Child protection cases pile up in Halifax court, straining lawyers and legal system
Legal aid lawyer says caseload 'has a negative impact on everyone working in the system'
Lola Gilmer's work is never done.
No matter how hard she works or how efficient she is, the legal aid lawyer's caseload only grows. She's stretched to the limit and says she isn't alone.
The legal system in Halifax is struggling to deal with an increase in child protection cases filed by the province's Department of Community Services, said Gilmer.
"I think it has a negative impact on everyone working in the system trying to do their best but being overrun by the number of files," said Gilmer.
"You kind of get maxed out and you feel that you can't do as good of a job as you would like to do because you're stretched thinner between more and more parents and more and more families."
Gilmer is a staff lawyer for Nova Scotia Legal Aid, which offers free legal services to people with a low income.
She defends families that have come into conflict with the Department of Community Services.
That includes parents who have had their children removed from their care by the province, parents who have been ordered to have their children moved to another family member's home and parents who are under a provincial supervision order.
The number of people the department has taken to court has increased in the Halifax Regional Municipality every year since 2014, according to Gilmer.
About 20 to 30 new cases a year have been brought forward by the Department of Community Services, Gilmer said. In 2017, there were more than 200 court applications involving the minister of Community Services filed in the Family Division of the Supreme Court in Halifax, she said.
Those cases cover every time the department takes a family to court for anything — from putting a supervision order on a parent to removing a child from a home, and everything in between.
"Even a small number of those cases eat up a lot of judicial time and resources," said Gilmer.
The Department of Community Services wouldn't say exactly why more cases were coming before the court.
"We are seeing an increasing number of cases in which the parent has a history of mental health and/or addiction issues, so legal steps may be required," department spokesperson Bruce Nunn said in an emailed statement.
That increase could explain the uptick in the number of court cases.
However, the overall number of children being taken into care is declining, according to the department, which provided a breakdown of the number of children it took into care in the last four years:
- 2014 – 468 children were taken into care.
- 2015 – 420 children were taken into care.
- 2016 – 394 children were taken into care.
- 2017 – 458 children were taken into care.
Impact on parents
Parents involved with child protection matters often have to wait to go to court and wait to get support services like mental health or addictions counselling. All the waiting frustrates a lot of the families involved, said Gilmer.
"Children aren't seeing their parents and their family members as much as they should be and it definitely takes its toll on everybody — most particularly the children and those who are in foster care."
In most cases, the parents taken to court by the Department of Community Services aren't bad people, said Gilmer. Often they're young parents who need support and guidance to help raise a family. Others don't have much money so they can't afford things like good housing, which gets them on the department's radar, she said.
Gilmer doesn't know what's behind the increase in the number of cases filed by the department.
The department wouldn't directly answer that question and it refused to do an interview on that topic. But a spokesperson did provide some information.
'Stretched pretty thin'
Nunn said the department recently amended the Children and Family Services Act "so that child protection intervention can now happen earlier, to reduce the harm or abuse a child may be experiencing."
The department also takes part in several programs aimed at working with families to resolve their problems outside the court system.
Gilmer hopes those programs will be even more widely used in the future, further reducing the number of cases coming through court — because there is a limit to how much more work the child protection system can handle.
"All aspects of the system are stretched pretty thin and sometimes that in itself has a negative impact on the family," said Gilmer.