TORONTO (Reuters) – Child protection lawyers say Canadian children's homes have gone weeks without seeing their parents in person and plans for a safe reunion remain unclear, so even stores, hair salons and some daycares are starting to reopen.
FILE PHOTO: Zara employee installs panel during gradual reopening of restrictions on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 19, 2020. REUTERS / Carlos Osorio / File Photo
Provincial governments, which have suspended most visits in late March and early April to control the spread of the coronavirus, say they have been authorized in exceptional circumstances.
But in practice, lawyers from across the country told Reuters that there have been few exceptions to the measure of social distancing, which has particularly affected the country's indigenous population.
A mother who usually sees her 4 and 8 year olds twice a week has not been able to do so since British Columbia interrupted foster care visits on March 26. The children were heartbroken, she said.
The province's 24-page stimulus package mentions museums, massage therapy, and the film industry, but not visits for children in care.
"I don't know how I can be considered an essential worker, but I am not an essential parent," said a father of two from British Columbia who works in the trades. "Can I go back to work, but can't I see my kids?"
Reuters does not appoint parents to protect the identity of their children.
The changes to visiting policy are "under review" and more than 150 exemptions to allow visits to specific families have been approved in the meantime, said a spokesperson for the province. As of December 31, 5,805 children were in foster care in British Columbia alone.
"In these unprecedented times, we must support these crucial connections in the safest possible way," the province said in a statement. "For now, that means supporting family members' virtual tours via Skype and over the phone whenever possible."
Canada is not alone in suspending contacts – several American states have taken similar steps. But the decision to resume visits is late compared to other reopenings across Canada.
In Alberta, daycares were allowed to reopen on May 14, but the Ministry of Children's Services is still working on a plan to allow visits.
In Newfoundland, which has only three cases of active coronavirus, visits are allowed in "exceptional cases" and officials are working on a plan to resume more contact, a spokesperson said. A recent newsletter from the local foster parent association included advice on interacting with infants and toddlers via video chat.
CARD LIMIT DATES
Foster children usually come home gradually, moving from supervised visits to nights. The suspension of visits derails the fact that, and in some regions of Canada, parents must meet tight deadlines to regain custody of young children. After 12 to 18 months, agencies must request extended custody and children can be adopted.
Tammy Law, President of the Ontario Child Protection Lawyers Association, fears that long separations will be used in court to say parents are not related to their children .
"This is another strike against the parent," she said. "I don't know how it's going to be, and each case is going to be different."
Long separations have had a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal children, as they are overrepresented in the foster care system. In Manitoba, which has the largest proportion of children in care, almost 90% are Aboriginal, according to a 2018 report.
On April 6, Manitoba suspended all in-person visits unless "absolutely essential," according to an online newsletter. Outdoor visits are now allowed in some cases, but there is no data on the number of visits.
Cora Morgan, lawyer for First Nations families at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said that some families were weeks away from reunification, but now these plans are on hold.
"They are ready to bring their children home," she said.
The assembly wrote to the provincial chief on April 21, denouncing the "double standard" that has kept the children away from their parents while other court-ordered visits continue.
"It seems that the parental link is a priority for some families, but not for the First Nations children in care," we read in the letter, obtained by Reuters.
Visits with children in care are different from shared custody, the ministry said in a statement. A home can accommodate children from more than one family, so more than one household could be affected.
"We are concerned about the safety of children and their families, as well as staff and guardians," said Jeffrey Schiffer, executive director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, an agency that continued many visits during the year. 39; epidemic.
"These security concerns must be weighed against the rights of Aboriginal children to see their families and to be connected to their community and their culture."
Editing by Amran Abocar and Tom Brown