Author Archive

Sunday, February 20th, 2011 | Author: mjward

However we define families, they are the keystone for any society. They provide love and care for members, raise children, and provide a focus for a person’s life. Around the world, official days recognize their importance for individuals and for the community.

In Canada, three provinces have declared that the third Monday in February is Family Day. Alberta led the way in 1990. Following a drug scandal involving his son, the premier of that province promoted Family Day. He admitted that he himself had neglected his family and that it was important for all Albertans to pay more attention to theirs. Saskatchewan and Ontario followed Alberta’s lead in 2007 and 2008. Regular public holidays are believed to make it easier for families to achieve a better balance between family and work responsibilities. The February holiday breaks up the long stretch between New Years and Easter. Families are encouraged to spend time together–get together with relatives, play winter sports, or just enjoy each other’s company.

The Canadian provinces aren’t the only ones to celebrate families. The Australian Capital Territory declared an annual Family and Community Day in 2007. It is tied to the September-October school holidays. In South Africa, Easter Monday was renamed Family Day. Arizona designated the first Sunday in August as American Family Day. Other states have followed its lead.

Since 1994, the United Nations has recognized May 15 as the International Day of Families. This is an occasion to celebrate the importance of families to people, societies and cultures around the world. Each year, a theme is selected that focuses attention on a particular area of concern. The one for 2011 is “Confronting Family Poverty.” Locally, there may be workshops, policy meetings for public officials, and the start of campaigns to strengthen families.

Even if our own area has no official day to celebrate family life, there are many things we can do as families. We can ski, skate, play pickup basketball, phone a distant relative, hike, play indoor games, picnic, make meals together. By using our imaginations, we can come up with many more ways to enjoy and celebrate family life.

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 | Author: mjward

Is it better or not for stepchildren to be adopted by their stepparents? Researchers recently compared adopted and non-adopted stepchildren with children growing up in other family types. They conducted a large survey of children up to the age of seventeen who lived in married-couple households which included two biological parents, two adoptive parents, and one biological and one stepparent. They compared adopted and non-adopted children with each other and with those in other married-family types.

The most important finding was that there was quite little difference among the children. All were similar as to school achievement. Children who did not live with two biological parents did have more emotional and behavior problems. None, however, scored in the clinical range. The authors of the study believe that this shows the basic ability of children to adapt to the families they are in.

A more detailed comparison shows that young adopted stepchildren’s families are most similar to biological two-parent families. Older adopted step-children are most like non-adopted stepchildren. The authors speculate that these resemblances may be the result of the age of the child at adoption and/or the length of time between formation of the stepfamily and the adoption. They also caution against lumping together all adopted children because there are differences between those adopted by unrelated parents and by a stepparent.

School performance and emotional and behavioral problems aren’t the only aspects of family life. A whole view would consider relationships between parents and children, between siblings, and with community members. The security provided by adoption may, in the long term, also affect the well-being of children. All families have their strengths and weaknesses. Rather than looking at which families do better, it is more useful to look at the strengths of the various family forms and their challenges. That way, each family can be encouraged to build on its strengths.


Source:Stewart, S. D. (2010). The characteristics and well-being of adopted stepchildren. Family Relations, 59, 558-571.

