A formerly drug-addicted mother whose children were taken away from her was subjected to unnecessary unfairness from officials with the Social Services Ministry, Saskatchewan's Children's Advocate says.
After an investigation into the case of a Prince Albert woman and the release of a report Wednesday, Bob Pringle was calling for changes to the way social workers handle child welfare in the province.
'Roll up your sleeves and find other ways to work.' —Children's Advocate Bob Pringle on lack of effort by social workers
The report notes that even after a judge found the woman had improved her situation and ordered she be reunited with her children, she was denied the proper resources to help make this happen.
Pringle also found examples where ministry officials took deliberate steps to undermine the progress the woman was making.
"It's easy to gather evidence and say 'Well this person is not fit to parent or not fit to parent to,'" Pringle told CBC News Wednesday. He suggested officials could have taken a different approach. "Roll up your sleeves and find other ways to work with other people in the community."
At one point, officials terminated a contract with a family support specialist who was helping the woman "with no explanation by the Ministry," Pringle noted.
On another occasion, when the woman was being treated for drug addiction, Pringle noted officials were not interested in ensuring she had access to mental health services but were keen to check her arms for any evidence of drug use.
"The focus was almost exclusively on gathering drug screens to monitor ... compliance," Pringle said.
Officials ignored health plans
According to Pringle, officials did not even try to support the woman.
'About the Family':
- "For the purpose of this report ... we will call her Alice. She is a petite First Nations woman, now in her mid-20s, whose journey through a childhood in and out of state care, adolescence on the street, adulthood battling addictions and then contact with human service systems and the courts as an adult is tragic, yet all too common in child welfare."
- "She stopped misusing alcohol at age 15 and began using opiates. In 2005, she was placed on Methadone to treat her opioid dependency. ... [She] started taking Ritalin at 12 years old and began injecting it two years later."
- "Alice struggles every day to have a life that will keep her children and herself safe and well. This family continues to live in poverty and remains at risk of falling apart again if the proper supports and services are not in place."
(Source: Administrative Fairness Investigation Report, Saskatchewan Advocate for Children)
"They didn't agree with the mental health plan so they just ignored and didn't communicate with the person providing it," he said. "They didn't agree with the addictions program so they ignored the primary specialist who was providing the addictions services."
The names of the children, ages 3 and 5 when the courts dealt with the case last year, and the mother, 26, who is from Prince Albert, Sask., cannot be reported.
According to the judge's 2011 decision, the mother had undergone a transformation from a drug-addicted sex worker to a responsible adult.
The judge ordered that the mother be allowed supervised visits, but those were largely ignored.
Pringle found that the mother and the children experienced "administrative unfairness" in their dealings with the Social Services Ministry.
Pringle made five recommendations in total, including more training for social workers dealing with First Nations and Metis children.
He wants a new policy to be developed to help social workers deal with parents with mental illness and he wants social workers to focus more on safely reuniting families when it is appropriate to do so.
Pringle says the system failed this family and their case should be made an example — so it doesn't happen to other families.
Family still living in poverty
The report noted that the woman and her family are still facing tough times.
"[She] struggles every day to have a life that will keep her children and herself safe and well," Pringle said. "This family continues to live in poverty and remains at risk of falling apart again if the proper supports and services are not in place."
Pringle said he has seen some improvements in how the social services ministry is approaching such cases, but insisted "much more needs to be done."