Calgary

Social worker alleges Alberta child welfare system aims to 'get rid' of her for defending parents' rights

Registered social worker Melani Carefoot alleges Alberta's Child Welfare System wants to shut her up by asking another agency, Legal Aid, to cut her funding. Carefoot has been advocating for parents who are at risk of having their children apprehended — standing up to a system she says is plagued with deception, fear and intimidation.

Melani Carefoot believes Children’s Services staff are pressing Legal Aid to cut her funding

Social worker Melani Carefoot helps parents involved with Children's Services, many of whom have had their children taken away. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

A Calgary-based registered social worker who has helped hundreds of parents involved with Children's Services, many at risk of losing their children, believes she's being penalized for standing up to what she calls abusive, discriminatory and sometimes deceptive practices within Alberta's child welfare system.

Melani Carefoot works with lawyers and families involved with Children's Services and is often paid by Legal Aid through a special disbursement when clients qualify — but Legal Aid recently reduced the rate from $115 per hour for a maximum of 45 hours to $40 per hour for a maximum of 5 hours.

It's a move Carefoot sees as being in retaliation for taking on a "well-oiled" system that is not used to being questioned — even corrected.

She says she's not one for conspiracy theories but it seems too coincidental that the rate dropped immediately after her involvement in a contentious file where an infant was apprehended — where she made it well known she disagreed with the apprehension, arguing the file was not being managed in accordance with the agency's policies or the department's latest guidelines.

They have got annoyed with me and they have had some kind of conversation with Legal Aid to say 'Get rid of this woman, she's a pain, she knows too much.- Melani Carefoot, registered social worker.

She says there was no imminent risk and therefore no need to take the newborn away from the mother.

"And I think that's what happened, they have got annoyed with me and they have had some kind of conversation with Legal Aid to say 'Get rid of this woman, she's a pain, she knows too much," said Carefoot. 

Legal Aid and Children's Services deny the allegations, with Legal Aid saying the move is for budgetary reasons.

Regardless of the reason, parents, lawyers and social agencies who rely on Carefoot's expertise worry what impact the decision will have on those who are caught up in the province's powerful child welfare system.

Imbalance of power

Carefoot used to work for the department she's spent the last seven years keeping an eye on.

She spent more than 10 years working for Children's Services before taking a seat on the other side of the table to become an advocate for parents, many of whom have just had their children taken away.

She says she knows child welfare workers are overwhelmed with cases, that there's a high attrition rate, experience is lacking, and not everyone sees the flaws when they're working within the system.

She also knows, without a doubt, that some children need protecting from their caregivers and the services provided by the child welfare system are at times necessary.

But in her new role, she says she can clearly see how decisions are being made subjectively, so that, for example, depending on where people live, and which office is handling a file, a parent involved with drugs can either have their kids taken away or left in their care.

She also watches as policies and procedures get ignored, whether intentionally or not. 

And she says for some, the power they wield means sometimes they feel justified in using it to push parents' rights aside.

"We have worked with a lot of clients who have been subject to extremely punitive treatment from the agency and misused, absolutely, their power," said Carefoot.

A Calgary social agency says families involved with Children's Services are often scared and confused and need help understanding parenting orders and visitation rights. (CBC News)

She says one man was charged with physical abuse against his nieces, nephews and two children. His children were made permanent wards of the province and then adopted out, before his case went through the courts.

In the end, he was found not guilty. But he had already lost his kids.

Carefoot says one mom with cognitive issues tried to bring her grandfather to one of her meetings with Children's Services, but staff said he couldn't come in, which Carefoot says is against policy. 

"They're saying she's cognitively challenged so how ethical is that to deny her support in that meeting?"

Carefoot says the young woman was too scared to speak up because she feared repercussions.

She says parents have the right to have decisions reviewed but she says they are often not told that by Children's Services.

Extra set of eyes and ears

Carefoot says she also knows of incidences where staff have made false allegations against parents, whether it's alleged alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence concerns, or mental health issues, in order to have an apprehension order granted.

In an apprehension order, the worker gives evidence under oath but Carefoot says there is no ability to challenge that evidence since the parent is not present.

According to the law, an apprehension order is to be requested when a child's life or health is at imminent risk. It's temporary until a formal hearing can be held.

A Calgary lawyer says Carefoot is often the extra set of eyes and ears in meetings with child welfare workers because legal counsel is not allowed in — at least not in Calgary — he says.