Sunday, January 16th, 2011 | Author: mjward

Many Canadian Aboriginal children adopted by American parents in Pennsylvania, as we have seen in Parts 1 and 2, fared poorly in their adoptive homes. Costs were heavy for both the adoptees and their adoptive parents. Interpersonal difficulties were accompanied by school dropout, substance abuse, running away, and criminal activity, if not premature death. A number lived in unstable or abusive relationships. More were unemployed or earning wages that kept them in poverty. Criminal records reduced life prospects for some. Costs for the adoptive parents are exemplified in a letter one father wrote in 1984: “I won’t say that adopting two special-needs Indian kids was the worst mistake of my life, but there are times when I think it ranks close….I have succeeded in removing a great deal of joy from my life.” In a number of cases, families faced the continuing dependency of adult children. Some were helping parent grandchildren; others were looking for suitable treatment settings, for example for children with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Why did this group experience so many difficulties? We can’t explain the results with any certainty, but can only suggest possible causes. First, was the group of Aboriginal children placed in Pennsylvania a high-risk group? The fact no homes were found in Canada may indicated that these children were especially troubled or came from backgrounds with many problems. Unfortunately pre-adoption records from Canada were incomplete and did not consistently report on the child’s living situation, history or levels of the mother’s nutrition before the birth or her substance abuse. We do not know how many had been abused or experienced multiple moves among homes. Both of these can increase children’s problems in fitting into a new family. Some adoptees appeared to have fetal alcohol syndrome because a number of case records indicate parents’ alcohol abuse.

Second, in their adoptive families, children had little contact with other Aboriginal individuals. The families, who lived mainly in rural and small-town settings, were relatively isolated from each other. Thus attending a centralized support group required some effort and commitment. The incentive to go to meetings may have been low because parents tended to downplay the importance of racial identity. In addition, there were few Aboriginal adults in the area who might provide healthy role models. Problems within families may have increased because of children’s copycat behavior. But that scenario does not account for the similarity in problems experienced by widely separated families.

Third, adoptees were at first received well in their schools until behavior problems led to disciplinary clashes. Academic difficulties led to loss of academic eligibility–a number were fine athletes–and further reduced good feelings about school. Many dropped out. The most disaffected became involved with substance abuse and criminal activities. Problems of this sort are also common among non-adopted Aboriginal American and Canadian children and adolescents. Both poverty and colonialism have been blamed for contributing to these difficulties. While poverty was not a factor in the adoptive families, children were subject to stereotypes prevalent in society including the nature lover or noble red man; the dirty, sneaky, savage redskin; and the militant who wields a tomahawk against hated whites. These stereotypes were present in the American school system (and presumably in wider society) throughout the adoptees’ childhood. It appears that many of the adolescent problems reported by the parents were an attempt to act out the stereotypes–returning to the Northern wilderness, engaging in promiscuous or criminal behavior, and striking out violently against family members or themselves. Yet these behaviors failed to provide the adoptees with entry into their culture of origin. Many who returned to Canada were unable to fit easily into Aboriginal communities because they had lost their language and traditions.

These adoptions are a sad page in child welfare history. There are things we can learn. Why did some children have relatively few problems in their new homes? How many of the troubled adoptees did find a measure of success in their adult lives? How can we improve adoption practices to avoid any such difficulties in the future?



Ward, M. (1995). Native children in non-Native homes: An analysis of adoption outcomes. Paper written to demonstrate proficiency, PhD Program, Te Union Institute, Cincinnati, OH.

Tremitiere, B. T., Ward, M., & Polesky, G. G. (1996, October 28). Native Canadian children in American homes: Parents’ perceptions of outcomes. (Unpublished paper)

Sunday, January 16th, 2011 | Author: mjward

Several provinces placed Aboriginal children for adoption in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Manitoba, the last to stop this practice, declared a moratorium in 1982 out of concern over the problems experienced by these children. Since then, there have been continuing reports of difficulties. The official inquiry into placement practices of Manitoba agencies found that a number of children whose adoptions had broken down were coming before the courts on criminal matters. Later accounts have suggested that adoptees were subject to physical and sexual abuse, committed serious crimes, and/or suffered severe psychological damage. However, there had been little follow-up of these young people.

One agency that placed many Aboriginal children from Canada in the United States was Tressler Lutheran Services in Pennsylvania, finding homes for 206 such children between 1974 and 1986. Of these, 14 came from Saskatchewan in the early 1970s, the remaining 192 from Manitoba from 1974 until 1982. Following the 1982 moratorium, adoptions of Aboriginal children involved only re-placements following disruptions. All children were adopted by Caucasian families.

