Visits between foster kids and birth parents during pandemic should be considered essential service: lawyer
Lawyer David Miller says coronavirus restrictions could have long-lasting effects
A Toronto lawyer says physical distancing restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic has made life even harder for some of Ontario's most vulnerable children, with foster kids being barred from seeing their biological parents for about three months.
David Miller, a child protection lawyer, said that when the pandemic was starting to take hold and a provincial state of emergency was declared, most children's aid societies across Ontario suspended all in-person family access for children in care.
"It was a blanket suspension for all families, for all children, no exceptions. So most children in foster care, they didn't see their parents face-to-face." Miller told The Current host Matt Galloway.
Despite these restrictions being eased earlier in June, Miller, who is also on the board of the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers, said they should never have been suspended in the first place because these services should have been "deemed essential."
"In my view, parenting, a parent-child relationship, that should be an essential service," he said.
"So this caused harm. When we stop children from having meaningful relationships with their parents, it's a trauma to them. That's where they get their source of safety and security and when they lose that, that's a trauma."
'Angst and anxiety'
Kevin Harris, a foster parent and president of the Canadian Foster Family Association, said the need for children to have a relationship with their biological family is important for keeping them "connected and helping them through their life experiences."
"We still try to maintain family connections and so not being able to allow that in person creates a bit of angst and anxiety for our kids," Harris told Galloway.
I might be less troubled by how children in foster care were being treated if all Ontario children were being treated that way.- David Miller
He said that connection was even more imperative for Black and Indigenous children, who are disproportionately represented among those in foster care, because it's important to keep their cultural connections alive.
"We found that with our children, one of them being Indigenous, and not being able to go into the community with the suspension of various cultural celebrations and gatherings does create a disconnection," Harris said.
While the province has provided virtual access to parents through Skype and FaceTime, this way of communication was only useful for older children, Miller said, adding that infants and toddlers require in-person contact to form and maintain attachments with their parents.
'Keep our kids connected'
Miller said that, while he understood the reasons for restricting face-to-face interactions between foster children and their parents, there was a discrepancy between how children from divorced and separated families were treated, with them still being able to visit each household.
"I might be less troubled by how children in foster care were being treated if all Ontario children were being treated that way.… What I advocate for involves extra risk to maintain that fundamental parent-child relationship, but there's also extra risk in going to the grocery store."
Miller was also concerned about changes the Ontario government made amid the pandemic. He said the province had loosened the standards by which homes have to meet before taking in children, allowed for homes to take in more children than before and inspections to be done virtually.
The Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services told The Current in a statement that children's aid societies and residential licensees are still required to meet all legislative, regulatory and policy requirements to protect the safety and well-being of children. This includes safety assessments and physical inspections of homes to be conducted in person.
With the potential for the province to go back into lockdown if a second wave of the pandemic surfaces, both Miller and Harris said they fear for their children's mental well-being if they are disconnected from their birth parents and communities again.
Instead of a blanket ban on visitations, Harris said he would like personal protective equipment to be supplied to families in order to "keep our kids connected."
"Physical touch is really important for building relationships," he said.
Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Ines Colabrese.