impossible standards?

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    Melissa is a 24 year old female from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and the mother of 4 – year – old twins boys. In recent months, both boys were removed from Melissa’s home and placed in a foster home. This took place after an incident where police were called to Melissa’s home after and domestic disturbance call. When police arrived they found that Melissa’s boyfriend( not the twin’s father) had assaulted her severely and she needed to be transported to local hospital. While she was being treated, her children were taken into temporary emergency care but upon investigating the home after the incident, police found evidence of cocaine use , combined this with previous domestic disturbance calls around the same relationship, a decision was made to put the twins into temporary care in a foster home, once Melissa was released She started supervised visits at the local children’s services office. which was 35 minute drive from her current home.

    Melissa herself grew up in the foster care system. She was taken into care at 2 yrs old because her mother struggled with cocaine addiction and never attempted to regain custody. Melissa never knew siblings or grandparents , has limited contact with her mother and has essential no living support system. In adulthood, she has struggled on and off with addictions and abusive relationships. The father of her children has never had involvement or paid support. Until the children’s removal, Melissa supported herself by collecting income assistance and child tax benefit, though she has a history of being evicted for non payment of rent.

    The child protection agency explained to Melissa that to try and reunite with her children that she would have to seek help with her addictions and prove effort in that area, to regularly pass drug tests, to have no contact with her former boyfriend and participate in all legal action against him regarding the assault, to maintain a safe, clean and stable home for her children to return to, and to regularly attend her supervised visits 3 times a week and show appropriate parenting. If Melissa shows consistant effort in these areas she could have her children back in 3-6 months.

    more than 9 months has passed and melissa has moved to a smaller apartment and is living with a roommate with a criminal past, has refused efforts from police to testify against her boyfriend, and has missed several visits with her children. she has tested clean for Cocaine consistently but has been positive fore marijuana more than once. The Case supervisor is considering recommending the children for permanent care on the basis that Melissa isnt interested in re-gaining custody.

    Upon asking Melissa, the case worker learns that :
    1. When the children were removed, Melissa lost her child tax benefit and social assistance payment and was unable to afford the apartment she was living in at the time of removal so she moved to a smaller one.
    2. she had lots of difficulty finding work in the rural community she is from where many people know her circumstances and is working under the table currently for less than minimum wage.
    3. she took on a roommate in an effort to afford her apartment, he occasionally smokes marijuana in the apartment which accounts for her positive test but she insists she is committed to her sobriety.
    4. She has avoided the police/testifying because she claims the reality is that her ex-boyfriend wont do much time in prison if any and will likely come after her for testifying against him and she is afraid.
    5. She has only missed visits because they are held 35 minutes away from her home. she doesnt have a car and often hitchhikes to get to her visits. she misses them on days where she cant get a ride. She maintains that she is committed to getting her children back and wants to be a good mother.

    According to the agency Mandate: The case worker is technically assigned to oversee the health and safety of the children and it is often looked upon as the responsibility of the mother to meet her requirements and deadlines. Moving the visits closer to Melissa would mean the children spending over an hour in the car three times a week and this seems unreasonable. Melissa’s small apartment and choice of roommate make her home a dangerous place for children to be returned to. If Melissa’s abuser walks free , there is a chance that the children may encounter him again/ be in danger.

    1. What are the systemic challenges to this case? how are systems amplifying the issues?
    2. What are the ethical implications for ensuring the “health and safety” of the children? Should it include helping the mother/ensuring her success? or is this a conflict.
    3. Should Melissa’s past and current difficulties be used to explain her current situation with her children, should a case worker be sympathetic and understanding? Does it make a difference?
    4. How far should the agency that is investigating her go towards alleviating her problems? Are there changes that could be made to help her without harming the children or influencing the case at their expense?
    5. were there any problems with the case workers recommendations and timeline?( i.e testify, drug test…)


    1. There are numerous systemic challenges present; Melissa’s own history with foster care, her socio-economic status, her history of substance use, her experiences as a woman and survivor of domestic violence. The removal of her children removed all sources of income for Melissa, which led her to move into an “unsuitable” new environment, though it’s not like she had much choice. Her history of substance use is used against her to form a judgement as an unfit mother (though she has not been using). Her role as a single mother further makes it harder for her to find employment, and to access visits with her children (which are quite far away, especially considering Melissa does not have a car). Her personal experience with the foster care system has likely had an impact on her understanding of attachment and family dynamics.

    2. Ensuring the “health and safety” of the children could be a hugely traumatic experience for both the children and the mother. We don’t know that Melissa is an inadequate parent; she has been in situations and arrangements that the Department deems unsuitable for raising a child, but that does not reflect on her parenting ability. Melissa has even hitchhiked to access visits with her children, and sometimes she is simply unable to get a ride. That alone shows dedication to her children. The children are also quite young and have no other kinship family, their connection to their mother is quite important. Melissa is likely doing the best she can with her limited financial means, and it is definitely questionable whether the decision to remove her children permanently is justified.

    3. Yes, and yes it does make a difference. The reasons behind Melissa’s “unacceptable” behaviours is directly related to the struggles she faces as a single mother facing economic hardship. She would likely be meeting the agency’s requirements if she had the means to, but she doesn’t. She did alright (for the most part) previously when she had her children in her care due to her income from the child tax benefit and social assistance. She experiences sexism in the form of “unpaid labour” by being a stay at home mom. The main reason the children were removed was the violent partner and the drug use, and both of those (according to Melissa) are no longer present in her life. She has no control over what her roommate does, and to suggest otherwise is rather close-minded for a social worker.

    4. She should be referred to an agency such as SHYM or another housing program that can help her. Additionally, she should be provided a FSW worker who can refer her to mental health services/addiction services if she needs them. Perhaps most importantly, she should meet with a social worker who can assist her in finding work that (even temporarily) allows her to construct an “appropriate” environment/home that meets the agency’s standards. This should not be all on Melissa.

    5. Yes. The caseworkers were aware of Melissa’s limited means (lack of vehicle, financial hardship) and still made it mandatory for her to attend supervised access visits with her children that were 35 minutes away. How is Melissa supposed to reliably arrive for these, let alone find a job that pays well enough for her to live in a “stable” home/allows her to take that time off from work? It is also insensitive to mandate that Melissa proceed with charges against her former partner; that can be retraumatizing and rather unnecessary given many of the failures of the court system. Melissa is afraid to testify due to what may happen if/when her former partner is released from prison (assuming he even goes). Additionally, the caseworker has failed to applaud Melissa for her success at abstaining from cocaine usage.

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