[Editor’s note: We’ve chosen to use the pseudonyms, Pedro and Mary, to allow the family to remain anonymous for reasons that should be extremely clear by the end of the story. You can read here for more on why we made this decision.]
When the pandemic started to become recognizable as the threat it would become, Pedro was worried about his family. “It was scary,” he says over the phone. “I was doing COVID cleaning in a COVID unit. I’ve been dealing with this COVID stuff since it started in Halifax.” Looking to get out of cleaning the hospital, he saw the HRM had posted a job for a floating custodian.
It was supposed to be the start of a better future.
Pedro was in the last step of a multi-step interview process and felt good about it. To prepare for his final interview he booked a vacation day from his job at the hospital and made sure he got a good night’s sleep. In the morning he took his time with his morning coffee and ate breakfast with his family. He took a shower, changed into nice clothes, and drove his kids to school before making his way across the harbour to Dartmouth for his final interview.
During the interview, Pedro was open and honest with the interviewer because he felt it was his best chance of getting the job. After the interview, still feeling good about his chances, he was told by his interviewer they’d be in contact if there were any issues. Then he went home and waited.
Instead of getting the job, he was removed from his house and his family on Christmas Eve.
Using debunked ‘science’ to tear a family apart
The reason Pedro was removed from his family on Christmas Eve is because the final part of the interview process for a floating custodian is a polygraph test.
The 100 question polygraph test (124 questions if you’re applying to be a cop), which lasts hours, asks prospective HRM employees a wide range of questions about the candidate’s past. They ask about major crimes someone might have committed and they ask objectively useless questions like: “Have you ever operated a motorized vehicle or vessel while under the influence of drugs?” Which anyone who’s ever gone through a Tim Hortons drive-through would have to say ‘yes’ to.
And despite a 2008 scandal where the HRM faced serious backlash for asking applicants if they’ve “ever engaged in sexual contact with an animal?”, the 2009 report to council found the only thing the Halifax Regional Police had done wrong was hire off-duty cops to administer the polygraph tests. Which is why question 73 about bestiality remains in the city’s pre-employment polygraph screening booklet.
Though polygraph tests don’t technically do anything other than measure anxiety, during this year’s budget process Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella told Councillor Austin the police still use polygraphs in the employment process. In an email, city spokesperson Klara Needler wrote “The pre-employment polygraph is required for all custodial positions that will have access to HRP facilities. This would also include floater custodial positions that may have access to a variety of municipal facilities, including HRP facilities.”
The question that caused these problems for Pedro was question 43, asking if the applicant had ever been in a physical altercation with family members.
“I told them the truth because I wanted to pass the polygraph,” says Pedro. “Because I’m so scared because of this virus and working at the hospital. I’m trying to look for a nice job so I can work and at the same time know that my family is safe.”
Sitting in a room with D/Cst. Corey Bergman, with a blood pressure cuff on his arm, tubes on his chest to measure his breathing, pulse and sweat sensors on his fingertips, and nervous as hell, Pedro tells Bergman he has been in an altercation with his wife.
[Committee Trawler tried to confirm with HRP that Pedro’s recollection of who conducted the polygraph was accurate but in an email Cst. John MacLeod wrote “We do not comment on such specifics of operational matters.”]
That’s messed up!
“He didn’t lie,” says Pedro’s wife, Mary. The night of the fight Pedro had left the house and was gone until around 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Mary didn’t know where he was and needed help around the house. “I was exhausted, we have three children to take care of.” She was upset.
The reason Pedro was out of the house that night was because of his son. His son was scheduled to have dental surgery the next day but was worried about the procedure. So Pedro and Mary came up with a plan, a special hat. “He was so scared,” explains Pedro. “We told him this hat would give him extra strength.” But when Pedro got the hat, it was broken, “so I went to a friend’s house to stitch and fix it.”
“I didn’t know he went to his friend’s house to fix the hat for the surgery,” said Mary. When she called him that night he didn’t answer his phone. That missed communication was the start of the argument. When he got home the argument got heated. They grabbed each other. Realizing the fight may have been escalating too far, and not wanting to wake up their kids, they took some space, calmed down and after about an hour they hashed it out. Mary said it was the first time in 15 years it had happened.
