Protecting children requires necessary diligence


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Search the web with the words “unattended” and “children” and ready yourself for the horror show.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/11/2018 (1674 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Search the web with the words “unattended” and “children” and ready yourself for the horror show.

Child dies in bathtub after being left alone by drug-addled dad. Cocaine-infused mom charged with leaving her five kids alone so she could score more dope. Infants and toddlers abandoned by neglectful parents in cars outside Walmart.

We don’t have to go far to confirm our worst fears when it comes to unattended children. As these stories remind us, kids who do not receive proper care and supervision face grave danger.

Steve Lambert / The Canadian Press Files Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Daphne Penrose says the child welfare system is anchored in the principle that all perceived threats must be investigated.

And yet, these stories are statistically the exception rather than the rule; children are safer now than ever before. There are fewer child abductions and disappearances, and fewer deaths from traffic collisions, bike accidents and childhood diseases.

The conflict between perceptions and the reality of the threat against children came into focus recently in Winnipeg when a Wolseley mother revealed she had received a visit from a Child and Family Services (CFS) worker, responding to a complaint that she had left her children unattended.

Katharina Nuss had allowed her seven-year-old and three-year-old children to walk from their home to a nearby bakery on their own as a “confidence building” exercise. The two children were never out of Nuss’s sight, and were well-known to the bakery owners. Even so, an anonymous member of the public called CFS.

In a visit with a CFS social worker, Nuss was reminded that provincial law requires any child under 12 to be properly supervised by an adult. Nuss was understandably outraged that anyone, particularly a social worker, would suggest that she had made a bad decision by allowing her children to walk half a block on their own.

The hard and fast rule about children under 12, Nuss has argued, is arbitrary and unfair to the point where it punishes otherwise good parents. “As parents, we should be able to exercise our judgment when it comes to their cues of readiness, rather than our fear of CFS,” Nuss said.

The story kicked off a city-wide debate about whether we have become too protective, too alarmist in assessing the overall state of child welfare. This story resonated with many people, including the Indigenous community, which has argued, and rightly so, that the CFS system has been much too quick to punish parents and apprehend children.

The idea that we have become a society of alarmists is certainly borne out in the aforementioned data about the actual threat level for children, but also in social science, which has dug deep into the way we view an unattended child.

In short, we are overly judgmental about other parents and entirely unjust in the way we apply that judgment.

There have been many studies that have substantiated the concern that Western societies are, on the whole, too alarmist and quick to judge parents and the way they care for their children.

One seminal 2016 study done by psychologists at the University of California showed that because of our often irrational “moral intuitions,” we are extremely bad at assessing the actual threat posed to children left unattended, and profoundly unfair in how we view the obligations of mothers and fathers. For example, study participants were much more likely to reach a “negative moral judgment” of a mother than of a father in the exact same scenario.

And despite the fact that all genuinely unattended children face the same level of threat, we are more likely to see a greater threat when parents leave their children unattended on purpose (left in a car while running an errand) than inadvertently (wandered off on their own).

In other words, the average member of the general public is not equipped, either professionally or intellectually, to provide an accurate assessment of the actual threat against an unattended child. That certainly supports much of what Nuss said in the wake of her brush with CFS.

However, that is only part of the equation here. These studies only deal with the way we perceive threats, not the actual threat level that may be present. And it’s important to remember that in the child-welfare system, social workers are not living in the world of perceived threat. The threats they see on a daily basis are clear and present.

The people who work in “the system,” as it’s called, have a front-row seat to a wide array of atrocities committed against children, most often by the people who are supposed to nurture and protect them. These range from the errors of omission — neglectful behaviour, for lack of a better term — to acts of evil and unspeakable violence.

Daphne Penrose, Manitoba’s children’s advocate, said she sympathizes greatly with Nuss and other well-meaning parents who, often through no fault of their own, are confronted by a social worker asking awkward questions. However, it’s important for all parents to understand that the simple act of asking questions is not, in and of itself, evidence of any parental failure.

In fact, the decision that social workers made to close the file on Nuss is confirmation that the system does not believe there is any risk to Nuss’s children, Penrose added.

Penrose noted, however, that the child-welfare system is anchored in the principle that all possible and perceived threats must be investigated. Without a more thorough investigation, it is impossible to know whether children are really in danger or — to use the most recent example — they are engaged in parent-sponsored activities to build independence.

Although this mother felt wrongly accused by the social worker who visited her, the fact of the matter is that the protocols used by CFS to investigate complaints from the public about a threat to an individual child reveal many genuine cases of neglect and abuse.

Penrose was adamant that the call made by the anonymous bystander and the follow-up visits by social workers, just like the one experienced by Nuss, are among the biggest reasons children are safer today than ever before.

“Those concerned citizens who have made calls to us have saved a lot of lives,” she added.

Although genuinely good parents may bristle at a visit from a social worker, the laws and the protocols that led to that visit were created to pre-emptively identify as many cases of genuine neglect and abuse as possible.

Put another way: the CFS system does not respond to anonymous complaints from the public because it believes everything they say. Rather, those visits are based on the premise that it is impossible to assess the risk faced by a child without a face-to-face meeting with parents to see conditions first-hand.

In fact, in our collective pursuit of a safer world for all children, there is an argument to be made that the occasional visit from a social worker is a small price to pay.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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