Haitian community group's program helps hundreds of Montreal children stay out of youth protection
Last summer, just after the school year came to an end, a Montreal father had an incident with his 10-year-old son that almost pushed his family off course.
The father was of Haitian origin, with four children and a fifth soon on the way.
One June morning, the 10-year-old decided to head to the local park alone, in search of friends.
He didn't find any.
Rather than head back home, the boy decided to lie down on a park bench, where he fell asleep.
"Someone who works in the park saw him and called police, and then the police called me," the father told CBC in a recent interview. Youth protection laws in Quebec prevent CBC from naming the family.
The boy was fine, but police reported the incident to youth protection — the Directeur de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ) — which opened a file on the family.
The father said the park is two minutes from the family's house, and he didn't see at the time what the problem was — and why his family was suddenly subject to intense scrutiny.
"It was very hard," he said.
Having a file opened with youth protection is no small matter. It means families suddenly face an investigation, which includes visits and interviews by social workers. A social worker's assessment can have a huge impact.
"They have the right, at their discretion, to remove a child from a family. Their fundamental role is one of surveillance and policing and making sure that children are protected through very invasive means," Alicia Boatswain-Kyte, an assistant professor at McGill who studies youth protection, told CBC in an interview.
For Black families, the risk is even higher.
Boatswain-Kyte, a former social worker for the DPJ herself, said the latest research shows that in Montreal, Black children are twice as likely to be reported to youth protection, to be taken away from their family during an investigation and to be retained in the system.
This overrepresentation of Black children is nothing new. Boatswain-Kyte said it's been steady more or less since the DPJ was first created in the late 1970s.
The story of the family of the boy on the bench could have ended badly.
But it didn't, thanks to a program created by a Haitian community group that has had remarkable success in helping Black children and their families get out — and stay out — of the youth protection system.
Program has helped more than 500 children
Ruth Pierre-Paul, director of the Bureau de la communauté haïtienne de Montreal which is based in the Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie borough, said she started getting more calls from Haitian families in 2017.
That's when more asylum seekers started crossing the border at Roxham Road and ending up in Montreal.
"They were telling us they were having a lot of problems with the DPJ and they needed our help," Pierre-Paul told CBC in an interview.
Pierre-Paul consulted with her board of directors and that led to the creation of a program called Option Protection. It's a special unit of 10 caseworkers, most of Haitian background. They include social workers, sociologists, criminologists and specialized educators.
Pierre-Paul pitched the idea to the DPJ as a partnership. Option Protection caseworkers would accompany Black (mostly Haitian but some from other Caribbean countries and Africa) families who had been reported to the DPJ, acting as a kind of go-between.
Assunta Gallo, director of French-language and allophone services for the DPJ in Montreal, was open to it.
"It begins with recognition. In order to create a partnership on my end, I need to recognize that there is an overrepresentation of children and families coming from the Black community in our systems," Gallo told CBC.
"I can't be the judge of what the community needs. I need to ask them what they need," Gallo said.
She said since the program was launched in October 2020, the DPJ has referred hundreds of children to Option Protection.
"What makes me most proud is to see that of all the families who were reported to the DPJ who were referred to us, none of these families has returned to the system," Pierre-Paul said.
"Five hundred and thirty-five children have benefited from being part of this program. It has helped us absolutely prevent children from continuing to be followed under youth protection," Gallo said.
Understanding culture key to success
The strength of Option Protection is that its workers have an understanding of the subtleties and nuances of Haitian culture that most DPJ social workers probably do not.
Marie-Suzie Casséus, project manager for Option Protection, said one of those subtleties is the propensity of some Haitians for drama.
"Some families have very strong reactions. The word is not dramatic, but colourful," Casséus told CBC.
As an example, she said, the parent of a child who was at risk of being removed might blurt out: "I'm going to kill myself. My life is over."
Casséus said she understands how that type of reaction could be worrisome for a social worker.
"I think that our team being more used to this kind of reaction, we tend not to dramatize it," she said.
"We take it for what it is: a way of expressing distress, but not necessarily the words of someone who's actually going to commit suicide," she said.
Stevenson Dorcena, one of Option Protection's caseworkers, said another area where Haitian families get into difficulty is with corporal punishment.
"A lot of people, in their culture, physical punishment, it's something normal," Dorcena said in an interview.
He said that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad parents, and that his goal is to suggest alternatives.
"We're not going to make them feel guilty, but we're going to try to raise awareness," Dorcena said.
"Not only to show the danger in physical punishment, but also we're going to suggest there are other ways which can be more effective, which can bring better results," he said.
Deep mistrust of DPJ
Both Casséus and Dorcena said one obstacle they have to overcome is that many immigrant families have a deep mistrust of the DPJ from the start.
"We have to understand their context. They're coming from a country where their rights were not necessarily respected," Casséus said.
"They're very reluctant, very resistant and very suspicious of the DPJ," Dorcena said.
"Often these are families who've just arrived in Quebec, who don't know the system," he said.
"One day, social workers arrive who speak a language they don't understand and who come to point the finger at them in relation to their children, sometimes in a very severe way," Dorcena said.
"They've crossed different countries, some have carried their child on their back, have done everything to bring their child here," Casséus said.
"So to be told that they're negligent or abusing their children, those words can hurt," she said.
"They don't feel understood, they don't feel welcomed, so they don't want to co-operate," Casséus said.
"Our main priority is really to support the families and help them understand the system, to educate them, to demystify the system," Casséus said.
"Sometimes, social workers from the DPJ will tell us that a parent isn't co-operating or saying anything," she said.
"Then we meet them. The parent sees someone who looks like them, who has a history that resembles theirs, then they open up a little more. That allows us to go further," she said.
The boy on the bench
Dorcena was assigned the case of the father of the boy on the bench.
"He's really nice. He comes to our house once a week," the boy's father said of Dorcena.
"He has a lot of patience. He offers advice. He works with me and my kids. He showed me I need to keep a closer eye on them," he said.
And the father said working with someone who understands him makes all the difference.
"I feel good, because he's not a Quebecer. He's a Haitian," the father said.
Dorcena said he still follows the family but that, after a couple of months working with them, the DPJ closed the file.
Despite the program's success, Casséus and Pierre-Paul worry about its sustainability. Roxham Road is bringing more potential clients to Montreal daily.
"The demand is constantly increasing," Casséus said, noting there's currently a waiting list.
"Ideally, our team could grow if we had more funds to be able to meet the need. Our caseload per worker is already about 20 files at a time," she said.
"We need more funding," Pierre-Paul said.
"It's extremely important for us that our caseworkers aren't overloaded, so that they can continue to deliver high quality service," she said.
Right now, Option Protection gets some support from the local health agency, but most of its funding comes from Centraide and the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation.
One of the mandates of the program is to collect data, so they can demonstrate the good work they're doing in order to secure more funding.
Gallo from the DPJ said she's already convinced.
"My teams believe in the program. They've seen the benefits to the families. They've seen the collaborations that we have, and so the referrals have increased," she said.
Pierre-Paul believes the program could be a model for other communities.
"Definitely, because the essential tool is cultural knowledge," she said.
Gallo said she's ready to talk about similar partnerships with any organizations from different communities who are interested.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.