“I feel like Jesus,” Tina announces to no one in particular. We are sitting on a hard wooden bench outside Courtroom 1 in the Dartmouth law courts building, waiting for Tina’s lawyer to finish up another matter in another courtroom so the wheels of justice can finally grind through her business at hand — her formal sentencing on eight counts of uttering threats.
When I look at her quizzically, Tina tries and fails at a smile. “I feel like Jesus,” she repeats. “Like I’m going to be crucified.” Her eyes are watery and there is a tremble in her lip. “I’m not going to cry,” she insists, talking as much to herself as to me.
Tina has cause to be concerned. She has already pleaded guilty to making the threatening telephone calls. According to Tina’s version of events, she bought a 375 ml. bottle of vodka on the afternoon of October 17, 2006. Then, back in her apartment, she began drinking while she listened to her favourite song — the Dixie Chicks singing, over and over, “I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down” — until, finally, she picked up the phone and began dialing various officials in the provincial department of community services with whom she’d had unhappy dealings over the past months and years.
When no one answered — it was already after hours — she began leaving messages. If she didn’t get her daughter back, “you got a war.” If the charges against her daughter weren’t dropped, “be prepared for a fucking war.” It only got worse as the night — and the vodka — disappeared. “You’re going down,” she screamed in one frantic late-night call. “I’m gonna shove a pitchfork up your ass so far it’s gonna come out your fucking throat, you cunt.”
Before the sun rose the next morning, Tina had left 42 different messages.
That morning, she made one last call to the home of the family court judge who’d handled the case in which her daughter was made a permanent ward of the department of community services. She told the man who answered the phone: “It’s your fucking wife’s fault for everything what my daughter’s going through, so you tell her that she’s going down too.”
Tina knows she should not have made those calls. She never intended to actually harm anyone, she insists. She was just frustrated and angry at “all the shit” that had happened to her and her daughter.
Tina is not a physically intimidating woman; she’s short — probably not even five-feet-tall — and puffy from too much unhappy life. Today, she looks every one of her hard-lived 37 years. In court, even the prosecutor will concede she has had “a pretty rough life.”
The pre-sentence report prepared for today’s court hearing tells the story of that life — but only part of it. Which is why Tina is worried the judge may make an example of her and send her to jail. “She won’t know why I did it,” she says plaintively.
The daughter of an occasionally employed German-Irish father and a workaholic, abusive French-Canadian-Aboriginal mother, Tina grew up in Orillia, Ontario, in what the probation officer compiling her pre-sentence report has described as a “dysfunctional” family.
“I was abused from the time I was a newborn until I was 15,” she tells me. “Verbally. Physically. Ten lashes with a belt buckle. That was normal. I’d have welts on my arms. I always wore long sleeves to hide the bruises… There was psychological abuse too.”
Twice, Children’s Aid removed Tina and her two sisters from the family home; twice, they returned them. When she was 15, Tina demanded Children’s Aid take her back. “I told them I’d rather be dead than go back home.” She spent the next two years in four or five different foster homes.
She was 15 when she became pregnant the first time. “I wasn’t prepared,” Tina confesses of motherhood. “Angie was colicky. No one told me what to do, so I’d feed her bottle after bottle. I didn’t know how to burp her; I didn’t know that’s what you did with a baby. All I knew was how to change diapers.”
Tina stops, becomes almost wistful. “If only they’d helped my parents be better parents,” she says of Children’s Aid, “maybe I’d have known what to do…” She pauses again. “If only they’d helped me.”
Instead, Children’s Aid applied for — and won — permanent custody of Angie. Tina would not see her eldest daughter again for 15 years, not until she re-met her at the funeral of her second child, Albert, who’d died at 14 in a car accident in 2002. Tina had had Albert — by a different father — barely a year after Angie was born. The father got custody of the boy and, Tina says, used threats to keep her from seeing her son.
Though she still dreamed she’d somehow, someday, somewhere meet Mr. Right, Tina’s choices in men didn’t improve. She’s not sure who the father of her third child is — “I was sleeping around at the time” — but she did know she didn’t want any of the possibles as a husband. She wanted more children. Her fourth child, another son, was born a year later. Like her oldest son, his father got custody of him too.
In the six years since she’d left home, Tina had had four children by four different fathers, as well as two miscarriages. Finally, at the urging of the father of the fourth, she had her tubes tied. She was 21.
