I have practiced child protection law for many years, and the majority of clients I meet for the first time are ones that have had their children already apprehended by their local children’s aid society (the CAS). When I ask them whether the society worker spoke with them prior to any apprehension, the majority say “yes.” I then ask them why they didn’t speak to a lawyer before the apprehension, and invariably, the clients say they didn’t know they could or should. The answer to both questions – could they speak to a lawyer and should they speak to a lawyer before the children are taken – is the same – yes!
In the simplest of terms, the CAS usually get involved because someone has brought it to their attention that they are worried about the well-being of the children in your care. This may be a current or former partner/spouse, a neighbour, a family member, an educational professional (teacher, principal), a healthcare professional (doctor, nurse), or a police officer. The concern may be a real one, or it may be made out of spite, anger, envy or simply to make your life miserable. In any event, the CAS have a duty to investigate, to make sure that the children are in good hands and, if they are not, to address the problem in a proper manner.
If there is no immediate risk of harm to the children, the CAS will usually contact the parents of the children and advise them that they would like to do a home visit, to check on the children, or to meet with you at their offices. This is generally the first opportunity for you to speak with a lawyer, before the visit or meeting, to be prepared. The advice you get from a child protection lawyer may vary, depending upon their approach to child protection law, and depending upon the client’s exact situation. Some lawyers tell their clients to say nothing and admit nothing. Some tell them videotape or record the conversations. With respect, my advice is different. Generally, this is what I would advise most clients to do:
01. Meet with the CAS, listen to their concerns, and agree to cooperate with the CAS.
02. Take notes. Although you should co-operate, the client must be aware of certain realities. The CAS worker will be taking careful notes of what they see, hear and experience when they meet with the client. The client should do likewise. Make sure you get the name of the person or persons visiting you and, if they have them, take their business cards and keep them for future reference.
03. When making the appointment, set it at a time that is best for you. Make sure you are ready and prepared to greet them (if you are just rolling out of bed at 4:00 pm, coming off a night shift, or if they smell alcohol on your breath or the odour of drugs around you, they will take notice of this, and it is not going to be in your favour).
04. Make sure your home is ready for them to visit. Make sure it is tidy. If you have a dog, make sure the dog is properly put away – not everyone loves dogs.
05. Carefully listen to the worker’s statements and the questions he or she asks. If English is not your first language, have someone with you who can properly interpret both in English and your first language. Please do not ask your children to be the interpreters. Ask a trusted adult friend. If the CAS worker makes a statement, take note of what the statement. If he/she asks a question, write down the questions asked and the answers you gave.
06. Answer questions carefully. Unlike what you see in TV and in the movies, you do not have a constitutional right to remain silent in CAS cases – that is for criminal matters. You can certainly choose to remain silent, but if you do, it is likely that the CAS will use this against you, i.e. they will treat you as being uncooperative, evasive or suspicious of you.
07. Answer questions briefly and truthfully, but only answer the questions asked of you. Most people get uncomfortable with silence in a room and try to fill the silence with more talk. Avoid this temptation. Once you have answered the question, if they are looking for more, let them ask you for more – do not volunteer it.
08. If you don’t know the answer, do not guess. Teel the work that you do not know the answer, but also say that you will try and get them the answer later on, if possible. If you answer “I don’t know” to every question asked, it will likely be a short interview (and not a good one).
09. Be polite and respectful. In almost all cases, the CAS worker will be professional in their dealings with you, but in some rare cases, the CAS worker may be (or seem to be) rude to you. Do not “lose your cool” and do not get into a verbal argument with them. Do not throw them out or threaten to call the police. Politely end the visit and let them that you have nothing further to say at this time.
10. If you are not comfortable meeting the CAS without a lawyer, that’s fine. Arrange for your lawyer to be there. All lawyers expect to be paid for their time, so if you need to apply for legal aid or if you are paying out of pocket for your lawyer, do so immediately. Let the CAS know you do not wish to meet until your lawyer is on board. In most cases, the CAS will grant your request to postpone the meeting until your lawyer is retained.