In response to question 43, Pedro also told police there was a time when his children were fighting and he snapped a belt at them to get their attention and to get them to stop.
CPS gets involved
“If there’s an inclination that a child might be harmed by violence or exposure to violence, then they’re [police] going to respond or act,” says Alec Stratford, Executive Director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers. The police “have a duty to report in section 23 of the [Children and Family Services] act.”
The duty to report is the reason after his polygraph a handful of police officers and a social worker showed up to their house.
One of the critiques of the duty to report in the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers four-year review is there’s no substantial evidence that indicates a duty to report is an effective way to get better outcomes for families. The report also says there is evidence that strict duty to report requirements create a system of over surveillance of racialized and marginalized families.
Stratford says there are better models than a strict duty to report as mandated by provincial legislation, like mandating a framework for childhood wellbeing coupled with a practice model like family group conferencing. Family group conferencing comes from and has found success in New Zealand. It’s akin to what Mi’kmaw Family and Children’s Services of Nova Scotia have implemented with great success. It’s also something allowed for (but not used) in the provisions of the Nova Scotia Children and Family Services Act. The point of this type of intervention, instead of something like a duty to report, is it helps families make better decisions, as a family, for their family.
According to the Mi’kmaq Family and Children Services website, family group conferencing “is also a voluntary decision-making process which can help to avoid the need for court involvement.”
In a situation like Pedro’s, the police acted – correctly – as though Pedro could be a threat to his family. But following that initial response, when it was determined there was no threat, there was no need to aggressively pursue the criminal charges as they did. There’s also no good way for CPS to backtrack from initiating the administrative response mandated by a strict duty to report, even if the initial assessment is wrong. And the follow-through from that initial decision could, and in this case did, have huge reverberations with massive negative consequences for the family caught up in the system.
Committee Trawler asked for an interview about implementing alternate programs or adding flexibility to the duty to report requirement but Minister of Community Services Kelly Regan was unavailable for an interview. Committee Trawler did receive an emailed statement that reads: “Case decisions are always made based on the best interests of the child involved and the assessment of risk in each individual situation. Our priority is to ensure the child and family receive the best support possible, and we know that families and communities play a critical role in the protection, creation of culturally appropriate case plans and the facilitation of services tailored to the unique needs of the child and family.”
Which in this case emphatically did not happen.
The statement continues: “Family group conferencing/conferencing on child protection matters happens at a variety of stages within the child welfare continuum and is tailored to the unique needs of the child and family. During each stage, there is flexibility to change the current case plan with involvement of all parties to the case plan. For example, if a new family member comes forward and presents a plan to care for a child, this information would be reviewed and assessed, and the plan may be adjusted for the well being of child and family.”
This is not actually family group conferencing. Family group conferencing involves trained facilitators, oversight, and a structured process.
Pedro slept on his friend’s couch when he was ordered out of his home. It’s a small red couch, just enough room to fit his body. The couch is small enough that changing between the two semi-comfortable positions is a deliberate ordeal, no good way to do it. He helped pay his friend’s rent when he was sleeping there, while still maintaining rent at home.
Sleeping on that couch he was forced to miss Christmas, New Years, his daughter’s birthday in the winter, and his son’s birthday in the spring.
As part of this procedural nightmare, Mary was also charged. It’s impossible to know for sure, but one of two things likely happened for her to be charged: 1) Since Pedro technically confessed to a crime in his polygraph interview – because polygraph interviews are considered an official statement in the legal system – and because Mary was involved in the ‘crime’ – she was also charged as a result. Or 2) In conversation with a social worker Mary plugged an idiom for being angry from her primary language into a translation app. And the direct translation, without the cultural context or a translator to explain the idiom, was perceived as a threat of violence.
What is known is that Pedro was removed from his home on Christmas Eve, and according to court documents was charged with assault and threatening his children with a weapon in late January. Mary was charged with domestic assault in late March. All charges were withdrawn by the Crown shortly after their respective court appearances. When asked if the charges were withdrawn because they were obtained via polygraph, Director of Strategic Communication for the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service Chris Hansen said in an email “when a matter doesn’t proceed we never get into the details of the case.”
In the preamble to the Children and Family Services Act, it outlines, broadly, that children need to be protected, and specifically says “social services are essential to prevent or alleviate the social and related economic problems of individuals and families.”
But in this case specifically, the social services provided broke up a functional family unit, added a second rent payment, decreased the earning potential of one parent, actively denied the other parent a job, took a father away from his kids on Christmas Eve, and made him miss Christmas, New Years and two of his children’s birthdays. What social and related economic problems did this intervention prevent or alleviate? How many did it cause or exacerbate?
Insult to injury
It’s hard, really, to quantify just how badly Pedro and his family have been mercilessly flogged by this process. And this ordeal is far from over for them.
Mary had applied for a half-dozen jobs that required a police background check and received an offer for some of them, conditional on a clean background check. But because she had been charged her background check didn’t come back clean and she didn’t get any of the jobs as a result. The hiring manager for one of the jobs said as soon as the charges were withdrawn Mary would be hired. A month and a half, and one letter from a lawyer explaining the charges have been dropped later, and she’s still unemployed.
Pedro on the other hand has been trying to pick up a second job since this ordeal has increased their monthly bills. But because of his ‘criminal record,’ he can’t even get a second job with Doordash or SkipTheDishes.
Pedro and Mary moved their family to Canada for a better life. To set their kids up for a good life. They are currently in the process of applying to become Canadian citizens and it will cost them at least $657.77 each to clear their criminal record.
Wait a second, you might be thinking, weren’t their charges withdrawn? Why do they even have a criminal record? Good question. Mike Scott, a criminal defence lawyer at Patterson Law, explained that when someone is charged it gets put on to their record. When a charge is withdrawn it’s supposed to be taken off that person’s criminal record so there’s no lasting negative consequence for not being guilty of committing a crime.
However, the paperwork for charges to be withdrawn has to be done by the local police forces. And Halifax Regional Police have a years-long disposition backlog. Even though their records should be clear today, it’s impossible to know if Pedro and Mary’s record will actually be clear if checked. Even if police indicate charges are withdrawn in their databases, there’s no way to ensure they actually erased that information. The only way to compel police to absolutely clear a criminal record of things that shouldn’t be there is to receive a pardon.
For Pedro and Mary to get their citizenship they will have to pay for a pardon to make sure the police have done their job as required by the Criminal Records Act. They’ll have to do this at a time when neither of them can find work (or additional work) because of those criminal charges. The charges, as a reminder, stem from a polygraph that was required because a floating custodian might have to clean HRP facilities.
And to add a little cherry on top of a flaming dumpster fire of systemic failures there is, amazingly, still more. In this year’s budget process the police asked for an extra $85,500 to hire someone to fix the backlog they’ve caused. Also this year, the HRP’s mounted unit’s operational costs decreased, freeing up $117,100 of the $88.9 million budget. The HRP was unwilling or unable to use $85,500 of that freed up money on a court disposition clerk.
Getting back to normal
Pedro’s back home now, but he and his wife are still required to take counselling and parenting courses. Mary says some of the parenting course material is useful. She says it’s showing her she’s on the right path with her parenting and giving her some useful strategies. She’s less keen on the counselling; “they’re just asking what’s going on with Pedro, but they don’t give any advice.”
Some of the parenting courses are insultingly patronizing, like teaching families how to budget, regardless of if there are other circumstances causing financial hardship. Like having a criminal record for withdrawn charges. Or having to take time off work, or finding childcare, to attend a parenting course to learn about budgeting.
There’s an extremely inappropriate slang term in the Canadian Forces which is defined as “any punishment or hardship high in intensity, and long in duration. Also used when the punishment or hardship is a structured component of the activity.” There doesn’t seem to be a more fitting definition for what has happened to Pedro and his family.
In the name of helping, the various levels of bureaucracy and government, through either incompetence, inflexibility, or malice, have absolutely, completely, and utterly failed the people they were supposed to serve and protect. While it’s true that Pedro may have hit the absolute worst case scenario jackpot, one of the most damning indictments of this system is that this story is not in any way unique or uncommon. This is the result of a system working exactly as designed.
“When they separated us, the kids were given the idea that we’d be a broken family,” says Mary. But with her family back together she maintains a positive view of their ordeal. After “what happened to us, we appreciate what we have right now.”
A former Naval Officer turned journalist, Matt Stickland is committed to empowering his community to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make their city a better place.
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