[This is the fifth post in a series highlighting a public dialogue held at the University of Alberta on October 23rd, 2008, titled The Modern Pursuit of Human Perfection: Defining Who is Worthy of Life. The dialogue was sponsored by the What Sorts Network, in conjunction with the Canadian Association for Community Living and the Alberta Association for Community Living. This series will bring forward the videos made of this event twice a week, roughly every Wednesday and Saturday. For further context, please see the introductory post in the series, which can be found here; we'll string together all posts in this series when we have most / all of them up, or you can search by the category "Modern Pursuit" to get those already posted.]
Here Colleen Campbell and Anne Hughson tell the story of how Colleen’s daughter was taken away from her for over 4 years, and Colleen’s subsequent struggle to get her back. The story is all too common, not only in Edmonton, but in many places, and raises issues of disability, good mothering, and the social welfare system, and the relationship between them. Why is Colleen considered such a “bad parent” by child services that her child would be taken away from her for what was then 1/3 of her daughter’s life? Shouldn’t social services be working to keep struggling families together, rather than pulling them apart? Wendy and Sam, who featured in the preceding posts in this series, were “normal parents” fighting for their children; here Colleen faces the struggle to prove herself as a competent parent. One question that Anne asks that doesn’t get answered is whether there was a complaint against Colleen, something that we’ll see addressed in the question period (which we’ll post down the track). There we’ll also learn more about what Colleen was working as during this time, which also makes some of the preceding questions more pressing. View the clip!; transcript beneath the fold.
If you can’t view the video above, try the original Youtube location here.
Transcript of clip
Anne: Ok Colleen. We’re probably going to do this a little bit together, and … Colleen’s done this before, so she’s just trying to figure out which way to start probably at this point. What we wanted to share, I think, is Colleen’s experience as a parent , and as a parent with a disability and with the struggle she’s had in being able to keep her child, and what the child welfare system has sort of been like and how its been involved in her life. Is that ok, is that a good start?
Colleen: Yes that’s good.
Anne: So can you tell us how you lost your daughter, and how you got her back?
Colleen: Back in December 13, 2001, my daughter was taken away from me. There was, I was in a … on that particular day I had just come out of a domestic dispute with my ex , relationship kind of thing. And yeah she was taken, and eight and a half years old. She was gone for four and a half years, and I didn’t, couldn’t understand why she was taken away from me. I was a very devoted parent I had made sure that she got into all the necessary programs for school and …
Anne: So it was a surprise to you that this happened. Did the workers ever say to you why they took your daughter away from you?
Colleen: They said that they accused me of abusing her, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Anne: So then what did they tell you you had to do if you wanted to stay involved with your daughter? Do you remember those days?
Colleen: Yeah. They told me that I had to have a roof over my head. I had to have food on the table. I basically had to keep myself clean, although I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. So they basically kept telling me “Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll get your daughter back.”
Anne: And they said that many times to you?
Colleen: Many times, over the next four and a half years.
Anne: So you did those things, yes? You went to parent classes, you went for assessments?
Colleen: Yes, I did all the assessments, I did parenting classes, I went through a domestic abuse life skills class at DECSA, here at Edmonton. I went through a one year program. I went back to work when I could. The thing is that I couldn’t go back to work, it was really hard to go back to work ’cause also I was in and out of court, for three years of that time I was in court trying to get better visits with my daughter, and just better access to her.
Anne: So where was Ashley, your daughter, all this time while you were fighting to get her back? Where was she living?
Colleen: She was in a number of foster homes. She went through five foster homes, I think. She was in a group home for a year and a half, and out of all that the only good foster home she that was in, she was in there for two years, two to three years, and to this day I still talk to her.
Anne: And all the time you’re still trying to prove that you’re a good mother and that you can have Ashley back.
Colleen: Yeah, yeah.
Anne: So can you tell about that period when she … how she ended up in the group home and then you know that complicated period, you know, you remember, I think it would be interesting for the audience to hear
Colleen: My daughter was, they ended up, she was , they took her out of the very good foster home, and they put her in a group home and they stuck her there for a year and a half. And this funny situation was that every time my daughter was on a holiday or a school vacation, the group home would call me up and say “Could you take her”. And so …
Anne: There wasn’t enough staff?
