By Omar Mosleh with the Edmonton Bureau

Posted on the Toronto Star

When A.B. hears people complain about being stuck indoors, she says she doesn’t care where she is — if only it were with her child.

But for nearly two weeks, the Toronto mother has not had her court-ordered face-to-face visits with her child, who is in government care, because on March 18 the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto suspended supervised parent/child visits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The situation with COVID is so bleak in general, but honestly it pales in comparison to the amount of suffering that we’ve been forced to endure,” A.B. said. “Not having to go outside is honestly nothing … I would take this any day. But not knowing when I’m going to see my kid next? It’s like death by 1,000 cuts.”

The Star is referring to the parents in this story only by initials to protect the identities of their children.

The hardest part is the uncertainty. Previously, A.B. and her husband would see their child three times a week. Now she spends each day wondering how long before their visits start up again. Her lawyer had told her some in-person visits might resume on April 6 when Ontario schools were scheduled to reopen, but that seems unlikely now. (Ontario has extended the school shutdown until at least May 4.)

“We might not see our (child) until the summer, and that’s a horrendous feeling,” A.B. said. “It just feels like you’ve been kicked off of a cliff.”

She said the added stress of being separated from their child in addition to everything they’re contending with due to the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown their lives into disarray.

“Our lives have absolutely been put on hold,” A.B. said. “I just keep praying that I’m gonna fall asleep and wake up three or four or five months from now.”

She added the change was communicated poorly. She learned of it from their lawyers only, and not from the agency.

For C.D., another Toronto mother in a similar situation, it’s been nearly two weeks since she had a face-to-face visit with her children who are in care — the longest she’s gone without seeing them.

She says they’re right at the age where they’re starting to take their first steps and eat solid foods. She worries she’s losing valuable time with her children, time she will never get back.

“It’s such an instrumental time of their lives when it comes to developmental stages,” C.D. said. “They’re hitting milestones that we’re missing.”

She wonders if they’ll even remember her when they reunite and about the long-term effects of them being in care. She’s concerned they could develop anger or anxiety issues later in life due to this separation.

“Are they going to have issues in their teens because of the fact that they were abandoned twice by their parents, essentially, in their mind? Because they don’t know the logistics of the situation, they don’t know the back-end fight and struggle we’ve gone through,” C.D. said.

“So I think it’s really important to assess what truly is in the best interests of the kids and is there any other way to do this?”

Both parents say they were offered the opportunity to see their children via video applications, such as Skype or FaceTime. But they worry that would confuse such young children and make matters worse.

A spokesperson for Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) could not say exactly how many societies have cancelled in-person meetings or how many children are affected. Toronto CAS is the largest of 49 children’s aid societies in Ontario, which are responsible for investigating child abuse and neglect and providing child protective services when needed.

“Because the situation is very fluid, we cannot provide a precise number,” a statement by OACAS reads. “We can say that as of today, most Children’s Aid Societies have taken measures to replace in-person contact with telephone or video calls, when appropriate and possible.”

The decision was made based on a recommendation from Public Health Ontario and the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, the statement said.

“We recognize how difficult this situation is for all families, including those served by child welfare agencies. We are making decisions every day to balance public health and safety with the needs of the children, youth, and families served by Children’s Aid Societies.”

On Monday, the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers (OACPL) sent a letter to CAS of Toronto saying the decision is a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to take into account the unique circumstances of each family and contravenes court orders that give parents the right to see their kids face to face.

On Tuesday, a lawyer with the association said they received a response saying the society was evaluating in-person visits on a case-by-case basis, but there were no firm timelines or commitments.

Katharina Janczaruk, vice-president of the OACPL, said CAS Toronto’s decision unfairly assumes parents would be unwilling or unable to follow such COVID-19 protocols as social distancing.

She says CAS of Toronto needs to evaluate each case individually, then, if necessary, present evidence to the court that children would be put at risk if the in-person arrangements continued.

Most importantly, she says, the society is contravening court orders that grant permission for parents to visit their children face to face.

“The onus is on them if they seek to change the court order … You cannot — and particularly I would say because it’s an institution, it’s an arm of the government — you cannot just announce ‘I’m not going to follow a court order,’” Janczaruk said.