In the Toronto area, black children are being taken from their families and placed into foster and group-home care at much higher rates than white children.
Numbers obtained by the Toronto Star indicate that 41 per cent of the children and youth in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto are black. Yet only 8.2 per cent of Toronto’s population under the age of 18 is black.
By contrast, 37 per cent of kids in the care of the Toronto CAS are white, at a time when more than half of the city’s population under the age of 18 is white.
Other figures obtained by the Star indicate the overrepresentation is provincewide.
“The gross overrepresentation of black kids in the CAS is like a modern-day residential schools system,” says Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, which advocates on behalf of the province’s 590,000 black residents.
“This is another form of racial profiling,” she says. “They’re profiling black parents in a very negative way.”
Patricia knows first-hand how cultural misunderstandings can lead to black children being removed from their homes.
She was shocked when police and a Toronto children’s aid worker came to her tidy bungalow two years ago to say her granddaughters were being taken into care.
Patricia, whose name has been changed to protect the identity of her grandchildren, had been caring for the girls for about a decade, following the death of their mother in Jamaica.
They were living a comfortable life in Toronto. “For the little one, I was the only mother she ever knew,” says the soft-spoken woman.
That all changed in 2012. Her teenage granddaughter, facing suspension at school, told the principal she would be beaten with a baseball bat if her grandmother found out.
“She told them I was going to kill her,” says Patricia, who admits she disciplined her granddaughters with a slap now and then, but denies ever having struck the girls with an object.
“West Indian children, if something is going to happen, they say: ‘Oh my mother is going to kill me.’ It’s not that her mother is going to kill her. That’s how they speak,” Patricia insists.
Patricia was charged with numerous counts of assault with a weapon, involving multiple incidents. A landed immigrant, she says she was advised by her legal aid lawyer to plead guilty to some charges to avoid possible deportation. In a blur, she agreed.
As a result of her criminal record, she lost her job as a caregiver for the elderly. Unable to pay the mortgage, she lost her home. And her granddaughters.
“Everything fell apart,” she says.
Ontario’s 46 children’s aid societies are private, non-profit corporations. They are regulated by the government and have the legal power to take children from their parents for reasons ranging from physical abuse to neglect.
There are about 23,300 children and youth in care in Ontario. Most children are returned to their parents within a year, after some form of help is provided. Those in continued need of protection are made “Crown wards.” In 2013-14, about 7,000 children and youth in Ontario were wards of the government, living in foster care or group homes, and another 1,000 were on the path to joining them. The government remains their parent until they are adopted or turn 18. However, youth can decide to leave care at age 16.
The Toronto CAS was involved with 11,285 client families in 2013-14. It had 2,155 children in care. Another 624, over the age of 18, continued to get financial support through the agency.
The agency shared its numbers on black children in PowerPoint presentations with police, educators and black community members in private meetings across the city over the past year.
“We want to make sure that all of our community partners are comfortable with the data before we release it publicly,” says Toronto CAS spokesperson Rob Thompson. Police and schools are the largest source of CAS referrals, accounting for about 40 per cent of all calls, he says.
The Star spoke separately with people familiar with the presentations. Of children in care in Toronto, 31 per cent were born to black parents. A further 9.8 per cent of children in care had one parent who is black.
Presented with the numbers obtained by the Star, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto confirmed Wednesday that they were accurate.
The data also showed that many of the black children in care were of Jamaican heritage.
Lawyers, black community leaders and child advocates say the overrepresentation of black children is due to cultural misunderstandings and stress and neglect created by poverty. They also believe systemic racism in the child protection system, and within the police and schools, is at play.
“We received a call because a child was sent to school with roti,” says Danielle Mitchell, a child protection worker at Peel CAS.
The teacher believed the popular Caribbean flatbread, usually filled with goat or chicken curry, was “not healthy or sustainable for this child,” Mitchell says. “And that’s the school system …”
Corrie Tuyl, manager of Toronto CAS’s north branch, says workers have told her about a school that called with a referral simply because a child was from Jamaica.
Everton Gordon, executive director of the Jamaican Canadian Association, believes police go into black homes with the same bias that results in black youth being racially profiled on the street.
“These institutions have problems with black people to begin with,” Gordon says, referring to police and schools. “The minute it’s a black family it sets off alarm bells.”
Front-line CAS workers tend to be young and inexperienced. When they see something that doesn’t conform to life in middle-class, white homes, their reaction is, “Oh my gosh, red flags,” says Danielle Mitchell, a child protection worker at Peel CAS.
A recent provincial survey of about 7,000 Ontario children who have been in care for more than one year shows that about 12 per cent are of African or Caribbean descent. Meanwhile, only about 5 per cent of Ontario’s children under age 18 are from those communities.
