Parents with kids in government care: We hear you
How can media reflect the voices of parents who feel unheard? Here are five tips — straight from the source — for journalists who cover child welfare.
There’s a story about the child welfare system that everyone needs to hear. It’s different from the stories that journalists usually tell.
It’s about watching child welfare agents remove your kids from your home and your culture; then, years later, watching your kids have their kids taken away; then, after several decades, watching your grandkids fight for their kids in court — and so on. It’s about a damaging cycle rooted in residential school experiences and colonization.
You’ve been sharing variations of this story with me since I started asking how journalists can better report on the child welfare system. You’ve told me, again and again, that we fail to reflect the perspectives of parents who’ve had their children removed and placed in government care.
Well, I’ve been listening, and would love to hear more since your ideas and stories help inform my work. Here’s what I’ve learned so far (most of you requested anonymity, so I’ve omitted names. On a related note, I’m working with parents whose kids are currently in care to explore how we might safely share their stories, on the record):
You say you’re treated unfairly and experience discrimination:
“Social workers are quick to apprehend, mostly on hearsay, rather than working with families,” wrote a man from Vancouver. “Many young parents are not aware of any rights or avenues they could take.”
When asked if there’s anything he’d like to share about his connection to British Columbia’s child welfare system, he simply wrote: “I am Indigenous.”
A woman in Mount Currie said she suffered abuse in the system. “I was in the system myself as a child from age 7 going onto 8. Now, my child is in it, in the city,” she wrote. “I was beat purple and blue, touched, [and] started wetting [the] bed. They put [a] diaper on me [and] made me sleep in [the] basement with the dogs. My brother, who is five years younger, was made to eat out of a pig trough ... with his hands tied behind his back.”
“My brother now lives on the streets in the city. His kids [are] going through the same with [the] ministry. Same with my sister with her kids,” the woman added. She said she wants to share her story, so other parents will know “they're not alone.”
You say journalists need to think about the historical context:
“My biological parents were products of the residential school era; [my] sister and I were products of the ‘60s/‘70s Scoop,” wrote a man from Kamloops. “When my children were wrongfully apprehended in 2008, I was a ministry-employed, single, tax-paying father with three beautiful, healthy and happy children.”
The man said he eventually won his children back, but that he’s “currently on disability for depression and PTSD.”
You say you’re on the unfortunate side of a power imbalance:
“I feel like this social worker and her team leader have bullied us, lied to us and just are completely abusing the power given to them,” wrote a woman from Surrey.
Another woman in Coquitlam told me, “I am doing the best that I can as a single mother. I've never had anyone to lean on or confide in for support … I am here to pick up the pieces that the ministry has ripped up. They made our lives harder, but I'm still fighting and advocating for my kids.”
And I heard this, from Kelowna: “They like to judge those who are on disability and tear [families] apart.”
You say you’d like people to understand you:
“I am a regular person, and most people who have had involvement with child welfare are decent, caring, regular people with good kids, too,” wrote a woman from Vancouver.
An Abbotsford woman said she wants people to know that kids aren’t always removed; sometimes, parents have to make difficult decisions. She placed her daughter in care “so [her daughter] could get the mental health care that [she] could not afford on [her] disability income.”
You say you’re afraid to go to the media:
“My son was apprehended in 2011,” wrote a woman from Williams Lake. “Ten days later, he passed away … They didn't even cover his whole funeral. I think if the media was not so intimidating, I probably would have gone to them.”
How can media reflect the voices of parents who feel unheard?
Journalists and other media-makers have told me they’d love to make space for stories from vulnerable parents, but that there are significant barriers. For one, it takes time for a reporter to build trust with someone who has a heavy, complex story to tell — time that many journalists in a shrinking and fast-paced media industry don’t often have.
There’s also a racial imbalance that complicates the trust-building required to tell meaningful stories about people at the heart of the system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in child welfare systems across Canada, and B.C. is no exception. Meanwhile, media in this country is overwhelmingly white.
Finally, there’s the challenge of reporting fairly. To share a story about a parent who’s locking horns with the ministry responsible for child protection services, we need to hear from “both sides,” according to Tracy Sherlock, a freelance journalist who used to write about child welfare for the Vancouver Sun. “You can’t just write a one-sided piece with what the family says. You have to get both sides of the story,” she told me over the phone.
“You can't just write a one-sided piece with what the family says.”
MCFD spokesperson Shawn Larabee told me via email that the ministry’s policy is meant to prevent “social workers or foster parents from revealing to media that a particular child is in government care, whether the child consents to that disclosure or not.”
It’s in place for good reason, he explained: “Many [children] come into care to be protected from harm they may have suffered at the hands of family, caregivers and others. Publicly disclosing a child’s sensitive personal information could allow those people to find them and cause further harm.” In addition, Larabee said future employers may have negative stereotypes about kids in care.
He emphasized that “legislation and ministry policy are in place to help social workers protect the best interests of children and youth in government care, including their crucial right to confidentiality. We ask that media and the public also respect that right.”
But is it always in a child’s best interest to have their story shielded from the public? I asked Sherlock for her take.
“If somebody is in care against the wishes of their parents and [the parents] want to tell their story in the hopes of getting their kids back, I mean, only time can tell whose best interest that would be in,” she said.
This is the second story in a series I’m working on with Dylan Cohen, one of our youth media fellows, about whether journalists should ever identify vulnerable youth and families tangled up in the child welfare system. Here’s our first story. If you’d like to share your insights, please email me, post on my Facebook page or tweet at me. We’ve also been organizing a free workshop series for journalists who want to discuss child welfare-reporting ethics and best practices. To stay in the loop, sign up for my newsletter.