"And at times, to be quite frank, they [Children's Services workers] are not exactly forthright with how those meetings actually go," said Brendan Miller, Walsh LLP.

Someone has to be accountable for watching the watcher.- Renee Miller, Calgary Family Law Associates.

Miller said these meetings are not recorded — which means if Carefoot or a similar advocate wasn't there, then the court could only rely on notes taken by child welfare workers.

Another lawyer who takes Legal Aid cases says the court has the opportunity to review a director's decision at specific times along the course of a file but Carefoot adds an extra layer of accountability.

"Someone has to be accountable for watching the watcher. No one is watching the director or the social workers and how they're conducting their files for the majority of the life of that file," said Renee Miller, Calgary Family Law Associates.

Retaliation?

Carefoot believes the cuts are a direct result of her recent efforts to reunite an infant with their parents.

"This was a really nasty fight … I really rattled some chains because this baby needed to be with its mom, and is now with mom," said Carefoot.  

The baby was returned after about three-and-a-half weeks, under a supervision order. The father is only allowed one hour supervised visits every few days. 

The mom, who CBC News is not identifying, says Children's Services alleges the father deals drugs and is violent but the mom says that's not true. The young woman says it's complicated, as many cases are, and stem from her boyfriend's previous relationship.

"We're doing everything we can and it still doesn't seem to be good enough because they want to continue to tell us that were lying. So, it's really hard."

Yet she says she can't imagine facing the scariest moment in her life without Carefoot advocating for her, explaining her rights, the legal jargon, and telling her everything would be okay.

"I'm assuming my son would be adopted by the foster family by now. I don't think we would have got him back," the mom said.

Some parents who are involved with Children's Services say the system is full of fear and intimidation and say it's not easy to navigate without a strong advocate on their side. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

CBC News requested an interview with Children's Services but a spokesperson declined, instead issuing the following statement denying Carefoot's allegations:

"Legal Aid is an arms-length organization and Children's Services is not involved in their decision-making at any level."

It also declined to respond to concerns raised by Carefoot, parents and lawyers.

Legal Aid issued the following statement about the reasons for cutting funding, after also declining an interview with CBC:

"As part of a broader adjustment in the way Legal Aid Alberta provides services, we are implementing thoughtful and necessary changes that will ensure we can continue to support Albertans who need our legal services most.

"Special disbursements will continue to be provided on a case-by-case basis when it is clearly established that such services are a necessary addition to the legal services we provide. However, we have created guidelines around these to ensure that our limited resources are properly managed and that we do not duplicate non-legal services provided by the Government of Alberta and other organizations."

I'm just mind-boggled about how this has all been handled.- Brendan Miller, Walsh Law LLP

Miller says a child protection matter takes a year, if not years, to resolve.

So he's not sure why Legal Aid would think Carefoot can help parents figure out a plan, attend meetings, support their path to family reunification, in five hours — and especially at such a low rate of pay.

"I'm just mind-boggled about how this has all been handled," said Miller.

Other agencies CBC News reached out to worry about what this cut in funding will mean for parents and families.

"She's helping quite a few of our families understand parenting orders, get what they're entitled to in terms of visitation, all of those pieces would be lost without the funding for her program," said Michelle Louisy, a women's health advocate and mental health counsellor at CUPS, a non-profit group that helps Calgarians living in poverty or with traumatic events.

"Really what she's doing is she's giving people a voice that don't have a voice of their own." 

Not giving up

Carefoot says regardless of what's happened she doesn't plan to give up. 

She's seeking legal advice to try to find out the reasons behind the decision, and she is prepared to take the government to court.

She's also refusing to accept cases from Legal Aid at the reduced rate because she believes if she takes it once — Legal Aid will assume she agrees with its decision.

Instead, she says she is taking the cases pro-bono because she says she is lucky to have a husband that can support her work financially, at least in the short term.

"I made $60,000 last year and I can tell you I'll be losing $60,000 this year. But I can't leave these people with no recourse to justice," said Carefoot.

"[I'm] not giving up, I'm not going away, if that was their hope, they're going to be sadly disappointed."

She says she's also working on a long term plan — such as starting a charity to fund these cases.

Carefoot and others in her defence say the amount of money she saves in averting costly hearings or trials more than offsets her pay.

About the Author

Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.