The only positive thing she had to show for those 21 years was her third child and second daughter, Andrea, of whom she had custody and for whom she insists she wanted only the best.
Tina tried to raise Andrea on her own. But she was also playing hopscotch across the country — from Orillia, to Edmonton, to Vancouver, to Toronto, to Saint John, to Halifax — chasing abusive men and relationships that ended badly for all concerned. Including Andrea. Tina says Andrea witnessed the father of Tina’s fourth child beat her and was in the same room again two years later when Tina’s new husband, Jack, assaulted her.
At one point, Tina decided she couldn’t cope and put Andrea in care in Toronto for 30 days so she could get her life together. Luckily, during that time, Tina won $3,500 at bingo — enough so they could stay in the same apartment for the rest of the year and Andrea could complete an entire school year in the same class.
Finally, in 1997 when Andrea was just six, Tina, her daughter and Jack moved to Nova Scotia. They ended up in a welfare hotel in Dartmouth. Though Tina enrolled Andrea in school and an after-school program, their troubled family life — Tina kicked her husband out of the apartment; he applied for custody of Andrea — soon brought them to the attention of child services workers. They got a court order that allowed Tina to maintain custody of her daughter, but with conditions: she had to see a therapist, get anger management and marriage counseling, and Andrea needed to be assessed by psychologists at the IWK. Tina agreed to all of those conditions. But she disregarded another order requiring Tina’s husband to stay away from Andrea because, as Tina explains, “DCS was keeping Andrea and her dad apart on purpose, and the courts wouldn’t intervene.”
It all came to a head a few weeks later on Easter Sunday — April 12, 1998 — when Jack arrived at the apartment with a chocolate bunny as well as a stuffed bunny, and offered to take Tina and Andre
a for dinner and a movie.
Before that could happen, a police officer and two social workers — who’d been tipped off by hotel personnel to Jack’s arrival — showed up to apprehend Andrea and place her in temporary care.
After that, Tina only got to see her daughter once a week — and only with a police officer stationed outside the room.
Because of ongoing problems in Tina’s marriage, her lack of parenting skills and her history of moving from place to place, a family court judge made Andrea a permanent ward of the province in September 1999. There was no provision in that order for Tina to see her daughter again. “I honestly didn’t understand any of this and why it happened in the first place,” Tina explains. “I cried real hard.”
Everything that happened to Tina between losing custody of Andrea and the night she made her threatening phone calls — and much did happen — is summarized in one single sentence in Tina’s pre-sentence report: Tina, it says, “has been making application to Family Court for custody and visitations, but has been denied.”
That doesn’t even begin to cover it, and that worries Tina. If the judge doesn’t fully comprehend her ongoing, never-ending war with community services, the judge won’t have a clue why Tina lost it on the night of October 17, 2006.
You may not have heard of Tina, but you almost certainly know about Andrea. She is the “troubled” 16-year-old girl who was at the centre of a legal tug of war last fall. Youth court judge Pam Williams ordered community services minister Judy Streatch — the legal guardian for Andrea and 2,000 other kids formally placed in the care of her department — to personally attend a case conference to discuss how to make sure Andrea got the help everyone agreed she needed.
At the time, Andrea had just pleaded guilty to 32 criminal charges involving incidents in and around Halifax area group homes where she’d been living. “Since August 2005,” as the Chronicle Herald report laid out the prosecution’s case against her, “the girl has repeatedly assaulted [group home] workers with her fists and feet and anything she could get her hands on — including a chair and an antenna off a radio. She has also caused property damage and breached court undertakings by ignoring her 11 p.m. curfew.”
Andrea’s lawyer, Megan Longley, told the judge her young client had been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder — multiple personalities — and needed intense, daily psychiatric treatment on a long-term basis. Such treatment isn’t currently available in Nova Scotia. Which meant that Minister Streatch was “the only one who can do anything about the problem. It’s her decision how to allocate resources,” Longley explained.
Perhaps surprisingly, prosecutor Gary Holt agreed. In court, he supported Longley’s application, later explaining to reporters: “We’ve known for a long time in this province that there is a lack of services for youth. And particularly in the psychiatric, psychological situation — in particular a secure treatment centre. We just don’t have one.”
The judge’s unprecedented order and the fact that Holt, a respected veteran youth prosecutor, had publicly agreed with it seemed like — and was — a searing indictment of the failures of the child protection system in the province. Predictably, the news touched off what Holt himself would later concede was a political “firestorm.”