The agency provided on-going support services following adoption finalization, including groups for both adoptees and parents. Thus staff had contact with many families and/or heard how they were faring. Agency personnel came to believe that families with Aboriginal adoptees were reporting an unusual number of problems. Calls came from widely scattered families who did not know each other, telling of similar difficulties with their children: severe acting out, seemingly complete unconcern about their adoptive families, and leaving their homes, often heading north. In view of continuing reports of difficulty in these adoptions, families were contacted in 1994 to learn both problem levels during the children’s development and level of adaptation in early adulthood. This followed a similar follow-up that occurred in 1984 when the children were younger.

Information for the 1994 study came from two sources–agency records and interviews with the adoptive parents. With the assistance of a student on summer placement, Dr. Barbara Tremitiere of Tressler Lutheran Services located parents who had adopted a total of 100 Aboriginal children (53 families with 52 males and 48 females). About one-fourth of children had been adopted before age six; half between six and ten years; and one-quarter between 11 and 15. This group contained many of the families interviewed in 1984. Dr. Tremitiere conducted telephone interviews with parents using a guide with both closed and open-ended items. The interviews covered the history of the placement, the types of problems encountered during the developmental years, the ages at which these occurred, and the adoptee’s present adaptation. The severity of problems was based on parents’ reports and may therefore have shown some bias.

In 1994, most of the adoptees had reached adulthood. There were five deaths: one boy had died of natural causes; another was killed accidentally after his return to Canada; two boys, who did not know each other and whose parents had believed they were doing well, committed suicide; and a young woman was the victim of a serial killer. Most of the survivors were in their twenties. Most grew up in two-parent families. Over three-fourths of the children lived in homes with other Aboriginal children. About one-third of the families had four or more children.

Most of the 95 surviving adoptees were in touch with their adoptive parents. This included some who had returned to Canada. A number had resumed contact after an extended period. For about half the contact was frequent. Most parents knew where their children lived. Children who lived at home, more females than males, were less likely to have serious difficulties than those living out of the home. The majority of those at home were either in school or had graduated from high school. They were not necessarily free from problems; one family, for example, had just made arrangements for their pregnant daughter and her boyfriend to move in with them. Parents had no information about the living situations of 30 of their children. The others were evenly divided between stable and problem environments (e.g., involving substance abuse, criminality, or violence).

Nearly half the adoptees had experienced some difficulties involving identity issues. There was a significant jump in such issues in adolescence. Problems also tended to be more severe during these years. Perhaps as a result of problems in school, educational levels were low. Only a third had graduated from high school, with 8 percent having some college. For one-fourth there was no information, largely because they were no longer in contact with their parents. Although problem levels declined in late adolescence and early adulthood, a high proportion of the adoptees continued to experience difficulties. Indeed, parents rated the general adjustment of fewer half their children as satisfactory. Surprisingly, there was no correlation between age at adoption and the presence or degree of problems. This finding may reflect the fact that problems were so pervasive that any advantage coming from early placement eventually disappeared. The 17 adoptees who experienced no major problems were mainly female. Ten were in families with other Aboriginal children who did have problems.

Staff at Tressler undertook a follow-up study of other adoptees placed transracially during the same period as the Aboriginal children. All parents had a similar background. Analyses showed that Aboriginal adoptees fared much worse in all areas than African-American, Vietnamese, and Korean children placed in Caucasian homes.

Why have Aboriginal children had more problems in their adoptive families than others placed transracially and internationally? While there are no clear answers, possible explanations are explored in “Canadian Aboriginal Children Adopted by American Parents. Part 3: Why the Problems?”


Holtan, B., & Tremitiere, B. (1966), August). Looking back: An outcome study of Canadian Indian, Vietnamese, and Korean adoptees. Paper presented at the annual conference of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, Dallas, TX.

Kimelman, E. C. (1985). No quiet place (Final report of the Review Committee on Indian and Metis adoptions). Winnipeg: Manitoba Community Services.

