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The Canadian Press

Innocent lives falling through the cracks

Government must step up and help, aid workers warn

Canadian Press, By CASSANDRA SZKLARSKI, Wednesday, May 1, 2002

TORONTO -- The horrific abuse suffered by children like little Randal Dooley will continue without immediate intervention from Ontario's new family services minister, aid workers warned Wednesday.

The battered seven-year-old died at the hands of his parents more than three years ago even when there were clear signs to educators, social workers and police that he was being abused.

And despite a study released more than a year ago that exposed debilitating workload problems at agencies designed to protect the welfare of children, things aren't getting any better, child protection workers say.

Troubled parents and their children are routinely falling through the cracks as workers fail to meet provincial guidelines, said Rob Neil, a child protection worker in the Toronto area.

"We're actually missing the standards on a routine basis, and in most cases," Neil told a news conference.

"(Some Children's Aid workers) have to virtually ignore the bottom third of their caseload. . .because they simply don't have time. That's leaving children at risk."

Critics say such problems seemed to play a role in the tragic case of Dooley, described by an Ontario judge last month as one of the worst instances of child abuse in Canadian history.

Dooley died of a brain injury after continuous beatings left him with welts all over his body and more than a dozen broken bones. His father and stepmother were convicted last month of second-degree murder.

Randal's teacher suspected abuse more than five months before his death, but Children's Aid officials refused to get involved in what they considered a police matter.

Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. James Young, is waiting to see whether parents Tony and Marcia Dooley try to appeal their convictions before deciding whether to hold an inquest.

Frontline case workers say the Dooley case is just the latest in a long string of fatalities that the system has been unable to prevent.

Among them was tiny Jordan Heikamp, who starved to death when he was only five weeks old in June 1997, despite his then-teenaged mother's frequent encounters with nurses, social workers and workers at a Toronto women's shelter.

Bill Luft killed his wife and four kids before taking his own life in July 2000 at their Kitchener, Ont., home. Luft had been investigated three times within the past year by child protection workers.

William Edgar, 13, a ward of the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, lapsed into unconsciousness while being restrained by staff at a group home in Peterborough in 1999. He died two days later at a Hamilton hospital.

Last year's study, written by the province's chief coroner, was based on recommendations culled from inquests into six dead children.

All but one called on the provincial government to sit down with Children's Aid societies to hammer out reforms.

That didn't happen and things have gotten worse, said Ottawa childcare worker Dave Calvert, who called on Family and Children's Services Minister Brenda Elliott for urgent action.

Elliott's office did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday.

It's impossible to know how many more kids are at serious risk, but they are out there, Calvert warned.

"There are certainly Rmore out there, there's no doubt about that," said Calvert. "Every case is a potential Randal Dooley."

Child-welfare workers are juggling more than three times their recommended caseloads and it's not unusual to see 13-hour days and seven-day work weeks, said caseworker Deb Megens of Guelph, Ont.

"I see a lot of tears, a lot of people are breaking down," she said. "People who are experienced and have been in the field for years are saying, 'I can't keep up, I can't do it anymore. "

The crushing load is driving many out of the profession, leaving more inexperienced workers who make "fear-based decisions" to avoid the possible legal consequences of doing nothing.

"They are scooping kids because it's safer than taking the time to really understand what's going on in the family," Megens said.

"We're disrupting families and imposing separations on families and children that sometimes aren't necessary because we're fearful and overworked and don't have the time to do the assessments required."

Sweeping changes to Ontario's Child and Family Services Act in 1999 brought positive measures including new technology, increased accountability, more training and a new funding formula, but front line staff were not consulted, argues the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents child-welfare workers.

The changes effectively cut in half the time child protection workers had to do their job properly, the union says.

Indeed, social workers are frequently forced to spend as much as 80 per cent of the time in the office, keeping them from going into the field to help children, Megens said.

Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press