The province’s justice minister, Murray Scott, called Holt’s superiors to complain. Those superiors then ordered Holt back into court to argue the polar opposite of the position he’d taken three just days before.
The judge eventually, seemingly reluctantly, rescinded her original order and allowed the department’s acting director of child welfare and residential services to appear in her stead.
By then, however, the issue was moot. Within days of that first hearing, Andrea had disappeared.
It was not the first time. Nor would it be the last.
Carl can remember the exact date — November 22, 1997 — and even the hour and minute — 3:06 a.m. — when his life changed forever. He was 12 years old. His parents came into his room and woke him up. His suitcase was already packed. He was going on a trip, they said. It was only when he was in the car on the drive from their home in Sackville to the airport that they told him where he was going and why.
He’d always been a difficult child. “When you were born,” his mother told him more than once, “you didn’t come with an instruction manual.” Carl was disruptive in school, so his teachers called in his parents. They sought professional help. Doctors diagnosed Carl with ADD, ADHD and an alphabet soup of other disorders and syndromes. The doctors wanted to prescribe pills; Carl’s mother resisted, but relented when they told her she might lose her child.
Ritalin, I ask?
Carl laughs. “I could look in the [pharmacist’s standard reference] book and pick out every damn pill there. I’ve had them all.”
But the pills didn’t help. When he was 12, he warned his parents he was going to “slit your throats while you sleep.” In fact, he did hurt a classmate, which is how he ended up in youth court. His parents were given yet another Hobson’s choice: send Carl to the Nova Scotia youth jail in Shelburne or to Bayfield, “a rural residential treatment facility [in Ontario, offering] care and treatment for boys experiencing difficulties such as conduct disorder, psychiatric disorders and attention deficit disorder.”
His parents were reluctant to let him go so far from home, but opted for Bayfield because they believed Carl might finally get the help he needed there. Which is how he came to be at the airport before dawn on that morning in 1997 meeting the social worker who would accompany him to Bayfield.
“We arrived at 11:05 a.m.,” Carl tells me as if the time is proof that what he says happened actually did.
Carl tells me this story as we sit at a table in the middle of the deserted Backpacker’s Café on Gottingen Street on a damp Friday afternoon in mid-April. I had arranged to meet Carl because I hoped he’d lead me to Andrea, whose story was the one I actually wanted to hear.
In the six months since she’d been in the media spotlight, Andrea had run away, been caught, run away, been caught, run away again. She’d spent short periods at the youth prison in Waterville and also at the Wood Street Centre, a Truro facility described as “a secure and stable environment for children and youth in the care of the minister who are in-crisis.” Ironically, Wood Street was initially touted as the made-in-Nova-Scotia solution to sending kids like Carl out of province for treatment. But the reality is that Wood Street is what Andrea’s lawyer, Megan Longley, calls a “settling-down place” for troubled teens, and not the long-term treatment facility that’s still needed.
During one of Andrea’s many escapes, she met Carl, who lives by his wiles on the streets. They became friends. The week before I caught up with Carl, he and a few of his friends had attended Andrea’s most recent court appearance — as a show of support. That, indirectly, was how I’d gotten his cell phone number.
“Call me C-C,” he says when we meet. “Everybody does.”
“Crazy Carl. That’s what it stands for.” Today, he is dressed in a T-shirt, ill-fitting jacket and over-sized camouflage pants. His hair is close-cropped, but growing out. You can see the outline where someone had carved symbols of some sort into the hair on the side of his head. He has bad teeth and his eyes are lidded. Medication? Drugs? It’s hard to tell. There are scrapes on his knuckles. From a fight? Impossible to know.
“I have chronic anxiety,” he tells me as if reading a description on a restaurant menu. “I’m out of control. They give me an injection in the rear. It’s supposed to calm you, but it makes me worse.” He stops, considers. “I hate psychiatrists.” Still, he refuses to badmouth his latest one, a doctor at the Abbie Lane Hospital he’s just started seeing. “You have to give him a chance,” he tells me.
Carl has seen more than his share of shrinks. Despite the fact he doesn’t have a high school education, he seems bright, articulate, even self aware, especially when he talks about the child welfare system in which he has spent half his life. “I know the system better than the system knows itself,” he boasts, then confides, “We all put on this glamorous front,” he says of kids like him who’ve grown up in care. “What’s happened to us in the system makes us need to have an edge. That’s why I’m so well spoken,” he explains, answering a question I haven’t yet asked, but planned to.
