When should a child stay with their family and when should they be placed in foster care instead? This is the balancing act that youth protection faces on a daily basis.
It’s a question that Judge Lise Gagnon from the Court of Québec also wrestles with on a regular basis, “along with the lawyers, social workers, parents and sometimes the teenagers who appear before [her],” she explains on the radio show Angle Droit.
While the media often focuses on crisis situations, the judge maintains that there are many cases that can be settled in court “when everyone works together to find solutions.”
A shortage of resources and expertise
In recent years, concerns have been raised over Quebec’s youth protection system, particularly after the death of a 7-year-old girl in Granby in 2019. According to Judge Lise Gagnon, there’s no shortage of tools for dealing with such issues.
“The tools are there,” she says. “The difficulty right now is the high turnover rate of youth protection staff. So the trust isn’t there, because a worker who moves from one job to another can’t build a long-term relationship of trust.”
It’s through this relationship of trust that we can really help families and get them to move forward, adds the judge. “If you have to tell your story several times, by the fifth time, you’re sometimes a bit discouraged. Resources are lacking, and that’s a serious problem in youth protection right now.”
Judge Lise Gagnon acknowledges that social workers have a difficult job, pointing out that the mission of youth protection is to forcibly intervene in a family’s life.
“We’re not welcome and we have to be very tactful. Often, the people involved are young and less experienced,” she explains. “Even if we have the best law in the world, if we don’t have the people in the field who are able to apply it, the results can sometimes be mixed. It’s not for lack of trying.”
In her interview, Judge Lise Gagnon discusses the particular case of recent immigrants to Quebec, whom she must support in their integration and in their understanding of their new country’s laws. These laws are not necessarily the same as those in their country of origin, particularly when it comes to the physical discipline of children.
“When a behaviour has been reported, [we have to] gently bring them to understand that they have to do things differently – but without necessarily removing the children from the family environment – by accompanying them and asking them to adopt new methods,” she explains.
In this type of situation, in order for the approach to be constructive, the judge feels it’s important that youth protection staff fully understand this cultural dimension.
“Obviously, if someone commits a very serious act, the child will be removed,” she says. “There’s no such thing as a free pass for a cultural community. But when it comes to assessing what constitutes acceptable discipline, there’s a certain amount of leeway where we can work with the family, which can be very satisfying in the long term.”
Parental oversight remains important for Judge Lise Gagnon, who recounts that she is sometimes confronted with parents who “have difficulty setting limits.”
“I often talk to these moms who come before me and I tell them: ‘You madam, you have a little marshmallow heart, you need to be a bit firmer if you want your son or daughter to understand that there are rules’.”
These comments are often greeted with smiles, says the judge. “[These mothers] know that I don’t want to blame them, but if the parent can’t set limits, rules and a structure, we’re going to miss the mark because when the child returns home, the same problems will resurface.”