A 2012 report by a provincial commission into child welfare found that “the system was not responding effectively to the diversity of Ontario’s population.”
The report noted an increased risk of misunderstandings when child protection officers are called to intervene. Poverty, inadequate housing, language barriers and poor education aggravate the power imbalance these families experience, the report added.
Most children’s aid societies in Ontario don’t collect data on race. The child welfare commission recommended that ethnic background information be captured to assess how the agencies respond to diverse communities. But the government refuses to make capturing that data mandatory in a new computer database. The database will connect all 46 children’s aid societies and standardize how they collect and record information.
The few societies that have that kind of data are reluctant to talk about it.
In the United States, where black and native American children are three times more likely to be in care than white children, race-based data has been collected and publicized for years.
American studies had shown that black parents are no more likely to abuse or neglect their children than white parents. In 2010, a study prepared for the U.S. government found higher rates of child abuse or neglect among black parents.
Researchers concluded the results were influenced by the 2008 recession, which affected blacks more than whites and caused more strain on families. Poverty, it noted, is the strongest predictor of maltreatment rates.
Most children’s aid societies in Ontario don’t keep income statistics on the families they serve. The new provincial database won’t capture that information either. But local CAS officials know poverty is often a factor.
“Sometimes people don’t want to make the connection between poverty and child protection,” says David Rivard, chief executive officer for the Toronto CAS. “But there is a correlation. That’s the reality.”
A recent report on child poverty in Toronto co-authored by the agencynoted that 41 per cent of children of southern and eastern African heritage are growing up poor — more than three times the rate of children with roots in the British Isles. Meantime, 26 per cent of children whose families are from the Caribbean and 25 per cent from North Africa live in poverty.
Groups serving the black community are trying to bridge the cultural divide that can land children in care. The common use of spanking to discipline children in Africa and the Caribbean, for example, can lead to astonished parents being charged with assault.
Some families have been investigated for yelling at their children, says Gordon of the Jamaican Canadian Association, who witnessed such cases when he worked for Toronto Catholic CAS in the late 1990s.
Gordon says parents who get their backs up when confronted with a CAS worker — “You want to tell me how to raise my kid?” — are branded unco-operative, heightening the chances of the child being removed.
If abuse is suspected, children are assessed by psychologists who are paid by the CAS, and parents have no say. Nor do they have much opportunity to present their stories in court.
A judge often decides to remove a child by summary judgment, a process based on written evidence, largely produced by children’s aid societies.
“If you steal a pen, you have a right to a fair trial,” says family court lawyer Thora Espinet. “But you don’t with summary judgment.”
While children’s aid societies try to place children in culturally appropriate homes, it’s not always possible.
Paul Chapman, 23, who works in the provincial child advocate’s office, was 9 years old when he and his six siblings were taken from their struggling single mother. He was placed with white foster parents. On Sundays, he missed big breakfasts with Caribbean dishes, and going to church.
He recalls one dinner when his foster parents served him perogies.
“I had no idea what the hell a perogy was. I said I’m not eating that,” says Chapman.
“I think a lot of (black) youth struggle,” he says.
“It’s because they don’t know who they are. They don’t know what to do. They kind of lose themselves. They lose their identity.”
After the Star began asking about the overrepresentation of black youth in care, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services met with CAS officials, the provincial child advocate and Parsons’ African Canadian Legal Clinic.
Children’s aid officials and the legal clinic late last month submitted a funding proposal for a project to look into why the numbers are so high and how to reduce them.
“This cannot be just another study or training program,” Parsons insists. “What I want to see is concrete, substantive change — a reduction in those numbers.”
Parsons and other advocates say the numbers won’t go down until family counsellors from their community team up with CAS workers on every protection investigation involving a black child. That’s how Texas, for example, reduced the number of black children and youth in care.
“I’m not saying there aren’t kids in our community who should be in care,” Parsons says. “But the first approach for an African-Canadian child should not be apprehension and care. And that’s what the numbers are saying to me right now.”
A pilot project in the Toronto CAS is keeping some youths out of care by referring black families at risk to a counselling service for the black community headed by therapist Sonia Mills-Minster.
The program teaches parenting skills and anger management, and connects families to black community services that deal with mental health and addiction.
Fewer than 10 of the 100 families counselled over the last three years have seen a child go into care, Mills-Minster says. Understanding the culture makes all the difference.
During a “technical briefing” with the Star last month, senior government officials said they are prepared to work with the community on training and best practices for CAS workers who investigate black families. They suggested it might require the kind of culturally sensitive approach used with aboriginal families.
Parsons says provincial leadership and action is vital.
“At the end of the day, it is about the welfare of our children,” she says. “Something is amiss. Something is fundamentally wrong and we can’t turn a blind eye anymore.”
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