Six months after she last saw her baby, Justine’s daughter has now turned two in foster care, as the family’s child-protection trial continues to make its way slowly through B.C.’s court system.
The trial began in March 2018 and ran for two weeks before it was adjourned to June 2018. Justine (whose real name The Discourse has been withholding to protect her and her daughters’ identities as we follow their case through the courts) hasn’t officially seen her four girls since her last supervised visit on Dec. 23, 2017, though she snuck in an impromptu visit with the three older girls on Mother’s Day — after her 15-year-old told her they’d be at Trout Lake park in Vancouver.
Social workers removed Justine’s daughters from her care in August 2016 after allegations of physical and emotional abuse, and placed them in temporary foster homes. Now B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development is pushing for permanent custody, as it recommends in about 700 cases per year in the province. More than half the children removed from their families are Indigenous like Justine’s daughters.
On June 14, 2018, the B.C. Provincial Court judge hearing Justine’s trial asked the lawyers to revisit her suspended visitation without further delay, since the trial isn’t expected to conclude until this fall at the earliest.
While Justine and the social workers all seem to agree that it’s in the children’s best interest to have visits with their mom, they can’t agree on terms for these visits. They disagree about where visits should be held, who should be present and what kinds of activities are appropriate.
At Judge Lyndsay Smith’s urging, both sides sat down to try to work out a plan on June 15. But they couldn’t reach an agreement.
“I feel that this is a power struggle. If I don’t do it their way, I don’t get no way.”
After the case conference, which took place behind closed doors, Justine told The Discourse that the social workers continue to insist on terms that she considers unfair and unacceptable — such as one-on-one visits with each daughter, rather than seeing all four girls together.
And they’re insisting that these supervised visits happen at the VACFSS office, Justine said. “I feel that the ministry is trying to break up my family and individualize, and we’re a family unit.”
Justine told The Discourse that she offered to meet the social workers partway by agreeing to start with one-on-one visits if they can progress to family visits after two weeks of one-on-ones, but she says they refused to compromise.
“I feel that this is a power struggle,” she said. “If I don’t do it their way, I don’t get no way.”
The Discourse asked Susie Gray, the lawyer acting for the ministry, to confirm what was said in the closed case conference, but she’s bound by confidentiality. When asked if she could confirm that they haven’t reached an agreement about visitation terms, Gray nodded.
“We’ll just keep trying,” she said.
For the first year after her daughters’ removal, Justine saw them regularly at a community centre for family powwows on Tuesdays, and during supervised visits on Saturdays and Sundays. But in late summer 2017, social workers from the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society cut her access down from about 18 hours a week to six.
VACFSS social worker Leah Hiebert told the court in March 2018 that their team decided to cut back the hours because the girls were “having behavioral problems after the visits.”
“On the Tuesday nights they were really amped up after the visits at the friendship centre, powwow dancing. They had a hard time getting to sleep,” she said. The middle daughters “would often have to be late to school because they were still very escalated in the mornings,” she added.
Referring to reports written by staff at the middle girls’ placement, Hiebert elaborated: The girls became “extremely physically aggressive,” she testified. “Hitting, biting, pinching and kicking staff, both with their hands and other objects.”
In addition to the alleged behavioural problems reported after visits, Hiebert told the court social workers were also concerned about Justine’s conduct during the visits.
“The visits weren’t child-centred,” Hiebert testified. Justine “wasn’t engaging in structured activities with the girls. They often would just go along with… what she had planned for herself for the day.”
“[Justine] was taking the girls on lots of errands,” Hiebert continued. “They would bus a lot, going downtown, going from her house to grocery story to community centres.”
Plus, Justine was having “inappropriate conversations” with the girls about their foster placements and about her concerns with the child-welfare system, Hiebert told the court.
VACFSS asked family preservation counsellor Cindy Halcrow to step in and provide “therapeutic supervision” on Saturdays, starting in October 2017.
Halcrow told the court that she was instructed to “just observe” the girls and Justine during their visits — “and if mom started bashing VACFSS or the [girls’] placement or any of those things, reel her in.”
During the last of the four visits that Halcrow supervised, she says the eight-year-old disclosed to her mother that a staff member at the apartment where she is staying had pushed her into a closet.
Halcrow told Justine that she already knew about this, that an investigation by VACFSS social workers was underway. But Justine wasn’t satisfied, so she called the police to report the incident, Halcrow testified.
Shortly after, VACFSS decided to suspend Justine’s visits with her daughters — with one negotiated exception, a Christmastime visit on Dec. 23.
While the conflict over visitation continues, the girls are getting older. And the trial isn’t wrapping up anytime soon: It will be adjourned again on June 21, it’s now scheduled to resume in October and it’s anyone’s guess as to when it will finish.
“We may not finish in October,” Judge Smith told the court on June 13.[end]
This piece was edited by Robin Perelle, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jonathan von Ofenheim. The Discourse’s executive editor is Rachel Nixon.
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