.
The following year, in 1998, Crown attorney John Scott said Ontario’s child-protection system needed sweeping changes. He was speaking at an inquest into the death of a six-year-old girl who was killed by her mother’s mentally ill boyfriend. Mr. Scott said the system needed to end custodial rights quickly when parents are abusive, neglectful, and incompetent so their children can be adopted. He said the province’s 12-year experiment with supporting troubled families rather than taking their children away had failed. Mr. Scott made several recommendations: he suggested, for example, that, for children under three in abusive situations, cases should be processed quickly (within one year) through court. He said that the definition of a child “in need of protection” should be broadened. It should include mental, emotional, or addiction problems in a parent, exposure to violence against others in the home, and chronic neglect or risk of neglect, not just physical or sexual abuse, or imminent risk of such abuse. Mr. Scott added that Children’s Aid social workers should place the child’s need above building trust with parents, making unannounced home visits, and questioning relatives, neighbours, and doctors about what’s happening in a child’s home.
By the end of 1998, Ontario’s Chief Coronet also agreed that the safety of children would take precedence over the rights of the family. Such a move would reverse the policy that made keeping families together the primary goal of CAS workers. The decision came after a report was released on six inquests into the deaths of children who were clients of children’s aid societies. The inquests had already led to the government announcing sweeping changes to the Child Protection Act. In addition, the province promised to add $90 million to its budget for child protection. There was also a commitment to develop a common database as a central source of information on families with a history of serious problems involving children’s aid societies.
The same year, the Human Rights Commission released a scathing report on Quebec’s child-protection services. The province’s youth-protection services “failed miserably” to stop the severe family violence in one family in particular. This involved a gruesome case in which a man abused two women and at least four of his seven children over a 13-year period, despite numerous reports to authorities. The Human Rights report concluded “that the children’s right to receive adequate social services was violated.” The commission further noted that the inadequate services were the result of a combination of factors including lack of specialized training, the heavy case loads of social workers, mismanagement of information, and no clear intervention plan to deal with child abuse.
British Columbia’s child-protection system was recently overhauled after a string of tragedies that were seen largely as a result of bureaucratic blundering and insufficient resources. In 1998, the province’s Children’s Commissioner reported on the deaths of 24 children in 1997, outlining repeated failures to protect children at risk.
“Inadequate risk assessments, coupled with failed foster-home placements, left these children with few supports and little protection,” she said, adding that the children “were not provided the love and protection to which they had a right.”
Child exploitation goes beyond the birth family. Some troubled, older children become victims of abuse in the foster homes, group homes, and child-treatment centres that are supposed to be helping them recover from parental abuse. Some have experienced racial slurs, threats, forced isolation, and physical and emotional abuse that only deepens the scars they received in their own dysfunctional families.
Inevitably, some teenagers turn to the streets where they become involved in prostitution and/or drugs. Their lot is not a pretty one: their lives continue to be ruled by abusive adults — pimps, customers, drug dealers — whose only interest is in exploiting them.
Federal law forbids Canadians from buying or attempting to buy sex from a person under 18 years of age. A conviction carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. However, a 1999 report, Painting by Numbers, compiled for a Vancouver social agency, found some provinces are better at policing the law than others. The report criticized British Columbia for being lax in enforcing the federal child prostitution law. The study found that Quebec did the most effective job of charging offenders, B.C. lagged far behind, and Ontario was between the two.