Justice Innovation at Work: A culture change in child protection
Quick action on the part of staff at the Parents Legal Centre (PLC) at Vancouver’s Robson Square Courthouse can mean the difference between keeping a child at home with their family or the child being removed from the home.
“In one case, the mother had allegedly breached a Supervision Order, which led to the removal of her child from the home,” said Kirk, the PLC’s administrative intake legal assistant. “Someone told us right away and Katrina [the centre’s lead lawyer] arranged for a Family Case Planning Conference the next morning, before court started,” he continued.
“Everyone involved attends those meetings,” Kirk said. “The parents, social worker, Director’s counsel, and a facilitator.” (The Director represents BC’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, which is responsible for child protection.)
“It really made a difference,” said Katrina. “We brought the circumstances to light and the Director agreed to return the child to her family that day after court, under a new Supervision Order that addressed the issues that led to the removal.”
The Parents Legal Centre is a pilot project operated by the Legal Services Society with funding from the BC Ministry of Justice until 2017.
I wasn’t comfortable at first. I was a little confused and scared of the outcome … the people at the [centre] made me very comfortable, they were friendly and non-judgmental and welcoming.”
“If the PLC didn’t exist, there would have been a delay in the court proceedings as the parent applied for a legal aid lawyer to represent her in court,” Katrina said.
“Most likely, the child would not have been returned to the parent that day, causing trauma, upset and disruption to the parent and child,” she added.
The services are delivered in a culturally appropriate way to the centre’s largely Aboriginal clientele by two lawyers, Katrina Harry and Todd McPherson; a paralegal advocate, Ashly Frances (last name withheld); and an administrative legal assistant, Kirk (last name withheld).
It is difficult to deal with Justice. This was my first time and I had lots of questions….they helped me understand how the Justice system works." —PLC client
On days when the Provincial Court hears child protection matters, there might be 16 to 18 people who need help.
“Katrina might ask for the court to ‘stand down’ [briefly delay the matter for later in the day] so that Ashly Frances can get 20 to 30 minutes in the hallway with the client, and capture things like their housing situation, how much access they have to their child, if they have drug or mental health issues. She will also find out if there’s any room for negotiation with the social worker,” Kirk explained.
“So when all that detail comes to me,” said Katrina, “I know what to do to help that person when I go into court that day.”
“This represents a culture change,” she added. “Parents are coming to us before their child is removed from the home instead of after, when they’re already involved in the court process.”
The PLC had 98 clients between February 2015 (when it opened), and January 31, 2016. Just over half of those contacted the centre before their children were removed.