Carl also believes he understands what triggers his own outbursts. “Every year, I seem to have a setback around October, November, December… The sun goes down and it screws up my mood. It goes in a routine pattern.”
He’s still on probation from his last “routine pattern.” While living in a Halifax group home, “they had tuna for lunch and I didn’t want that, so I went to the cupboard to get some Sidekicks to make for myself. They told me I couldn’t cook it.” He shrugs. “It went downhill from there…
“I have severe anger problems,” he concedes. “I lose it over the smallest things. But I knew I had to change after I got charged, so I did. I can control my anger now.”
I look down at his knuckles and wonder.
Still, as I listen, it’s clear Carl believes he has excellent reasons for those “severe anger problems.”
Take the five years he spent at Bayfield. “They put you in these houses, 16 to 20 kids to a house,” he remembers. “And the staff would play favourites: ‘You! In bed at 8… You can stay up until 9.’” Carl, it is obvious, wasn’t one of the favourites.
He claims he once sent seven staff members to hospital during an altercation. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he insists. “I just couldn’t concentrate because of these medications they had me on… psychotropic drugs. At one point, I was on 13 of them. They made me aggressive and paranoid. One day I’m with this teacher and I couldn’t concentrate. The teachers all had these [flash] cards — they go from five, which is great, to zero, which is bad. So when I couldn’t concentrate, the teacher hauls out the card that says, ‘Zero.’ And that’s when I went off…
“They play head games with you.”
During his years in Bayfield, Carl only saw his parents twice. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. In fact, his mother started a support group back in Halifax for more than two dozen other families whose kids had also been sent out of province for treatment because there were no facilities for them in Nova Scotia. The group was called KIN. “There’s a double meaning,” his mother told the Daily News in 1999. “It stands for ‘Kids In Need,’ and ‘kin’ also means family, which is very important as these kids are away from their families, away from those who love them most.”
So why didn’t she visit her own child more often? Scheduled visits to her son in Bayfield, Carl’s mother told the newspaper, were often cancelled at the last minute — staff would tell them “it wasn’t a good time” — and phone conversations were limited.
At the end of the day, Bayfield didn’t help Carl e
ither. They sent him back to Nova Scotia in the winter of 2003. He was 17, and on his own. He wound up as an in-patient at the IWK where he says the doctors finally took him off all his medications. “They were very disappointed [with the treatment he’d received at Bayfield],” Carl tells me. “I was on all these meds and they were all for adults. I was like a Zombie.”
For the past four years, Carl has bounced from program to program, group home to group home, doctor to doctor.
He tells me he first met Andrea last fall at the Alderney Gate library. Homeless kids often use its computers to communicate with one another. “I knew her brother. That’s how I met her. We’d, you know, chill and hang out.”
He doesn’t know where she is now.
But what he’s learned about Andrea’s life story and current problems, he says makes him “scared” for her. “I mean she’s only 16 and she’s caught up in the system and can’t get out. I mean, you know, it’s not good.” He pauses. “I don’t want her to end up like me.”
Carl is only 21 but he talks as if his future is already in his past. It probably is.
“I’m to work on the following if I want to obtain custody of Andrea.” Tina has carefully written down the judge’s long ago directions to her. What she understood the judge said she had to do. What she’s done.
2. Upgrade parenting skills. “I did. I took every parenting course possible.”
3. Maintain stability. ”I did. In a 10-year period, I lived at the following addresses (minus Hurricane Juan, that doesn’t count)…”
Tina goes on to list three places she’s lived in nine years while acknowledging that “for a year, I couldn’t find stability.”
The knife-edged sliver of hope her lawyer had offered Tina after Andrea was taken away from her in 1999 was that Tina could regularly reapply for custody, or at least for the chance to see her daughter. Tina did. On five different occasions. Each time, the courts turned down her application.
When Andrea was 12, however, officials did allow the girl — who, by that time, hadn’t seen her mother for nearly five years — to write letters to her mother. Andrea did. Thrilled, Tina wrote back as soon as she got them. But her letters, Tina says now, were never delivered.
In February 2005, Tina got a phone of her own after some friends suggested Andrea might look in the phone book to try to contact her. Andrea did. And the two, to the chagrin of Andrea’s social workers, got together.
