Ex-clients, parents caught up in Quebec's youth protection system voice pain, frustration that 'nothing's changed'

Sarah Davis has little love for Quebec's youth protection system.

Born in Montreal, she entered state care at the age of 12, eventually cycling through more than a dozen placements between 1983 and 1987.

Davis says it took her years to get over what happened, especially during her time at Le Village in Saint-Jérôme, where she was often placed in solitary confinement in the "QR" — the quiet room.

"I would get locked up in rooms, and I would just be banging my head on the wall repeatedly, all day long, for hours and hours," she said.

Davis, 49, who had undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome, thinks she may have suffered brain damage as a result.

The fact that the system is still failing children, decades later, enrages her.

"I'm livid," said Davis. "We know what it takes to raise a good child. We don't need another study."

Nonetheless, Davis took the time to appear at a public hearing earlier this week to talk about problems with Quebec's youth protection system, the Direction de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ).

Davis was among about 40 people who gathered at the Côte-des-Neiges Community Resource Centre Wednesday, at a forum organized by the Laurent commission.

The commission, led by a nurse and former union leader, Régine Laurent, was struck by the Legault government in May, following the death of a seven-year-old Granby girl whose case had been followed by social workers for years.


The commission is holding sessions in 17 regions of Quebec over the next month, to hear from people who have been involved in the youth protection system over the years: parents, former clients and foster parents.

Wednesday's round table in Montreal's west end focused on the agency serving English Montreal — Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, which falls under the direction of the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal.

A system slanted against parents

The evening was emotional, with many coming forward to share personal stories of pain and frustration.

Several participants described an opaque, bureaucratic system slanted against parents. One woman who was herself in care as a child and now has children in the system described it as "a form of abuse" that psychologically damages the very children it's trying to protect.

Another man talked about the "mountain" parents have to scale to challenge the decisions of the DPJ.

Barbara McDonald, a Mohawk from Kanesatake who is currently fostering five children, says she'd like to "work herself out of job," but there needs to be more resources to support parents in trouble.

"Put a lot of effort into the parents and the families, and we wouldn't have this crisis we're in with the foster care," she said.

In earlier sessions, Laurent has heard concerns raised about children "aging out" of the system when they turn 18 — sent off with few supports, ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of adulthood.


That same concern was raised at Wednesday's meeting, with some participants suggesting that services be extended to age 25 so those who grew up in the system can "learn how to be an adult."

(Submitted by Sarah Davis)

Laurent also heard the system is unprepared to handle Quebec's increasingly diverse society, often uprooting children from their extended family and cultural traditions.

McDonald, who has fostered children of Haitian, Algerian, Filipino and Inuit backgrounds, said she relies on her own initiative to connect her foster children with their native cultures.

While she hasn't had any real conflicts with Batshaw managers and case workers, she says overall, the system is failing Indigenous families.

"This is the result of colonialism, residential schools, the 60s scoop, and now the foster care system," she said "That's our present residential school."


Indigenous recommendations stalled

McDonald's observations were echoed by Nakuset, the director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, who attended a parallel forum held for professionals, which was closed to the media.

She's co-authored a report about Batshaw, called One step forward, two steps back: Child welfare services for Indigenous clientele living in Montreal.

The study, prepared by researchers at Concordia University in collaboration with the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and other local community groups, details problems at Batshaw — and offers recommendations to fix them.

But despite submitting the report months ago, Nakuset says they have yet to receive any meaningful feedback from administrators at Batshaw.

"A couple of emails went unanswered. One went through, and they said they were going to finish reading the report and get back to us," she said, noting that the text of the report is only about 15 pages.

In a statement to CBC News, the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal says it has started to analyze the report, but since that analysis is incomplete it would be "premature" to comment.

It said the agency has already held staff training sessions with the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, with another scheduled for Jan. 24 that will focus on "Indigenous history and the implementation of practices that enrich our interveners' approaches."

Nakuset says the Native Women's Shelter wants to also help enrich Batshaw's approach, but right now she can't get a seat at the table.

She says in the meantime, Indigenous families will continue to suffer the consequences of a broken system.

"The mother that just gives birth and the social worker is there to take away the child and then won't allow them to come to the shelter — how's that affecting her?"


Class action lawsuit filed

Leith Hamilton, an "ex-client" of the system and a former youth protection worker himself, agrees the DPJ is plagued by "systemic discrimination."

The Concordia researcher is helping to organize a class-action lawsuit against the Quebec government on behalf of any person who's been placed in the province's so-called "reception centres" over the last 30 years and was physically, sexually or emotionally abused or neglected.

The suit was filed in Quebec Superior Court in November, and is awaiting approval by the court to proceed.

"We're asking the government to compensate people who weren't treated properly," Hamilton said.

He shares Davis's anger that despite decades of reports, commissions and recommendations, the system is still broken.

"I'm back here 40 years later because nothing's changed," he said. "The state cannot be a parent."

Davis says she'll join the lawsuit and hopes that the current public inquiry will finally lead to fundamental changes in the system.

"We have a real chance to help both the family and the children to grow and change and stop these cycles from happening," she said.