Winnipeg mom gets CFS visit after leaving kids in backyard to play

A Winnipeg mother says she feels "paranoid" about letting her children outside on their own after she came under scrutiny by Child and Family Services when it received a complaint about them playing in their backyard.

Jacqui Kendrick shocked by visit from child protection worker after kids spotted in backyard alone

Winnipeg resident Jacqui Kendrick, with her husband and children, says she was scared after getting a visit from Child and Family Services after leaving her children in the backyard to play. (Courtesy Jacqui Kendrick)

A Winnipeg mother says she feels "paranoid" about letting her children outside on their own after she came under scrutiny by Child and Family Services when it received a complaint about them playing in their backyard.

Jacqui Kendrick first opened her front door to a CFS worker early in April.

"I just assumed it was another person canvassing the neighbourhood, so I kind of tuned her out when she was first talking," said Kendrick.

The worker then told her there had been a complaint about her kids playing in the yard unsupervised.

"[I was] shocked, outraged, terrified. I had no idea what to expect. I've never dealt with them before," she said.

People should be satisfied that we are responding to concerns about neglect … if we attend to the home and there's no indication of there being safety concern or neglect concerns, we'd take that, document it and the intake would be closed.- Sandie Stoker of the Child and Family All Nations Co-ordinated Response Network

Kendrick's three children are two, five and 10 years old. The stay-at-home mom said the older two often play in the backyard and ride their bikes around the neighbourhood, but the toddler is never left outside without a parent.

"I looked at her and said, 'So you're telling me I'm not allowed to let my five-year-old and my 10-year-old play out in the yard?' And she goes, 'Are they unsupervised?'" said Kendrick.

She said she was asked about her children's level of safety, and questions such as what she does when she lets her kids outside, whether they knew what to do if a stranger approached, whether she and her husband drink or do drugs, and whether they've had past CFS involvement.

The worker inspected her children's bedrooms and the inside of her fridge, and asked about family supports and finances.

"She had to make sure my kids were safe," said Kendrick. "I just answered as truthfully I could. I wasn't going to hide anything ... I was super scared, obviously. I know I didn't do anything wrong, but even thinking about just the fact that CFS is at your door, you can't help be worried about what's going to happen and why they're there."

Sandie Stoker is the executive director of Child and Family All Nations Co-ordinated Response Network, otherwise known as ANCR, an intake agency for CFS.

"We are mandated to assess any referral where a child is at risk of neglect or abuse," said Stoker.

She said the act covers when a child under 12 is in need of protection, such as when there's inadequate care, supervision or control.

"Children under the age of 12 may be left without direct supervision, but there needs to be some provisions around the safety of the child," said Stoker. That includes factors like the age of the child, their location, whether there's a safety plan or supervision plan, the amount of time left unattended and a safe environment.

40-50% of CFS referrals not valid or backed

Stoker said 40 to 50 per cent of the referrals are closed because the concerns aren't valid or are unsubstantiated.

"I think a lot of families feel that CFS involvement can be intrusive and unnecessary, and it does frighten people because they are scared that we will become unnecessarily involved and perhaps their children are going to be apprehended," she said.

"People should be satisfied that we are responding to concerns about neglect … if we attend to the home and there's no indication of there being safety concern or neglect concerns, we'd take that, document it and the intake would be closed."

She said while the agency is mandated to keep a record of all visits, it also records the strengths of the family.

The majority of calls are from people with genuine concerns who may not necessarily know the parents or feel comfortable approaching them.

"We believe children belong with their parents. Any time we go out on a referral and it's unsubstantiated or not valid, that's a great thing, because that means that those children are safe, and we don't have to continue being involved," she said.

Kendrick says she understands the rationale behind the investigation, but the visit felt invasive and left her feeling like a horrible parent.

"It makes you second guess every parenting decision you've ever done," she said. "I can't comprehend how kids playing outside without a parent right beside them is such a big deal, considering almost everyone does it."

Kids play at park alone; safety plan in place

She said her kids know about the danger of strangers and what to do if someone comes up to them, including not to go up to the gate and talking to people they don't know.

"If my son does go to the park with his friends, usually at least one of them has a cellphone, but even if not, it still doesn't worry me because I never had a cellphone growing up," she said.

She's always inside or on the deck, but now thinks twice before letting them go out to play.

"We're paranoid because we don't know who called," she said. 

Kendrick has received dozens of messages of support from strangers who heard her story. She said the CFS intake worker visited again Tuesday to ask the children if they knew the safety plan, and she'll know in a few weeks whether the case has been closed. 

 She hopes her story inspires people to speak to their neighbours before the authorities.

'We have the village calling CFS'

"That old African proverb that says, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' but now, we have the village calling CFS instead of saying, 'Hey, Is there any way I can be of help?'" said Pamela Zorn, executive director at Family Dynamics, an organization that gives parents counselling, in-home support and coaching.

Zorn said it's "very reasonable" for a five- and 10-year-old to be left out in the yard if there's a fence and safety plan in place.

"We see that in the rates of obesity that have skyrocketed in the last 30 years. We live in a global village, so when people see news stories that talk about being apprehended or abducted, we're afraid. We start to feel the world is very unsafe," she said.

But Stoker said parents who receive these types of "very common" visits from CFS don't need to see them as a negative or as an indication the children will be more susceptible to being apprehended in the future. Nor should observers stay quiet, she added.

"If you're concerned about the safety of a child, you should refer it, and we will conduct an assessment," she said.

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