An Indigenous mother says she no longer feels safe in her home after employees of a child welfare agency shared her address with an abusive ex-partner who seriously assaulted her over 10 years ago when she was pregnant.
Heather and her advocate, Lori Damon, say they were shocked to learn that Heather’s address and phone number had been sent to the biological father of her child as part of a child protection case.
“Heather not only changed her name, she did a lot of things to protect herself and her child,” Damon said.
The Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, which was handling the case involving Heather’s child, did not respond to questions sent by The Tyee.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development said B.C. child welfare legislation requires that court documents, such as notifications for hearings, be sent to both parents. Those documents normally include the name and address of each parent. But if the ministry is aware of a reason to keep contact information private, the address can be omitted, the ministry said.
MCFD says Heather can complain to the ministry or to Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, which provides child protection services under an agreement with the ministry.
That’s cold comfort to Heather, who now says she will have to move out of the housing she shares with her current partner and two younger children.
“I didn’t know what to do or what to say,” Heather said. She added that the privacy breach had “ruined [her] life.”
The Tyee is using pseudonyms for Heather and one of her children to protect their privacy.
Social workers and court orders related to the care of her children have been a part of Heather’s life ever since she gave birth to her oldest child.
Over the years, court documents reviewed by The Tyee have listed concerns about substance abuse, and domestic violence involving Heather’s partners.
Several of the court orders state that Heather must keep violent people away from her children.
Two of Heather’s children live with other family members, but her three younger children were living with her until several months ago.
That’s when the oldest child in her care, Riley, reported they were being physically abused by Heather and was placed in foster care. Heather denies the abuse was happening.
Damon is a mental health clinician who worked for the MCFD for years, but currently works with a support group made up of Indigenous women who have experience being involved with the child welfare system.
After decades of colonial policies that ripped Indigenous families apart, Indigenous parents and their kids are vastly overrepresented in B.C.’s child welfare system. Two-thirds of kids in care in B.C. are Indigenous, despite making up just 10 per cent of all children.
The support group is designed to help parents navigate the system and advocate for themselves, and aims to provide enough community support for parents to be able to prevent “unnecessary child apprehensions.”
Damon accompanied Heather to a family case conference meeting in the fall to discuss Riley’s situation. It was at that meeting that a social worker told Heather that Riley’s biological father had been invited to the meeting, although he didn’t actually attend.
The news stunned Heather and Damon.
“I screamed,” Heather said, describing how the information brought up traumatic memories and feelings.
During their relationship over 10 years ago, Heather said her ex-partner hit her almost every day, ending with a serious assault that led to her being hospitalized while she was pregnant with Riley. Heather said her ex-partner choked her to the point that she lost consciousness and had to be revived by paramedics.
While she was in hospital, Heather said police officers visited her and showed her video footage of the assault.
“They told me that he didn’t love me, they showed me that,” Heather said. “So I didn’t go back.”
She said she also got treatment for her addictions to meth and heroin so she could stop using drugs and be able to care for Riley.
Court records show that Heather’s ex-partner was found guilty of committing two counts of assault and a number of other offences that included theft and breaking and entering. He was credited with six months of jail time for his pre-sentence custody and served an additional three months in jail. Court records also show a recent charge for assault with a weapon, which was allegedly committed in 2021.
When her ex-partner got out of jail, Heather said she had had just one frightening experience of meeting him on the street and running away with her toddler in a stroller as he chased after her.
After that, Heather said he has had no role in raising their child. Heather believed she had successfully applied for a restraining order to prevent him from contacting her or Riley, although she and Damon say they are now unsure whether that restraining order was properly filed.
After the meeting in the fall of 2021, Heather and Damon worked with Heather’s lawyer to get all the court documents associated with the case.
That’s when they realized that Heather’s address and phone number had been included on court documents shared with Riley’s biological father. The full names and addresses of Heather’s two younger children, and the address of a school attended by some of the children, were also listed on the documents.
In previous years, court documents filed in relation to child supervision orders have not revealed Heather’s address. Damon says she doesn’t understand why Heather’s address wasn’t kept confidential in this instance.
Kate Feeney, director of litigation with West Coast LEAF, said the Ministry of Children and Family Development has an existing policy when it comes to working with mothers who have experienced intimate partner violence.
That policy states that a woman’s address should not be included on any court documents to which the abusive man has access. The policy also says social workers should “discuss the importance of not asking the mother for her address or the address of the child during her testimony” with legal representatives.
The policy document says it’s important to take these steps to prevent violence against women and children.
“So it comes up a bunch, but then it's like, how is this advice actually implemented? A couple of things that came up for me when looking at the policy is that it doesn't actually talk about how they identify when there are family violence safety concerns in a file,” Feeney said.
“Are child welfare workers doing screening looking at the case history? In this mother's case, if it's actually in her file that there was abuse in the past, you would think that would trigger some sort of next steps.”
West Coast LEAF, a legal organization that focuses on cases involving women’s equality and gender-based discrimination, often works on cases related to B.C.’s child welfare system.
But Feeney said the privacy breach Heather experienced is not something staff have come across frequently. Feeney acknowledged that both lawyers and social workers who handle child welfare cases are often dealing with high caseloads and complex cases.
In Heather’s case, it’s clear she had a significant safety concern around her address, Feeney said. The incident raises questions of “why were the dots not connected? Was there a policy failure or a lack of implementation of a policy, or some combination of the two?”
Damon and Heather say at a subsequent meeting they brought up the issue of the contact information being shared and say that one of the social workers apologized.
But Heather says she needs to see a bigger response from the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society.
“I would have liked them to move me right away to a different location,” Heather said. “They gave out my whole location to a known violent offender. And yet, we’re still not moved.”
Heather has also sent a formal letter of complaint to the MCFD and to Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society.
But Heather and Damon say it’s impossible to undo the damage that has already been done.
A few weeks after learning her address had been shared with her ex-partner, Heather’s worst fear came to pass: one of her children saw Riley’s biological father come to their door. He wasn’t able to get inside, but Heather says she doesn’t feel safe.
She feels that she needs to not only move out of her current home, but to another region of British Columbia.