Tina says Andrea, who was then 14, wanted to move in with her right away, but she discouraged that, urging her daughter to remain in her group home and complete her school year. When she did eventually move in, Tina says she laid down her house rules: “Curfew at 9 p.m.; help keep the house maintained; [and] make future plans for herself.”
Instead of doing what they could to assist Tina and her daughter, who both seemed eager to reunite, officials not only refused to let Andrea have any of her personal belongings from the group home, including her anti-depressant prescription medications, but they also applied to the courts to prevent Tina from having any contact with her daughter and then called in the police to investigate the situation as a kidnapping.
But the same day the police came to question her — Tina tells me Andrea told the officer “she knew her rights and was home of her own accord” — Tina and Andrea had a falling out over a missed curfew. Andrea stormed out. “She went off saying how it was her life, and my life was mine, and therefore to leave her the hell alone.”
Things twisted out of control after that. The courts granted community services the order it had sought to keep mother and daughter apart. So when Andrea changed her mind and contacted her mother again, asking to come back, Tina had to tell her about the court order.
“Well, you may have [an order against you],” Andrea replied, “but I don’t.”
Andrea was soon caught again anyway, and returned to her group home. Whether because of her contact with her mother, or because of what she learned about how community services had tried to keep her from her mother, or simply because she didn’t want to remain in the group home, Andrea’s behaviour suddenly got worse.
Though she’d had minor discipline problems in the past, Andrea had never been charged with a crime until August 2005, soon after being returned from her mother’s. That charge was the first of what would ultimately become the 32 criminal charges — every single one for incidents in and around her group homes — that would bring before Judge Williams.
Just before the 2006 Thanksgiving weekend — and just before Andrea ended up in Williams’ court room — she bolted from her group home once again and showed up at her mother’s door.
“Andrea comes home soaking wet,” Tina recalled of Andrea’s arrival in a rainstorm. “She takes a hot bath, and her and I eat supper and spend the night talking about anything and everything until five in the morning.”
This was the kind of mother-daughter relationship Tina had been imagining.
They spent close to a week together. Tina took Andrea to a walk-in clinic so she could get her prescriptions for the anti-depressant Prozac and an anti-schizophrenia drug called Resperdal. She also asked the doctor to give Andrea a pregnancy test. (Community services apparently routinely provides teenaged girls in care with three-month birth-control medication, but Andrea hadn’t gotten her last shot and hadn’t had her a period in almost two months.) Tina also promised she’d “take care of” Andrea’s dissatisfaction with her legal aid lawyer by getting someone else assigned to her case. It made her feel motherly. Tina even said no when Andrea asked if she could attend a weekend party; this time her daughter didn’t object.
Tina was beginning to think their relationship had finally turned a corner. But then, one afternoon, Andrea went to the Alderney Gate library to use the computers and meet some friends. Though Tina was worried the police might find her there, Andrea insisted she would “keep low and out of trouble.” Andrea promised to be home early. Tina said she’d have supper on the table at 7 p.m.
Just before four o’clock, Andrea called her mother. The police had picked her up and were taking her to cells. Tina tried to talk to her daughter, but the policeman hung up the phone.
Three days later, Andrea appeared before Judge Pam Williams to face the 32 outstanding charges against her. She pleaded guilty, after which Williams issued her infamous order commanding community services minister Streatch to appear at Andrea’s case conference the following month.
Within days, Andrea disappeared from the group home. Again. And this time she didn’t contact her mother.
Which was how it came to be that Tina, walking home to her apartment that day, began “thinking about the last 10 years” and decided to buy that 375 ml. bottle of vodka.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Hi,” I say when she opens the front door. Andrea resembles her mother. She’s short, dark-haired. She wears what look like Value Village rejects — a too-big red shirt and too-long black pants. Her fingernails are painted a glowing red; eyeliner is slathered so thickly along her upper eyelid it seems as if the weight would make it impossible for her to lift them to make eye contact.
“Nice to meet you,” I continue lightly. “Finally! You’re a hard person to track down, you know. Every time I think I’ve found you, you disappear—“
Andrea silences me with a sudden, panicky stop-sign look that is part plea, part command.
It was mid-July, nearly 10 months after her first criminal court appearance. She’d called me this morning from a cell phone. A friend of a friend had passed on my number. I tried to explain why I’d been looking for her, that I wanted to talk with her about her experiences in care and her life with her mother.