Colleen: Yeah, and there wasn’t enough staff, and they told me that they would rather her be with me than with them. So, at that point, that was towards the last year, year and a half or so, I realized that you know what, this, I’m not doing this any more. I’m going to do everything I can to get her back. And, I mean, all the way through it I was. But this was when I realized that, you know what, enough games have been played with me. So, I basically by fluke, I got a hold of … someone had called me from AACL, asking me to donate clothes, or household items and I basically I said “Well, I have a situation where I want my daughter back, can you help me?” They referred me to a lady called Maureen Reid, and she was an advocate through AACL and that’s where I started the ball rolling. They, he came to every meeting that I was involved in with children’s services. Every time children’s services would come to my house, she was there too. She would come and come visit me and Ashley when I did have visits at my house. At that point, the last year before she was given back to me she was basically coming to my house every weekend, and every school vacation. Like Christmas time, spring break, teachers’ convention, and also that year I was able to take her on a two and a half week vacation to Ontario.
Anne: So in that time you started to ask the child welfare people “Why can’t I have my daughter back, right?”. That was the really important question. What did they say to you?
Colleen: Um, they told me that that’s not what they were thinking of, and that basically I had to keep doing what I was doing. And I’m going, “ou know what, I thought I’ve heard this so many time, I don’t want to keep doing this again.”.
Anne: Did they ask you … you said to them “Have you had any complaints about me as a mother?”.
Colleen: Yeah, that was when, basically that was when I came back from vacation, and from Ontario, and up until that point I had had no overnight visits with her for four and a half years . So I went from, I asked them, the week before I was going on holidays I asked them if I could have her for that whole week, to see what I was getting myself into, to see if I could actually be a parent again. So I asked them this. Two days before I went on holiday they just basically said “Here, you can have her.” So I … those two nights, although she was hyper, she was excited, we made the best of it, and the whole vacation she was awesome. I had her for about three weeks total. When I got back from vacation, I said “Look, this can’t be going on, I have to have her more than this.” So they gradually, they would come in. That September they came in and they made a plan, because I wasn’t going to have it any other way. I told them that I had to, I had to have her back.
Anne: And in the end that happened for you?
Colleen: Yeah, she came back …
Anne: How long has it been now?
Colleen: Three years. She’s been home for three years. She came home when she was 12 and she’s currently 15 years old. She’s currently attending high school, grade 10, She is still segregated in a school, which I was informed tonight that she wants to change to Ross Shephard next year.
Anne: So that’s your new struggle?
Colleen: Yeah, that’s a new struggle.
Anne: Get a more inclusive education.
Colleen: Yeah, but so …
Anne: So I’m just going to explain a little bit about why we wanted to include this story as part of an understanding about the way in which systemic and pervasive oppression can hurt. You know that I think it’s easy to make, easier to understand Wendy and Sam’s experience in light of what we understand about oppression and eugenics and it’s somewhat harder to recognize some people like Colleen and her situation where she’s actually been oppressed because she’s chosen to be a parent. We no longer are concerned about sterilizing people with disabilities so much, in fact, most of today’s public opinion would be that it would be wrong to sterilize. However, there is still a lot of oppression and stigmatization and devaluation around being a parent, and being able to get the support that you need to be the parent that can have a good life with their children. I think the underlying belief of that devaluation is particularly clear if you get tied up in the child welfare system. I think over and over Colleen was told that she shouldn’t be a parent, she should just give up her child, that the experience of the foster care system is I’m sure much more damaging for Ashley than her life at home had been, at that point or after. But it continued to be the professional view that Colleen could never prove herself as a good parent, no matter what she did.
Colleen: Yeah, the court’s exact words is “You’ll never … how could a person with a disability take care of a person with a disability?” And because, I’m going “I can understand what she’s going through”.
Anne: And you happen to love her.
Colleen: I love that girl. I’m very proud of her, who she is today.
Anne: So we think that’s an important piece to know, the picture. Thank you.