Tremitiere, B. T., Ward, M., & Polesky, G. G. (1996, October 28). Native Canadian children in American homes: Parents’ perceptions of outcomes. (Unpublished paper)

Sunday, January 16th, 2011 | Author: mjward

During the 1960s, child welfare departments in several provinces, especially western ones, became concerned about the well-being of Aboriginal children. Few services were available to protect them from neglect or abuse. Parenting was defined by standards of the majority white community and many Aboriginal families didn’t measure up. Many children were removed from their homes. The great increase in Aboriginal children entering care during the 1960s until the mid-1980s came to be known as the “Sixties Scoop.” The scoop produced a dilemma. There were many children in care needing homes. There were too few Aboriginal foster parents to care for all of them. So they were placed in non-Aboriginal homes. There were too few adoptive homes in their provinces to take in all these children. Thus many were placed in other provinces or in the United States.

In 1978, I asked provincial and territorial child welfare authorities for figures and policies concerning the placement of Aboriginal children, especially in non-Aboriginal and out-of-province families. In 1963 in Manitoba, 12 percent of adoptive placements were of non-Caucasian children. By 1977, the proportion had nearly tripled to 35.6 percent. Most Aboriginal children were not placed with Aboriginal families, since only about a dozen were available in any one year. Children who were placed outside the province consisted mainly of older children, sibling groups, and children with other special needs. In 1977, 41 children were placed in other provinces and 65 in the United States. There was, however, no information on race or ethnicity of these children. Several hundred Aboriginal children went to the United States before a moratorium was imposed in March 1982.

One agency involved with the placement of many Aboriginal Canadian children was Tressler-Lutheran Service Associates in central Pennsylvania, which was located in a rural area with no Aboriginal families. From 1972 to 1981, two social workers placed between 200 and 250 Aboriginal children aged from infancy to fifteen. Most were Canadian, the majority from Manitoba. Most were referred through two agencies and principally through two adoption workers. The families had received good adoption preparation and had continuing support from the agency, including therapy if needed.

The placements were flawed from the beginning. During the ten years, immigration regulations changed sharply and sometimes suddenly. At the beginning of the period, these children could cross the border freely; by the end they had to go through regular immigration procedures. As a result, some children placed in the earlier years encountered problems through a lack of proper documentation. Some were never made American citizens. There was also a lack of background information about the children. Only later did the Pennsylvania agency learn that many were related to each other and that siblings and other relatives had been separated.

The atmosphere at the time also played a role. Families truly believed that, given enough time, love and good nutrition, a child would do well. People did not know then about fetal alcohol syndrome or about hyperactivity. Parents also believed that racism did not exist for their families. From 1972 to 1986, the agency placed over 2000 children, over half across racial lines. This included about 200 Vietnamese children, who were placed in about six weeks and about whom there was no information.

The first clue the agency had that the Aboriginal adoptions were in trouble was through what came to be referred to as “the phone calls from hell.” The pattern was similar: during early adolescence, an adoptee would head north of the border, often in a stolen care or even bus, with no particular destination planned. Not until about thirty had done so, was there a framework in place to enable their return to Canada. A letter in 1984 from the Manitoba Department of Community Services informed American agencies of the possibility of repatriating children to their birth families and/or home communities.

This letter prompted a telephone poll in which parents and available children were interviewed. The survey contacted 64 families who had adopted 107 Aboriginal children, who were then aged 6 to 24 years. The children, twice as many males as females, had been placed at ages from infancy to fifteen (one-fourth were under 6 at placement, half aged 6 to 10, the remainder at 11 to 15 years). Most (91.6%) had come from Manitoba. Parents rated one-fourth of the adoptions as negative. Their level of acceptance of problems was unusually high, however, because of the pre-adoption training they had received. One fourth had sought therapy. Among preteens, no particular problems were reported. Among teenagers, the two prominent problems were difficulties in interpersonal relations and failure to attend school. Many of the children reported as having problems decided to emancipate themselves from their adoptive families. Two males had committed suicide. Both had been reported as doing well before they shot themselves. One verbally and physically assaulted his mother before his suicide. Two others had died, one of natural causes and the other in a traffic accident in Winnipeg. Four were known to be in jail. Eighteen had been re-placed into other homes from their original adoptive ones.