“OK,” she’d answered non-committally. Since she was on the lam yet again, we agreed to meet that afternoon at the house where she was crashing. When I arrived, she was waiting just inside the door with a friend.
“Uh, I’ll just go and get my jacket,” the friend says as the awkwardness fills the hallway.
“She doesn’t know,” Andrea whispers urgently as soon as the girl is out of earshot. “Everyone here thinks I left [the group home] voluntarily.”
Since the girl who doesn’t know the real story is accompanying us to a nearby Subway where I am to ask my questions and Andrea — who hasn’t eaten all day — will get something to eat, I realize the conversation I’d planned would be awkward, perhaps impossible.
I steer clear of her latest escapades. Instead, I ask what she remembers of when she initially lived with her mother. “I remember she used to buy me cats,” Andrea says. “And we fed the swans… We moved around a lot too. I remember that.”
How many foster families did she live with after community services took her away from her mother? She counts on her fingers before she answers. “Six or seven. Sackville, Beaverbank, Prospect, Dartmouth… all around.” While some were good — “[one family] took me to Magic Mountain, and Upper Clements [park], and the zoo” — she has more bad than good memories. “In one place, it was like, if you lie, we won’t feed you. One girl, it was, like, 10:30 before she confessed and got her supper… Another place [was so over-crowded] one girl had to sleep in the living room and this other boy, he broke in and bothered her. She called the police but they said there was nothing they could do.”
Most of the foster families she’s lived with couldn’t cope with her. “My behaviour was out of control,” she admits. “I’d throw myself on the ground to get what I wanted.” She shrugs. “I was frustrated, upset, that’s all.”
She became even more frustrated after she was moved out of foster care and into group homes. She missed her mother, or at least some idealized memory of her. “I’d think about her all the time,” Andrea tells me. “I tried to find her but she’d keep moving from place to place and I’d never be able to contact her.”
When they finally did make telephone contact when Andrea was 14, Andrea says she immediately made arrangements to meet her mother on Spring Garden Road the next day. “I walked down the street, looking around, and I seen her standing by the Dairy Queen. She smiled, and I guessed it was her right away… It was, like, a really happy feeling. She was my mother, and I hadn’t seen her for so long.”
Her happy feeling didn’t last. And not just because of the predictable difficulties of getting back together after having been apart for so long. During her conversations with her mother, Andrea made two discoveries. She learned that Tina had answered the letters she’d sent her — but no one had let her read them. And she discovered her older brother had died in a car accident two years before, and no one had told her or allowed her to go to his funeral.
“That’s what led to my anger,” she tells me. “That’s when I [first] got charged with assault with a weapon on the social worker.”
And then things got worse. She’s been sent to the Wood Street Centre on five different occasions. She spent last New Year’s Eve there. “It’s like you have to go to bed at 10, 10:30 if it’s a weekend… New Year’s… it doesn’t matter. So [on New Year’s Eve] four of us came out of our rooms at midnight. We just started singing these songs and they told us to stop. They said the songs were ‘inappropriate’.”
“You know, like ‘Lock’d up’.”
I had a long day in court, shit stressed me out
Won’t give me a bill, can’t get me out…
They won’t let me out
They won’t let me out
I’m locked up…”
“So then they come and they escort us back to our rooms. I’m like, ‘Fuck that,’ and I went in the bathroom and I’m on the toilet and I’m sayin’, ‘Come on! Come on and take me out!’ And they do. I kicked a staff member in the face… I got restrained…”
“’Lock’d up,’” she says, isn’t the only song she wasn’t allowed to sing that night. “’Shake your Moneymaker’ too. And we can’t even listen to 50 Cent. They say he’s, like, a bad influence.”
What does she think?
“I think it’s stupid. It’s just a song.”
Does she want to live with her mother again? Andrea shrugs. “If we had help.” She thinks for a while. “We don’t even know each other.”
Does she want children? Yes, she says, but not now. “I’m not ready.” She knows she’ll probably never be allowed to have children. “If I have a child, they’d take it,” she confides. How does she know that? “They said.”
What about school, I ask, mostly to change the subject.
“The last grade I passed was 8,” she explains matter of factly. “I failed Grade 9 twice. And Grade 1 too.”
What does she want to be when she grows up,?
“When I was little, I wanted to be a vet. People say I’d be a good lawyer… I like to argue.”
