If a child is removed from their home by a Children’s Aid Society (CAS), parents or guardians should waste no time obtaining legal counsel, says Toronto child protection lawyer Gary Gottlieb.
“The removal of a child from the family home due to allegations of abuse or neglect is a frightening and stressful situation for any family. As a parent, knowing your rights and understanding the actions that you can take if your child has been placed in temporary care can improve the chances of having them returned home,” says Gottlieb, who frequently represents families in child protection matters.
Overview of a CAS investigation
In Ontario, Children’s Aid Societies are responsible for ensuring the protection and safety of children. In 2020-2021, CAS received more than 113,000 calls and referrals reporting children at risk, and of those, approximately 63,000 required investigations.
Gottlieb says that CAS investigations are usually triggered out of a concern for risk of harm from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; neglect; or exposure to domestic violence.
“In some jurisdictions, such as Toronto, school truancy is also considered a child protection issue,” he adds.
How a CAS investigation works
If a CAS child protection worker determines that a report of concern warrants further investigation, they will often conduct an initial assessment within 24 hours.
When the CAS contacts a parent or guardian requesting an interview, Gottlieb says they should seek legal counsel immediately and ensure a lawyer is present during the meeting with the CAS.
“If you are First Nations, Inuit, or Métis, you may also have a person who represents your band with you,” he says.
During an investigation, a CAS worker will meet with the child, as well as with the parents or guardians and any other family members or caregivers they feel are appropriate, Gottlieb explains.
At this point, the worker may decide that the child does not need protection, so they will close the file.
However, Gottlieb says that if there are concerns, the CAS may start a court case that results in a supervision order, allowing them to come into your home to ensure compliance with conditions ordered by the court.
“This may include physician monitoring for mental health issues, clean drug and alcohol screens, compliance with therapy or twelve-step programs, or other court-ordered supports,” he says, adding that if the CAS worker thinks that there is a serious or immediate risk of harm to a child, they may take them from the home.
If children are taken into care
When a child is taken into temporary care, Gottlieb says the case must go before the courts within five days.
“If your child is removed from the home, it’s important to seek the counsel of a lawyer who has worked on child protection cases. They will be able to provide guidance and help you navigate the CAS process. Even if the CAS has only removed your child to a relative or friend's home, getting legal advice is an important first step in ensuring a successful outcome for the family,” he says.
Showing respect for the CAS worker, and being responsive to their instructions and recommendations will help to improve the chances of your child being returned home, Gottlieb says.
“At the same time, it is important to remember that the CAS worker is not your friend. Regardless of how warm and helpful they are, a child protection worker’s priority is to ensure the safety of your children.”
Orders for programming
Following an assessment, Gottlieb says the CAS will often make recommendations for services and programming for family members, such as counselling, 12-step meetings, anger management classes and the like.
“Most of the time, the CAS makes reasonable recommendations, however, mistakes can be made and the plans they put in place aren’t always realistic,” he says. “I have seen cases where people have been directed to participate in an impossible number of programs that they could not sustain.
“A child protection lawyer can review recommendations to ensure they are realistic and negotiate the terms on your behalf.”
Gottlieb says that while the CAS’s recommendations are important, at the end of the day, it is just one litigant in the case, and “what the court says matters most.”
Quality versus quantity of resources
Demonstrating stability and the desire to improve your family situation is the most effective way to boost your chances of a favourable successful outcome in a child protection case, Gottlieb says.
“Parents or guardians whose child is taken into care should do everything they can to get their resources in order. Speak to your child’s school and get them on board. Talk to your family doctor. Allow your lawyer to act as a quarterback to help you manage resources and ensure the conditions are fulfilled,” he says.
At the end of the day, Gottlieb says what’s most important is that the court sees the family as being proactive and taking steps to address the issues that brought it to the attention of the CAS.
“It is not the quantity of resources that matters so much as the quality of supports you have in place.”
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