PILOT LEGAL AID PROJECT SUPPORTING FAMILIES
Program resolving cases before children are removed from homes
A pilot legal aid project for parents — particularly aboriginal parents — is showing great promise and getting child-custody disputes out of the courts and resolved quicker and more cheaply.
Established in February 2015 at Vancouver’s Robson Square and funded by the B.C. Justice Ministry until 2017, the Parents Legal Advice Centre handled 98 clients in its first year — resolving about half the cases before children were even removed from their homes.
“This represents a cultural change,” said Katrina Harry, lead lawyer at the centre and a member of the Esketmec First Nation from near Williams Lake, a Shuswap people. “We’ve been building something entirely different than has been done before.”
Mark Benton, CEO of the Legal Services Society of B.C., said the initiative was sparked because during the last decade the society has seen an increasing number of aboriginal families requiring help.
More and more children in gov- ernment care are also aboriginal kids, he added.
Six out of 10 children in care are First Nations, Benton said. Of the 203 bands across the province, only four don’t have kids in care.
Of the roughly 2,500 annual legal-aid child-protection cases, 40 per cent are aboriginal.
“It’s a grave concern for us and frankly for many others,” Benton said.
“I haven’t spoken to an aboriginal leader who hasn’t said it was the highest priority the legal aid plan or the legal system needs to address. People have referred to it as the new Residential Schools — we are taking so many children into care, and keeping them there, and keeping them separate from their families and often separate from their cultures. It promises to have lasting and detrimental effects both for those communities and more broadly for British Columbia.”
Benton said kids taken into care are more likely to become victims or offenders, and more likely to have their own kids taken into care. It’s an inter-generational problem.
Early intervention, Benton insisted, means better public safety, improved well-being for families and better circumstances for kids growing up that might break the cycle.
“We have parents coming to us at earlier stages (before court proceedings) … usually struggling with (root) issues around housing, mental health, addiction, sometimes domestic violence, sometimes concurrent criminal matters,” Harry said.
For these families, she can organize resources, stave off proceedings and keep the kids out of care.
“We are actually now getting referrals from social workers, which is a real culture shift from our previous experience as legal counsel,” she said.
As a result, the issues don’t escalate into an expensive, stressful and debilitating legal morass.
Sometimes that means urgently finding parents overnight housing; sometimes getting bus passes for their kids; sometimes a brief adjournment and a hallway huddle resolves the problem.
The centre is a holistic attempt to bridge government silos and avoid the straight-jacket of legal proceedings by getting parents, social workers, the ministry, counsel and a facilitator into the same room when a crisis occurs.
“Change is happening,” Benton said.
The results may even be transformative, “changing the way we, legal aid plans, view the role of lawyers in the child-protection process,” he suggested. “I think this will change the model of how a lot of the legal aid happens in all of the province.
“Until now the focus has been on rights, defending rights, and now we are shifting to look at how can we get better outcomes for families while protecting their rights. Why weren’t we doing this earlier? The reason for that is what we’re funded to do is the rights’ protection, we’re not funded to solve the problem.”
This approach helps families avoid lengthy hearings, thereby freeing up scarce and expensive judicial resources. When litigation is necessary, the PLC helps families get to court faster and ensures they are better prepared.
“It is difficult to deal with justice,” one client testimonial reads. “This was my first time and I had lots of questions. … They helped me understand how the justice system works.”
The centre now is operating in Vancouver but the need in rural and Northern B.C. is acute.
Benton believes the model would be useful in another seven locations — Surrey, Victoria, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Kamloops, Prince George, and Terrace — together with a telephone advice service.
“We’re confident this program ought to be expanded — it fits with everybody’s values and it gets a good outcome,” he said.
Expansion could take place with one or two locations opening a year — costs varying from $113,000 for a small office such as Fort St. John to $900,000 for a high-volume centre such as Surrey.
The annual cost for all eight locations is estimated to be between roughly $8 million to $9.4 million.