Because many of the adoptees were not yet adolescents, it was important to learn how they fared as adolescents and young adults in their personal development and family relationships. In 1994, a second survey was conducted. This is reported in “Canadian Aboriginal Children Adopted by American Parents. Part 2: How Did They Fare?”


Sinclair, R. (2007). Identity lost and found: Lessons from the sixties scoop. First Peoples Child & Family Review, 3(1), 65-82. [Online journal]

 Ward, M. (1984). The adoption of Native Canadian children. Cobalt, ON: Highway Book Shop.

Ward M., & Tremitiere, B. (1994, May). Broken dreams or promise kept? Canadian Indian children in American homes. Paper presented to National Adoption Conference, Calgary.

Thursday, December 09th, 2010 | Author: mjward

It is commonly held that coming from a “good” family helps young people lead successful lives. This idea is particularly true when parents are authoritative, that is, when they set standards for their children, but are flexible in recognizing their children’s individual needs. Such parents care what their children do but they also pay attention to their children’s strengths, weaknesses, and desires. Frequent encouraging communication by parents can increase a student’s competence and success in school.

A study based on two large-scale surveys in the United States did find that students performed better in high school when they had a warm relationship with their parents. Because their marks were higher, they were more likely to be accepted into a good college that suited their needs.

The researchers, however, were surprised at one group of students. These were close to their families and had high marks. Yet they were reluctant to leave home. Thus they applied only to nearby post-secondary institutions or did not attend college at all because of the distance. These young people limited their opportunities by these choices. For many, it is necessary to break from adolescent associations and lifestyles in order to enrol in college and excel there. The situation is, of course, far more complicated than just wanting to stay near parents. These young people may be held by peers, the community itself, or a romantic relationship.

The reluctance to leave home for post-secondary education may be greater for non-White young people or those from minority groups. Earlier studies in Canada have found that young Aboriginal students who go away to college often feel an obligation to provide practical help to family members in their home communities. This sense of responsibility is stronger if the young people feel close to their families. Thus they often fail to complete their studies.

There are always some young people who succeed academically even if their parents show little interest or even actively discourage them. But that’s the subject for another blog.




Das Gupta, T. (2000). Families of Native people, immigrants, and people of colour. In N. Mandell & A. Duffy (Eds.), Canadian families: Diversity, conflict, and change (2nd ed., pp. 146-187). Toronto: Harcourt Canada.

López Turley, R. N., Desmond, M., & Bruch, S. K. (2010). Unanticipated consequences of a positive parent-child relationship. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 1377-1390.

Sunday, November 21st, 2010 | Author: mjward

Julie returned to work when her baby, Cassie, was eight months old. She had found it stifling to be home all day without the stimulation of her job demands. The baby went to a daycare center that accepted infants. Each worker was given only a few babies to look after. Toddlers enjoyed activities that prepared them for school. Cassie howled for the first two weeks when her mother left her at the center. Julie worried that Cassie would be harmed by the daily separation. But she had to pay attention to her own needs too. How could she raise a happy child when she herself was miserable?

How likely is Cassie to be damaged by entering daycare so young? There has been lots written about the need for children to have the nurture of a parent, especially during the first year of life. Usually it is assumed that the parent staying home with a young child is its mother. There has also been lots written about the needs of parents. In Julie’s case, the need is psychological. As much as she loves her baby, she is bored by unbroken mothering. Other mothers return to work because their families need their income. Research results over the years have been mixed. Some studies have found that children whose mothers worked during their first three years lagged in later school achievement and were more likely to be aggressive or throw tantrums. Others have found that children who have been in daycare do better in school.

Recently, researchers looked at the results of 69 published reports, dating from 1960 to March 2010 and covering a total of 128,738 children. Overall, having a mother who worked during a child’s first three years was only rarely connected with a child’s later school performance or behavioral problems. There were some variations, depending on family structure, income levels, and the age of the child when its mother returned to work. The differences, however, were small.

The children’s ages when their mothers return to the workforce appears to matter. When mothers were employed during a child’s first year, children’s later school achievement tended to be poorer. On the other hand, two- and three-year-olds showed better school results if their mothers worked. Timing, however, was not connected with behavioral problems. Whether a mother works part- or full-time does seem to matter. When mothers worked full-time during a child’s first year, the youngster had, on average, more behavior problems than children whose mothers were unemployed or worked part-time.

One group of children who benefitted from their mothers’ employment were children of single mothers. Some of these mothers found work to get off welfare. Their children did better in school and had fewer behavior problems than other children with working mothers. Perhaps the added financial security gave benefits like more nutritious food, and better clothing and shelter. In addition, these parents were role models for achievement and responsible behavior. However, mothers who were required to enter a welfare-to-work program, especially if their income dropped, had children with more difficulties.

Once families cross an income threshold, the benefits from employment when children are young may drop off, for example in two-parent families with both parents in the workforce. Once a family is not at risk financially, other factors might come into play. For example, parents may have problems juggling work and family responsibilities without feeling as much advantage from the increased income.

One factor that the study could not look at was the quality of care the children received. There is a great deal of difference, for example, between Cassie’s center and the registered family day care of her cousin’s. He is in a group of six children of various ages, while Cassie is in an infant group. He also experiences a more home-like atmosphere. Other researchers have found that children in high-quality day care like Cassie’s are more prepared for school and have fewer behavior problems than children in poorer quality care. The stability of care also matters. Children do better if they have only one or two caregivers rather than being subject to a constant turnover.

How likely is Cassie to be harmed by entering daycare so young? Probably not much. In fact, she may benefit from having a happier mother and entering the enrichment program of her care center.


Lucas-Thompson, R. G., Goldberg, W. A., & Prause, J. (2010, October 4). Maternal work early in the lives of children and its distal associations with achievement and behavior problems: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037

Monday, November 15th, 2010 | Author: mjward

Do young people on the verge of adulthood have money sense? The occasional story of a college student who commits suicide because of credit card debt suggests that they haven’t developed it. The horror stories about student credit card mismanagement are overblown. About three-fourths of college students handle credit sensibly and don’t run up huge balances on multiple cards. One study found that as college students got older, they became more capable of handling their financial affairs. This may be the result of growing maturity and learning by experience, in other words, practice makes perfect. Other research, however, found that younger college students had better financial practices and less debt than older ones.

Most emerging adults look to their parents for information on how to handle their finances. Those who feel they can talk with their parents about financial matters don’t feel as much stress as those who don’t think they can. Parents’ expectations also influence their children’s financial management and their sense of well-being.

Many parents, however, are not teaching their children what they need to know about money. Too often parents themselves lack knowledge and may get into difficulties over money and debt management. No research suggests that young people’s problems come from the poor example set by parents who can’t manage credit themselves. But I believe there is a connection. For instance, one couple bought a large house beyond their means because they thought it was a good investment. They refinanced the mortgage several times to meet their growing responsibilities. Their children expected and received the best in clothing and electronic toys. One of their sons was given an old but serviceable car by a relative. It was wrecked within a month. Another son trashed an apartment for which his father had cosigned. The bill was huge. The parents are now facing bankruptcy. The children still expect the best things without taking responsibility for earning them.

Learning occurs both through parents’ explicit teaching and by their example. When my children were at home, we rarely talked about financial matters with them. I can’t remember once telling them that we sometimes juggled bills, paying the minimum on the gas credit card for example so that we could meet the electric bill. Or that I had gone back to work because we needed the money to make ends meet. I believe that this lack of communication gave them false ideas as to how much we could help them as they tried to live on their own. It also failed to teach them how to manage their own money.

Another couple, who were self-employed and had fluctuating income considered financial matters part of dinner-time conversation. They might say, “We earned just enough money this month to pay salaries,” or “We netted ten thousand and can put some money away.” Before school, each child was told how much money was available for new clothes and was asked what he or she needed most. They also gave their children modest allowances, but provided them with many opportunities to earn money both around the house and in the family business. As they became older, they also learned about their parents’ investment strategies. Their mother says that, as adults, all the children are sensible about money. Here is an example of both explicit teaching and modeling of behavior.

What can be done to help young people become financially literate? There are a number of suggestions. Educate both parents and their children on money matters. For children, this can be part of their core education, starting from an early age. At the college level, students can be taught about such matters as debt management, saving, and planning for the future. There is little information on how successful educational efforts like these are. But maybe it’s worth a try.




Bowen, C. F. (2002). Financial knowledge of teens and their parents. Financial Counseling and Planning, 13(2), 93-102.

Jorgensen, B. L. (2008, June). The financial literacy of young adults. Family Focus, F11-F13.

Serido, J., Shim, S., Mishra, A., & Tang, C. (2010). Financial parenting, Financial coping behaviors, and well-being of emerging adults. Family Relations, 59, 453-464.

Thursday, November 04th, 2010 | Author: mjward

We’ve all seen and heard the stories. The news blares out the death of a child at the hands of a parent. Day after day, month after month we hear the pathetic details as the case is investigated, and the perpetrator is charged, tried, and convicted.

In Tucson, Arizona, Ariana and Tyler Payne, aged three and four, were in the care of their father, although their mother had legal custody. They disappeared during the summer of 2006. Ariana’s body was found on February 17, 2007, in a plastic tub that had been kept at a storage unit. Tyler’s was never found. Their father confessed to starving the children. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In Toronto, Ontario, a teacher noticed whip marks on seven-year-old Randal Dooley. The vice-principal called the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to report abuse. Randal was left with his family. Some months later, he was found dead of head injuries. His stepmother and father were convicted of second-degree murder in 2002. In both the Payne and Dooley cases, police and child protection staff were involved. But no one followed up on the Payne children after a first check determined that the children were cared for properly. When they were not allowed to talk with Randal alone, police left the matter to the CAS. In addition, no one followed up on his welfare after the family moved.

Every year, it is estimated that almost 3500 children under the age of fifteen die from abuse and neglect in industrialized countries.* Over 1700 these children die in the United States.** Preschoolers, especially babies, are at the greatest risk because they are the least able to protect themselves or to get help. They also tend to spend more time alone with their parents. Officials, media, and the public look for someone to blame for these tragedies. Many of the children, like Ariana, Tyler, and Randal, are known to child welfare authorities before their deaths. What went wrong? Why didn’t a child protection worker step in and remove the children from their homes before they became a tragic statistic? New laws are often passed setting out stricter rules and demanding greater vigilance by authorities. They don’t always work.

Often the situation is complex and has many uncertainties. Child protection workers are called on to assess both the danger and risk to the child. Is the child in immediate danger of harm if he or she is left with parents? Is the child at risk of harm sometime in the future? Both of these questions call for judgment calls on the part of the worker. Sometimes agency staff don’t use the same working definitions of “danger” and “risk.” Several questionnaires and check lists have been developed to help front-line workers with their assessments. But these are not perfect and do not provide an exact rating system and depend to a degree on the worker’s judgment. This is based both on education and experience. Some parents and other caregivers are expert at fooling others. They may appear to be competent and attentive adults to outsiders, but secretly pose a lethal risk to children in their care. In addition, budget cutbacks have reduced already scanty financial allotments for child protection. Therefore agency staff are burdened with such high caseloads that they may miss signs that suggest that the child is in danger. The situation is made worse when police officers and child protection staff don’t communicate and cooperate to keep children as safe as possible.

