Know your rights: guidance for dealing with the Children’s Aid Society
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
If your family is involved with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), it can be a frightening and confusing experience. No one enjoys having an outsider question their ability to provide a safe and nurturing home for their children or scrutinize their parenting skills. It can feel like a hopeless situation, but there are steps you can take to ensure your family remains intact.
In Ontario, Children’s Aid Societies are responsible for ensuring the protection and safety of children. During the 2018-19 year, the agency received more than 145,000 calls and referrals reporting children at risk, and of those, approximately 79,000 required investigations.
The province’s Child, Youth and Family Services Act gives CAS the responsibility to investigate concerns about the safety and well-being of children under 18 and to provide child protection services. The agency’s workers investigate allegations of risk of harm to children by speaking with parents, doctors, teachers and other community members.
Triggers for a CAS investigation
CAS typically gets involved with a family when a concerned party — or a child — reports that the children may be at risk of harm due to neglect by the parents, physical, emotional or sexual abuse or a caregiver’s addiction issues. In the many years I’ve been handling child protection cases, I can confidently say that a negative life event frequently triggers CAS’s involvement with a family. Often, it’s something beyond the parents’ control, such as the loss of employment or housing, mental health issues or financial distress.
Referrals are frequently made by a professional who has first-hand experience observing the children — teachers, dentists, doctors —or a concerned family member or friend. In families where the parents are separated or divorced, one parent may try to use the child welfare system to curry favour with the courts. Sometimes the reporting parent has valid concerns about the children’s well-being; in some cases, it’s a power play designed to cast the other parent in a negative light to obtain a litigation advantage.
Regardless of why a CAS investigation is triggered, going through one can be intimidating and extremely stressful for the entire family. If a child in your care has come to the attention of the CAS, having an experienced child protection lawyer on your side can help you navigate the complex process and protect your rights.
While many parents choose to represent themselves, those who do are never aware of how to navigate the complex law, the Society’s intrusiveness, court delays and expectations or the evidence required to prove parental viability. Many parents get lost in the quagmire of this complex area of the law and the never-ending expectations imposed by the CAS and the court, some valid and others far-reaching.
Cases can drag on for years without proper legal direction. Self-represented parents watch time pass as they are relegated to supervised access a few hours a week, inevitably causing the parent/child bond to wither while the trauma associated with foster care deepens.
Families with limited means can qualify for financial assistance through Legal Aid Ontario to access the legal representation they deserve. For those who don’t, there’s no better place to invest your money than with a lawyer who can help ensure your children remain with you in their home.
What to expect if CAS contacts you
When CAS receives a report about a child who may be at risk, the agency assigns a child protection worker to investigate the allegations. In addition to interviewing the caregivers, the worker may also speak to the children, teachers, members of the extended family and anyone else who can provide significant input into the investigation.
For instance, if the CAS receives a referral from your son’s teacher because of his inconsistent record of attending school, a worker will reach out to you for an explanation. There may be legitimate reasons for the absenteeism, but parents or guardians will need to satisfy the agency’s concerns once the wheels are in motion. If they can’t, CAS continues its investigation to determine the underlying cause. Depending on the severity of the allegations, CAS may petition the court to remove the children from their home. Either way, an experienced child protection lawyer can help you speak with the CAS, protect the integrity of your family, and, if your case goes to court, advocate on your behalf to ensure the judge hears your side of the story.
False allegations are another area of concern for parents and guardians. I’ve worked with many clients who have been the target of fabricated claims, and it can be a long road to disprove them. In one case, I represented a father who was in a high-conflict custody battle with his former partner. The mother reported the father to CAS, accusing him of being drunk while caring for the children. The kids were too young to confirm or deny the accusations, so the onus was on the father to prove this was not, in fact, true.
Your legal rights –– what you don’t know can hurt you
CAS sometimes decides to temporarily remove children from an unsafe home where domestic violence or drug/alcohol addiction is present. Almost half of the children in the foster system are there because of a domestic violence call, reports the National Post.
In these situations, CAS will usually recommend programming for one or both parents to address the underlying issues. But what programs work? How many should you take? Are they even available in COVID-19 times?
It’s important to point out that when a child protection worker shows up at your house, they wear two distinct — and, in my opinion, conflicting — hats. One is of a supportive resource who can help your family through a period of crisis. The other is that of an investigator who has the power to remove your children from the home.
Sometimes, a family works voluntarily with the CAS, but even if there is an agreement to accept the services or programs they recommend, it’s critical to remember that any information you give to a CAS worker can be used to build a case against you.
When parents are in the midst of a stressful situation, it can be tempting to open up to a child protection worker who appears to have your best interests at heart. But this isn’t necessarily in your or your children’s best interests.
Before you speak to a CAS worker, seek advice from a lawyer who has experience handling these types of cases. I have witnessed the unfortunate aftermath of families that have gone into the process blind. When the stakes are this high, you need a legal advocate to protect your rights.
Alienated parent reunited with children
In one memorable recent case, which is still before the courts for monitoring with supervision orders, I represented a well-respected professional whose children were being withheld by the other parent (Parent A).
Parent A was alleged to be suffering from a personality disorder and neglecting the children. Parent A alienated them from my client to such a degree that the children expressed that they did not want to live with my client.
Despite the lengthy involvement of the CAS, its workers refused to acknowledge Parent A’s personality disorder or the underlying mental health problems. Nor would they alert the court to the possibility of parental alienation, even though they alluded to it throughout the process.
The children’s relationships with my client quickly deteriorated as a result. Parent A refused to share them on access and did not support them having a relationship with my client.
Drastic measures were required to remove the children from Parent A’s care and have them live with my client. But, because the children resisted this placement, it was determined that the best alternative was to place them in short-term foster-care to help detoxify them from the emotionally abusive environment in which they lived.
A lengthy and complicated motion was argued. I had to establish that the home environment with Parent A was abusive, neglectful and toxic, and that the CAS failed in both its servicing of the children and in its management of the file.
The motion was wholly successful. Furthermore, the court entertained a cost argument against the CAS for being derelict in its handling of the file. The cost award was settled out of court for a substantial sum.
After placement in care, one child was returned to my client’s care. The other, an adult now, sees my client regularly. All the children vacation together, have family time together and are managing to overcome their complex past. While relationship-building is still underway, without my involvement, my client would have lost her children forever to a neglectful, toxic and disgruntled parent who refused to address their mental health challenges and neglectful behaviour.
Common missteps in CAS interactions
Parents and caregivers should be careful to avoid these common missteps in their interactions with CAS workers: