I read an article this article in the Toronto Star today: Mother-child prison program giving babies, mothers ‘a better chance’. The article contains a description of a program which aims to keep children with their mothers while they are in jail. As I read the article, the following statement jumped out at me:
“Once you take that baby away . . . you can’t go back,” Martin said. The opportunity to keep their children is an incentive for women to turn their lives around, Martin said, while losing custody causes hopelessness and despair that can send women back into activities that initially led to their arrest.
The more I do child protection work, the more I believe that last statement. I have personally seen how the removal of a child from a family unit causes the parents to cycle deeper into despair and engage in activities that put themselves at risk. As a bystander, it is a terrible thing to watch. It is even more difficult to solve.
Sometimes as a Society, we believe we are doing the “right thing” by removing a child from his or her parent in order to “protect” that child. What we often forget, however, is that the decision to remove the child not only affects that particular child, but may also perpetuate the parent’s own hopelessness and despair. This is important because parenting while hopeless is virtually impossible. It is a death sentence for a parent and for that child in the family unit.
In child welfare work, many of the parents involved in the system have come from a life of financial and emotional poverty. The despair is deep-rooted, sometimes intergenerational, and often pervasive. When we remove the one thing that gives them hope, their child, we do great damage to that parent’s ability to rehabilitate and parent their child. When we use the parent’s despair to justify the removal of their children, we do great damage to that parent’s ability to rehabilitate and parent their children.
While it is without a doubt that some circumstances require the removal of a child from her home, I have found that too often it is seen as a first step and not as a last resort. I believe this is contrary to the Child and Family Services Act. The Act tells us that removal of children from their parents is a tool of last resort. It tells us that we should aim to work with the parents while the children are in the home. It tell us that we should be giving parents hope, not destroying them with despair.
I have known some great social workers in my career who have worked tirelessly with families to prevent removal of their children. They should be honoured and respected for the difficult work they do. There is nothing more satisfying than to see a family turn themselves around. Child welfare can be a really dark place to work, but the success stories are nothing short of amazing. Those “happy endings” are often the only thing that keeps me going in this field of work.