In fact, no set of criteria can accurately predict which children will die at the hands of family members or be critically injured. One study** using the best standards known to professionals found that less than one-quarter of the children predicted to have a fatality or near-fatality actually did so. That means that over three-fourths of the children in suspicious cases were not severely injured. Does this mean that all those deemed to be at severe risk should be removed from their families? Imagine the public outcry over “baby-snatching.” The public purse could not afford substitute care for all these children. Separation from parents also takes its toll on children’s well-being.

A Canadian study*** points out that a focus on the failures of the child welfare system ignores underlying problems. For example, the family may experience the stress of poverty or be recent immigrants without a helpful support system. In one situation, a young stepmother struggled to care for a baby, Sophia, that her husband had fathered with another woman while he lived with his wife. She had three children under six to care for as well as Sophia. The family situation became increasingly tense when her husband was laid off. The mother looked for help from a number of organizations, but the needed resources were not available. She asked her husband to leave and take Sophia with him. The nine-month-old baby died before anyone found a solution.

There are no simple solutions to the threat of child endangerment. Saving children in danger demands the vigilance and best efforts of everyone involved. Even then there will probably be failures when these efforts fail.


* UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2003). A league table of child maltreatment deaths in rich nations (Innocenti Report Card, Issue No. 5). Florence, Italy: Author.

**Huebner, R. A., Webb, T., Brock, A., & Rock, S. (2010). Using models of lethality to enhance child welfare risk and safety assessment. Protecting Children, 25(3), 76-89.

*** Mennill, S., & Strong-Boag, C. (2008). Identifying victims: Child abuse and death in Canadian families. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médicine, 25, 311-333.

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 | Author: mjward

A father I knew–let’s call him Dan–was absent on business trips for a week at least once a month. Several times a year, he travelled out of the country for three weeks at a time. These longer trips were a mixture of business and pleasure. He rarely called home during his travels and he was hard to contact if there was an emergency. When he returned home, he found that his wife had made decisions without consulting him. He expected to come back to the family he had left only a short while before. While he was away, however, family members and their relationships had changed in small ways, sometimes even in major ways. He felt pushed out. His relationship with his wife and children became more distant.

There are many reasons one partner may be absent from family life. These include periodic travel for work like Dan’s, military service, individual vacations or visits to relatives, and illness. A more dramatic separation occurred in 2010 when Chilean miners were trapped underground for over two months. When a couple does not consult on a daily or near-daily basis, the partner at home must make decisions alone. This is especially true where these are about children. For example, the at-home parent may need to make choices about children’s activities like sleeping over at a friend’s or joining a sports team. Often such matters cannot wait for the other parent to return home, either because of the spontaneous nature of invitations or deadlines for such things as enrollment.

When Dan and his wife had children at home, it was more difficult to communicate with families. Long-distance phone calls could be costly and sometimes difficult to complete when he was abroad. In these days of cell phones, e-mail, and other types of wireless communication, it is easier now for most parents to consult on a daily basis. They must, however, make a conscious choice to act as co-parents and make decisions together. Sometimes the at-home parent won’t confide difficulties to the away-from-home parent so as not to worry him or her. But the attempt to spare one’s partner from worry makes it more difficult to actively co-parent.

Marriage and parenthood call for a partnership of both adults. When one person makes most of the decisions, the other may feel left out of the marriage and active parenting. This type of imbalance may result from situations where a parent still lives at home full-time. An example is the partner who works long hours and is rarely available for family involvement, especially with children. Sometimes the partner most involved with parenting acts as a gatekeeper who discourages the other’s interaction with the children. For example, a mother may hover over her husband as he bathes a baby or changes a diaper, coaching him how to do it just right and undermining his confidence as a parent. Sometimes the busy partner withdraws because he or she cannot handle the stress of family life in addition to workplace stress. For example, one professional and father of several teenagers announced that he was burnt out as a parent. He withdrew from close interaction with his children though he expected any rules he set to be followed.

A person may be absent from parenting for a number of reasons. Some of these are chosen; others are imposed. Not all barriers to a co-parenting partnership can be overcome. Yet when it is in the power of a couple, communication and consultation can lead to better parenting and closer family relationships.