In the fall of 2021, the son of Nathaniel Lowbeer-Lewis and Racquel Smith was attending a community daycare near their home in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood.
He seemed to fit in well and Smith said staff feedback about him was positive.
So it came as a surprise when the center called her in for a meeting last November to discuss the three-year-old’s ‘troubling behaviour’.
At first, Smith thought it might be a strong language, as he had recently discovered the F-word.
But at the reunion, Smith learned he had made increasingly violent and graphic comments. So far, Smith said no one has raised concerns with his family.
Smith told daycare staff that her son could be quite dramatic. He had also told wacky stories at home and his older brother had gone through a similar phase at that age.
In addition to his brother’s influence, Smith mentioned that he spent time with his older cousins that summer. She assured them that she and her husband would be watching more closely what he could pick up from television broadcasts.
But at the end of the meeting, Smith was informed that the daycare had reported them to Quebec’s youth protection services, known in French as DPJ.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Smith recalled. “I was so shocked.”
Smith quickly picked up her son from class and ran outside to call her husband, who hadn’t been invited to the meeting. His disbelief turned to fear when he read Quebec’s Youth Protection Act.
“Once you’re flagged, the powers available to the Department of Child Protection are extremely frightening,” Lowbeer-Lewis said. “They have the right to come in and take your children based on any report.”
“You never know if someone is going to burst in.”
The couple immediately withdrew their son from the Carrefour des Petits Soleils. Lowbeer-Lewis caught up with the director a few days later.
She told him that a trainee from her son’s class came to her with concerns in mid-October and then documented what the little boy was saying over the next six weeks.
The director told her that she had complete confidence in her employees and that the center had followed her protocol.
“Then she said, ‘If you’re doing nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about,'” Lowbeer-Lewis said.
After months of uncertainty and distress, a local health authority social worker deemed the concerns unfounded and the case was dismissed this spring.
But that didn’t erase the pain or stress of being pointed out in the first place. Their family had been using the center’s services since the fall of 2020. Lowbeer-Lewis and Smith don’t understand why the daycare took such a drastic step without warning or talking to them first.
As the only visibly black family at daycare, they also began to wonder if they were being judged differently. They asked the board to review its reporting policies and adopt better unconscious bias training.
WATCH | The mother describes the shock of being reported to youth protection services:
The Crossroads declined an interview but defended its actions in a statement, saying it had a “legal and moral responsibility to act”.
“We understand that this situation could have been disruptive for the family, but Le Carrefour acted in a preventive manner and with concern for the well-being and best interests of the child,” the statement said.
The Carrefour, which has been in operation for 43 years, said it discussed its concerns about the child – and the approach to take – with professionals from the community health center (CLSC). He then consulted the Batshaw Youth and Family Centers, which serve the English-speaking population of Montreal, and was told to report.
The statement did not explain why Le Carrefour had not been in contact with the parents before their discussions with the authorities, nor did it answer a question about the training the staff received or whether race may have been a factor in the decision. how the child’s case had been handled. .
Black families overrepresented
Smith and Lowbeer-Lewis’ concerns are reflected in research that shows that black families are overrepresented in child protection in Quebec and beyond.
The rate is particularly high for the province’s English-speaking black population; they are on five times more likely note that white children, according to a 2020 study by McGill University Assistant Professor Alicia Boatswain-Kyte.
Boatswain-Kyte, a former social worker herself, said her research suggests that the decision of authorities, whether it’s a daycare worker or a school administrator, tends to be “stronger or enhanced with respect to black children and black families due to anti-black racism.”
“We won’t necessarily give that black family the benefit of the doubt or we might not feel comfortable reaching out or having a conversation with that black family,” she said in an interview. .
His research was cited in a last year historical report on the reforms needed to straighten out the Quebec youth protection system.
An entire chapter was devoted to improving services to racial and cultural minorities and new immigrants. Another focused on the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care.
Before child protection is called, Boatswain-Kyte thinks community organizations that serve these same groups should be called to work with the family and determine what kind of support they need.
She said they’re “in a better position to support families because they’re not in that investigative space and role.”
In a statement, the health authority responsible for Batshaw Youth and Family Services said it was “very sensitive and fully aware of the overrepresentation of black communities in the reports we receive at the DPJ”.
“We are working closely with several community organizations to implement support services for families and put in place actions to prevent, as far as possible, the use of youth protection services,” said Hélène Bergeron-Gamache. , spokesperson for the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.
Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), said he has heard from many parents who feel targeted because of their background.
One of them is Marie Ismé, who said she was reported to youth protection last fall as a dispute over her son’s schooling dragged on.
Ismé feels that her son, who is black and has autism, is being treated unfairly by his school and has been sent home more often because of the color of his skin.
She said the school called youth protection in October and had to meet with an investigator. It took until the new year to judge the case unfounded.
“It was really, really, really insulting,” said Ismé, who filed a complaint with Quebec’s Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission with the help of CRARR for the way the school took care of her son.
“I don’t think there are words, because when you know you’re giving 100 per cent and it happens for no reason. It was devastating.”
“Breach of trust”
Smith and Lowbeer-Lewis can sympathize with Ismé. They were reported to youth protection in November and did not see a social worker until mid-February. The case was closed a few weeks later.
“It clogs up the system and deprives people who really need help,” said Smith, who quit her job to care for her son full-time.
She admits that the whole experience made her more self-conscious. Even something like her sons arguing in the garden has her worried about what people might think.
She struggled to reconcile the positive feedback from the staff, knowing they were building a different narrative behind the scenes.
“It felt like a complete breach of trust,” Smith said.
For Lowbeer-Lewis, the experience was eye-opening. In theory, he understood that people of color reported being watched more closely by the authorities, but until that happened, he had no idea what it did.
“There’s this constant level of stress,” Lowbeer-Lewis said. “Is the reason I’m being reported because of the color of my skin, or where I’m from, or because of something real?”
“If they’re the ones doing the reporting, they should have training to check for those biases for one and then two, look at their protocol,” Smith said.
“From the stage where you worry about a child to the stage where you go to the DPJ, what happens in there?
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.