Newsletter: Two weeks of testimony on kids in crisis takes a toll on everyone

Over the past two weeks I’ve been sitting in Vancouver’s Robson Square courthouse, covering the continuation of Justine’s child-protection trial, listening to stories about kids in crisis.

I can see this trial taking its toll, not only on Justine (whose real name we’re withholding to protect her daughters’ identities), but also on the social workers, the lawyers, the judge and the witnesses. There is a lot of crying and whispering. Judge Lyndsay Smith often takes off her glasses and rubs her face. Occasionally, she places her elbows on the table and cups her face in her hands, slumping forward in her chair.

When the court breaks, there’s tangible relief. As people funnel into the lobby, sometimes witnesses mutter or yell at the social workers. I hear people say they felt triggered by the testimony, reminded of their own experience in residential school or foster care.

I feel drained, motivated to deepen my understanding of this system, and full of questions about some of the testimony I’ve heard from the stand:

When a six-year-old girl is acting aggressively, is it appropriate for contracted caregivers to physically restrain her? To pin down her arms? To hold her wrists and ankles?

What qualifications are reasonable to expect from staff working at a “therapeutic caregiving home” that’s been set up as a special placement for two girls in foster care?

Is it reasonable for staff at that home to call the cops when the six-year-old and eight-year-old are pinching, punching, kicking and biting staff, jumping on the bed and kicking holes in a door?

Is it reasonable for police to threaten to take the girls away in handcuffs?

If, during supervised visits with these children, their mother expresses concern about the level of care they’re getting in their foster placements, checks their bodies for bruises and scars (because she’s heard kids in care are at risk of having their organs harvested) and discusses her advocacy work, is this grounds for suspending her visits?

How much is it costing the B.C. government to keep four sisters in three different foster placements? How might that money be reallocated to support this family to stay together?

Between the different relationships and the social and historical context that have bearing on this case, the complexity is overwhelming. I’ve taken over 100 pages of notes about the trial and we’re only halfway through. The lawyer for the Ministry of Children and Family Development still has three or four witnesses to call as she makes a case for permanently removing Justine’s daughters, and Justine’s lawyer has nine. The court’s set aside two more weeks for this trial; it’s scheduled to resume on Oct. 2, 2018.

My latest story is about visits between Justine and her kids. I wrote about how she hasn’t seen her youngest — who just turned two — since December 2017, why social workers suspended her visits and what the judge is doing about it.

What do you think of my trial coverage to date? How can I improve it? I’d appreciate your suggestions.

And if you value the work I’m doing to build awareness and foster discussions about the child-welfare system and its impact on families, join The Discourse, become a member and consider sharing my work — and that of my colleagues — with others.[end]

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