When the System Fails a Child

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This article is part of our Summer 2020 Breaking Barriers. This installment focuses on parents of loved ones living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder coming to grips with the realities of this unexpected, difficult, lifelong disability that was unknown two generations ago. If you'd like to read more stories from this issue, please subscribe to Breaking Barriers. Editor’s note: Author’s name withheld upon request; all names have been changed.

As their daughter fell deeper into a life of drugs and alcohol, Bev and Doug were faced with the awful prospect of seeing their two preschool-age granddaughters placed in foster care. “We’ll take them,” the active couple agreed. “We can give them a good life and keep them from being bounced from place to place with strangers.” 

This was not an easy decision for the couple as both children had challenges. The eldest child, Sarah, was described as “a  handful.” The baby suffered from a heart defect and other physical ailments. However, Bev knew that living with Grandma and Grandpa would be a lot better than the unstable life they had experienced so far with their mother. 

The children adjusted well to the predictability of their grandparents’ home. Still, Sarah’s unpredictable behavior did not diminish. When Doug fell ill and died a few years later, Bev was left to raise the children alone. As Sarah grew older, her behavioral challenges worsened. Bev reached out for support within the healthcare system and was connected to a specialized facility in Toronto that diagnosed Sarah with an alcohol-related neurological disorder. This helped Bev understand that Sarah’s challenges were part of a larger constellation of prenatal brain damage caused by maternal drinking. 

Counseling was arranged with a physician specialized in FASD, and Bev’s hopes for her granddaughter were rekindled. Perhaps with support and medication this child could succeed. As Sarah entered puberty, her feelings of rage and defiance intensified, and she became uncontrollable. She threatened her grandmother and her sister with a knife and began bullying other children at school. After multiple police involvements and disruptions in the neighborhood, Bev knew professional intervention was required. 

She contacted a regional child protection agency and reported her granddaughter’s threats of suicide and her escalating violence. To Bev’s surprise and utter dismay, the authorities took Sarah into custody, assuming that abuse in the home was the root of her problems. Sarah was permitted to refuse the  counseling Bev had arranged for her as well as terminate the medication prescribed by the FASD specialist.

Sarah has now been in four foster homes, none of which have been able to manage her. Bev is only allowed limited access to her granddaughter. She laments the future of this vulnerable youth who needs more support than the system is offering her.

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How sad!  Why do those agencies always assume that bad behaviour is caused by abuse in the home?  You'd think they would at least do their homework and check things out before removing a child.  In Québec the Direction de Protection de la Jeunesse (Children's Aid), was put into trusteeship because it failed to intervene in a child abuse case.  I know that seems to contradict the above, but kids can be abused in foster care as well as in the home environment, and there is no guarantee that removing them from their familiar environment will protect them from abuse.  Nor that their home is necessarily more abusive than foster care would be.