Ask a Lawyer: Strengthening representation for parents in conflict with the child welfare system

Newly established legal group will ensure lawyers have “innate knowledge” of complex laws and court practices to ensure quality legal representation

Legal Aid AB
April 04, 2023

Protecting children in child welfare cases is always a priority, but not always easy to do as a parent involved in the child welfare system. Child welfare law can be complex and difficult for everyone involved —  fortunately, Legal Aid Alberta is here to help parents and guardians get strong representation to resolve these challenging matters.

Andrea Doyle, senior advisory counsel with Legal Aid Alberta, joined Global News Morning Edmonton in this month’s segment of Ask a Lawyer to talk about the supports LAA offers for parents in child welfare cases, and how LAA ensures strong legal representation for parents and guardians when courts decide to remove their children from their home.

Please view the video on Microsoft Edge web browser. 

Learn more about LAA’s Child Welfare Panel.

Transcript of the program:

Vinesh Pratap: Protecting the well-being of children is everyone’s job. But when it comes to deciding when the parents are providing adequate care for their children, it may be up to the courts to determine whether the child should be removed from the home. Legal Aid Alberta has recently established a province-wide legal group to focus on cases such as this, and here today to speak with about this is Andrea Doyle. Thank you so much for being here. Before we get into the further details about this group, let’s talk about these cases in general. Obviously, there’s a lot of emotions involved, it can be difficult, talk to us about the role that Legal Aid plays in general.

Andrea Doyle: Certainly, child welfare matters are difficult for everyone involved. Everyone’s job is to help protect the children. With respect to these matters, we at Legal Aid Alberta provide representation to the parents and guardians who are involved in the child welfare system. And in many of these cases, for the parents, it’s trauma upon trauma. Many of our clients have many difficulties in their life that has caused them to come into conflict with the welfare system. Those can include things such as poverty number one, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and intergenerational trauma. So at Legal Aid Alberta, we are trying to ensure that these individuals get strong representation.

Vinesh: Talk about the province wide legal group. What’s the end goal here?

Andrea: At Legal Aid Alberta, we have established a panel of lawyers who will be doing the representation of parents and guardians involved in the child welfare system. With respect to this panel, we set it up as such so we can have lawyers ensure that parents involved in the system get strong representation. So by doing that, our panel was set up so that we can have lawyers who have the necessary experience in the child welfare system. Child welfare is a very particular area of law, that legislation is quite complex, there’s provincial and federal legislation with respect to indigenous families. So we want to ensure that the lawyers providing the representation have that innate knowledge of the legislation as well as the court practices, so there’s quality representation.

Vinesh: So there’s that expertise right there. This might be given bit of an unusual question, but when we’re dealing with kids and various age ranges, are the children represented here as well?

Andrea: At Legal Aid Alberta, we provide a representation for parents who are involved in the system, there is another government body called the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate. They have a team of lawyers who are called the legal representation for children and youth. So counsel can be appointed for children involved in the system. Legal Aid Alberta does representation of children, but we do it in the high conflict parenting matters. We don’t do it for the child welfare area because that would be a conflict — you can’t act for the kids as well as the parents.

Vinesh: Definitely it’s nice to see the separation there. Talk to us about the concerns ensuring that the experts, as it were, are fully trained especially when it comes to cultural issues and things like that.

Andrea: In order to be on this panel (we had overwhelming interest to be on the panels), we wanted to ensure that the lawyers had the expertise not only in the child welfare legislation but also a level of cultural competency, so they understand the issues that are involved in representing the parents is also the cultural impact. There’s impact of intergenerational trauma on our clients in Alberta. There is overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system, again I’m not a stat collector, but generally one in 10 children in Alberta are of Indigenous ancestry but approximately 70 percent of the children in care are indigenous.

So we want to ensure the lawyers who provide representation are familiar with (we still call it the new federal legislation even though it’s been in place for three years), an act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families to make sure they know when to argue that legislation, when it should be applied before the courts and ensure they have the understanding to be able to ensure that where possible, families can be brought right back together and unified, particularly Indigenous families.

Vinesh: Just quickly about this group, how do you assess how well it’s doing and will changes we made along the way?

Andrea: Certainly. We are just starting, so we just started as of April first, and we went through a thorough application process where lawyers really had to highlight their experience as well as their understanding of the legislation and the Indigenous legislation. We also have requirements for each lawyer on the panel. Each year they will have to do six hours of continuing legal education in the area of child welfare. It’s not an area where there’s a ton of training out there, so Legal Aid Alberta has stepped up to provide opportunities for continued legal education in this area of law, and each year lawyers will have to ensure they comply with that and I will be monitoring the process.

Vinesh: We’re glad you’re going to do that. Andrea thank you so much for coming in and letting us know about this new group, and the work you do it Legal Aid Alberta.

Andrea: Thank you, it’s my pleasure to be here.

Vinesh: Legal Aid Alberta lawyers specialize in family law, child welfare, domestic violence, immigration, and youth and adult criminal defence. If you have a question for a lawyer, send it to [email protected].

Previously on Ask a Lawyer:

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