Carefoot gives at-risk families a shot at better outcomes

By AdvocateDaily.com Staff

After working on the front lines of the child welfare system for almost three decades in both England and Canada, Alberta child protection specialist Melani Carefoot has a unique perspective on how to improve outcomes for families.

For 12 years, Carefoot was a team leader at Calgary Region Child and Family Services where she witnessed the traumatic aftermath of children being apprehended from their parents and taken into care, she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“Children’s Services has a lot of power and authority, but some decisions are made without workers applying current research or CFSA’s policy and procedures. In many cases, they don’t  consider how traumatic it is to a child to be apprehended,” she says.

In the judicial system, courts tend to rely heavily on the testimony of social workers, regardless of their education or experience, Carefoot adds.

“Judges are impartial, of course, but they aren’t experts in child development, so in these cases, they err on the side of caution and often accept everything the social worker says. But in some cases, it’s frustrating for parents that these allegations have been made, and they have to spend large amounts of money to retain a lawyer,” she says.

In the time she’s worked in child protection, Carefoot has seen both inexperience and cynicism among those charged with caring for at-risk children, resulting in families feeling as if they have been treated unjustly.

“Child protection can be a challenging and complex job, but some of what’s done in the system is reactionary rather than thoughtful and planned. I have worked on files where children have been apprehended from their homes in the middle of the night without any real thought about the trauma it causes,” she says, suggesting outcomes for children could improve if resources were redirected to support families in keeping their children at home.”

Following her official retirement five years ago, Carefoot did some consulting work and in the process discovered there was a scarcity of therapists in Alberta with a specific focus on children’s services. A short time later she opened Positive Choices Counselling, providing a service to help families involved in domestic or child welfare cases. Giving everyone a voice goes a long way to reducing the stress dynamic, she points out, adding she methodically researched the market and found that while many therapists offered a range of services including counseling for children, none were providing specific services for clients involved with child welfare.

As a resource for parents, Carefoot provides advocacy and support in child welfare cases and points to one success story involving a client whose three-month old son had been apprehended and placed in foster care.

“Although there were concerns about the parent’s ability to care for an infant, there was no apparent reason for the child spending a month in foster care rather than being placed with a relative. After supporting the parents to voice their wishes and communicate effectively with child welfare, the child was moved immediately to his aunt’s care,” she says.

Carefoot recently expanded her services to include divorce coaching for couples who are separating and want to keep their children as their main focus. Traditional practice focuses on litigation, but Positive Choices Counselling works toward finding collaborative solutions before taking the matter to court.

Divorce coaching is an alternative to the more “costly and emotionally draining” prospect of litigation, which Carefoot says should only be considered as a last resort.

“Why would you go to court and ask a judge to make decisions for your family when judges don’t necessarily have any training or education in child development or family system conflict resolution,” she says. “You’re handing over your whole life to somebody you don’t know.”

She acknowledges it’s human nature for people to want to lash out when they’re hurt, but suggests a more positive step for the family is to look forward and create a stable day-to-day existence for the children.

“We’re hoping we can encourage the adults to put those emotions to one side and focus on what happens now for the children because they are going to be co-parented, and you have to make it work.”

When children are caught in the middle of an acrimonious split, Positive Choices Counselling emphasizes the importance of developing a parenting plan that meets each child’s needs. Depending on their developmental stage and personal circumstances, children have different needs, and parenting plans need to reflect these different factors to be effective and truly child-centered, Carefoot points out.

Carefoot has a Masters of Social Work and is a member of the Alberta College of Social Workers and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.