Lawyer? Vet? Does she have a preference?
She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “No preference.”
No, I think. And not much hope either.
Cheryl Harawitz knew she shouldn’t get involved. Not now that she had the time she wanted. To paint, play music, travel with her husband. That other part of her life — the frustrating, obsessive part that had consumed five years of her life — was over. No one could say she hadn’t tried. The bureaucratic walls were just too high, too thick.
It was May 2004. Harawitz and her husband had just returned from a trip to Europe, only to discover that their west-end Halifax neighbourhood had been turned into an armed camp. SWAT police officers blockaded every street.
As Harawitz listened while a neighbour explained what was going on — a couple had barricaded themselves inside their nearby Shirley Street house with their infant daughter after the police tried to grab the child in the middle of the night — her first thought was, “How sad.” Her second was the one she verbalized to her husband.
“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully, ”it’s time to resurrect New Zealand.”
Cheryl Harawitz is a retired a social worker. She’d worked with the Association for Community Living, a group that develops support networks for people with disabilities, and was a former director of Family SOS, an organization that tries to help people on social assistance learn life and parenting skills by pairing them up with peer mentors to help them navigate the tricky shoals of parenthood. So she understood the importance of involving families in dealing with family crises.
Which may be why she remembers being so “visibly excited” at the end of a session on “the New Zealand experience” during a social workers’ conference in Toronto in 1991.
Two years earlier, the New Zealand government had introduced The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act, revolutionary legislation that transformed the way the state dealt with children and families in crisis. Instead of leaving power in the hands of social workers, police, judges and bureaucrats, who had traditionally determined — arbitrarily and on their own —the best interests of the child, the new law put that power into the hands of the families themselves.
When a child was deemed to be in need of protection, the first step was to convene a “family group conference.” Family members, often including extended family, neighbours and others interested in the welfare of the child, would meet with experts —medical professionals, police officers, protective services workers, therapists, teachers and others — to discuss possible options for the child’s care. After that, the family would meet alone and come up with a consensus plan, which it would then present to the child’s caseworker. If that plan didn’t work, there would be another conference and another plan.
As dramatically different — and unwieldy — as it sounds, the system worked. The number of children in foster care and other institutions fell by 90 per cent. Fewer young people ended up in court.
New Zealand youth court Judge Mick Brown, who’d initially thought it was “absurd to expect all families — simply by a stroke of the legislative pen — to suddenly become mature decision makers,” became a convert. “What amazes me,” he said, “is how often family groups, with input from police and victims, are achieving creative and constructive outcomes.”
In the years since it was introduced, the New Zealand model has been adopted or adapted — usually with great success — all over the world. But not in Nova Scotia. Cheryl Harawitz tried. She returned home from that 1991 conference eager to bring the New Zealand model to Nova Scotia.
But there were a number of problems. For starters, the Nova Scotia government had just passed its own Children and Family Services Act, and wasn’t about to tinker with what it believed was good legislation. There was also resistance from many social workers who believed implementing such a scheme would just add to their already burdensome workload.
But Harawitz was relentless. She got $30,000 from the attorney general’s office to bring experts from New Zealand — including the police officer who’d spoken at the Toronto conference — to talk with Nova Scotia police officers, judges, child protection workers, health and social welfare professionals, academics and, of course, senior government officials to explain just how — and how well — the system worked.
She formed a steering committee, wrote a report and — with letters of support from everyone from the then-Halifax police chief to a judge — put together a tentative proposal for a three-year, $200,000 project to demonstrate the idea’s possibilities. She’d even discovered a pot of leftover money in the provincial budget she could use to pay for it.
“And then,” she says simply, “the government changed.”
The new Hamm government had other uses for that money. And other priorities that did not include changes to child welfare.
Though Harawitz fought the good fight for two more years — “This was my passion; I knew it would work” — she eventually “burned out.” In August 1995, she decided to take a year off and help out in her husband’s software business. That year turned nearly a decade. And then retirement.
She’d slipped nicely into retirement mode, in fact, when the end result of the Shirley Street standoff (criminal charges and jail for the parents, foster care and the destruction of her biological family for the child) reinforced her belief that events might have played out differently — and better for all concerned — if Nova Scotia had implemented the New Zealand model.
So she threw herself back into the fray one last time.
In 2005, she thought she’d convinced the federal Liberals to fund a pilot project but then “there was another change of government,” this time to Stephen Harper, and it didn’t happen.
So she applied to serve on a controversial provincial review committee that’s supposed to advise the community services minister on how our current legislation is working and to recommend changes.
The reality, of course, was that, on a scale of one to 10, the government’s real interest in that legislatively-mandated committee ranged from zero to none. For five years, it hadn’t even bothered to appoint members to serve on the committee until two determined mothers took the department to court in 2005 to force it to live up to its own Act. Then it tried to stack the committee with bureaucrats who had a vested interest in the status quo.
Despite that, Harawitz — perhaps because of her social worker’s background and her outwardly genteel manner — managed to get herself not only appointed to the committee but also named its chair.
Though the committee has yet to file its first report since 1999 — “I’m preparing drafts of sections now for critique by the other members of the committee” — Harawitz says she’s been “encouraged” by other members’ openness to at least considering new ideas.
She’s already made one presentation to the committee on the New Zealand model. There was some positive feedback, she says, but concerns too that such an approach “wouldn’t work in our culture” or “for the families we’re dealing with.” Harawitz doesn’t buy that. “It’s worked in England. It’s worked in Australia. It’s worked in Washington State. It’s worked in Texas… If you can think outside the box in child protection, you open up some amazing possibilities.”
She’s already warned the other members of the committee she intends to raise her New Zealand flag again befor
e it finalizes its report and she remains hopeful there will, finally, be a pilot project in Nova Scotia to test just how different the system — and the results — might be.
Would it made a difference for Tina, and Andrea, and Carl, I want to know?
“Oh, absolutely,” Harawitz says without hesitation. “Right now social workers work inside a bubble. They only see the immediate family and its problems. And they only see the solutions they expect to see.”
Which, it’s all too clear, are not solutions at all.
In the end, Judge Alanna Murphy did not make an example of Tina. While making the point that Tina had dealt with her “frustration… in an inappropriate and illegal way,” Murphy acknowledged she had had a “very difficult life in many respects,” and accepted the crown’s recommendation Tina be placed on probation for 18-24 months, complete 40 hours of community service and have no contact with close to a dozen social workers or anyone at community services except through a lawyer.
Before formally sentencing her, Judge Murphy asked Tina if she had anything to say for herself.
“I’ve learned,” she said simply.
But what has she learned? That the system didn’t work for her — and that it hasn’t from the day she was born. Now that her court case is finally over, Tina tells me she’s thinking of moving to Ontario and trying to make a fresh start. She talks vaguely of finding a lawyer there, of launching a class action suit on behalf of all the people whose lives have been made worse and not better by the system that was supposed to protect them. Like herself.
And like Andrea as well. As it did with Carl when he was cut loose from Bayfield at 17 and left to fend for himself, the system has now essentially given up on Andrea.
In 1999, the department of community services, with the approval of the courts, took Andrea from her mother because it claimed it knew better how to raise her. Now, eight years later — without publicly saying so — community services is acknowledging that it didn’t, and doesn’t, know any better.
During an August court appearance to deal with still more charges that Andrea had broken still more curfews, Andrea’s lawyer, Megan Longley, told the judge the department was threatening to rescind Andrea’s permanent care order because she’d failed to follow the programs it had laid out for her and continued to get in trouble with the law. Which meant she would never get the long-term care everyone had claimed she needed.
Judge Pam Williams’ frustrations were obvious. “It’s another example of the criminal justice system and the child welfare system coming at each other like two freight trains,” she declared, without stating the obvious — that both of those trains were making straight for Andrea as well as each other.
Because Andrea’s latest “crimes” were simply that she had violated the conditions — abiding by a 9 p.m. curfew and living in the group home — from her earlier probation order, Williams rescinded those conditions. “[The] sooner we can get you out of the [justice] system the better,” she told Andrea.
But she urged Andrea not to give up on the programs community services was offering her. “You’re very vulnerable,” Williams told her, adding that she’d have no place to live, no money and no prospects if she was on her own.
Andrea was undaunted. “I’d rather be out of the [community services] system,” she told Williams.
And now, apparently, she is.
Last week, according to the friend of a friend who’d initially put me in touch with Andrea, she’s living on her own in the same place where I met her back in July. She’s telling everyone she’s finished with community services and it’s finished with her. This time, it seems, she’s telling the truth.
Stephen Kimber is The Coast’s Senior Features Writer. He teaches journalism at the University of King’s College.