UdeS professor breaks down reforms to youth protection law

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Hearings into Bill 15, the Legault government’s wide-ranging reform of youth protection legislation, wrapped up this past week. The bill, a version of which was first tabled in December by associate health and social services minister Lionel Carmant, aims to carry out an in-depth reform of existing child protection law by “placing the interest of the child above that of the biological family,” Premier François Legault has said.

The proposed law was tabled in the wake of a scathing coroner’s inquest into the death of the “Granby girl,” a seven-year-old victim of child abuse who was killed in 2019. It aims to “affirm that the interest of the child is a primordial concern,” relax certain confidentiality rules that prevent the sharing of information about children at risk of abuse, confers additional responsibilities on the provincial director of youth protection, adds additional support measures for young adults leaving care, and makes some changes to courtroom procedures involving child custody, including “the systematic representation of children by a lawyer.”

Certain bloggers have interpreted the law to mean that the Legault government wants to remove the concept of parental primacy, a rumour that has found its way to signs seen at the recent protests against vaccine mandates in Ottawa. Montreal Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji told La Presse that he had received “more than 1,000 emails in one week” from parents concerned about the bill. The term “parental primacy” is not mentioned in the text of the bill.

Carmen Lavallée, a family law expert and titular professor of law at Université de Sherbrooke, says the proposed law does not aim to make it easier for the state to take children away from their biological parents when there is no immediate threat to their safety.

“The objective of the child protection law is not to take kids from their families – it is to end unsafe situations laid out in article 38 of the Youth Protection Act, where the safety or the development of the child is compromised,” she says. According to the Youth Protection Act, those circumstances include abandonment; neglect; physical, sexual or psychological abuse and severe behavioural problems which the parents or current guardians are unwilling or unable to address. “Bill 15 does not expand the remit of the department of youth protection” beyond those cases, she says. “What Carmant has said is that once a child’s safety has been compromised, we don’t want to keep that child in an unsafe environment.’

Lavallée says the two most significant changes in the bill are the relaxing of confidentiality rules “which will make it easier to share information [about suspected child abuse] between schools and youth protection workers, for example” and an increased emphasis on the interest of the child, a concept for which “there is no consensus definition, but safety and stability are important.”

“The state is not just going to swoop in and take people’s kids away in the name of the interest of the child,” she says. “I know that idea has been floating around on social media…the interest of the child is the priority, but if the parents are exercising their authority in a way that the child’s safety and development are not compromised, then there’s no problem.”

Lavallée clarified that vaccine hesitancy on the part of the parents, in and of itself, is not a valid reason for the state to question a child’s custody arrangement. “Public health could make vaccination obligatory, but it isn’t obligatory,” she says. “If two parents agree not to have their child vaccinated, there’s no reason for the [department of youth protection] to intervene. There are cases that have ended up in court when two parents have disagreed about whether to have their child vaccinated, but those court cases have nothing to do with the department of youth protection.”

The health and social services commission of the National Assembly is expected to begin detailed study of the bill on Feb. 22.

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