Our children deserve better: Reflections on how the system failed Abdoul Abdi













by Kate Matheson (RSW, NSCSW Councillor) & Alec Stratford (NSCSW Registrar/Executive Director)


In Nova Scotia, and across Canada, those who receive social services are most aware that too often those services operate in isolation from each other.

Our country has experienced the neglectful application of Jordan’s Principle with devastating results for Indigenous families. For Abdoul Abdi, this gap in services could mean a permanent separation from his family and loved ones.

As you may know, Abdi came to Nova Scotia with family as a six-year-old boy and he and his sister were soon after removed from the care of their Aunts and placed in the province’s care. He remained in care throughout his youth and shared that he was placed over 30 times, with abuse and neglect an all too common thread over those years.

In this interview with CBC’s The National, Abdi explains how this manifested in his adult life saying, “criminal law and children in care go hand in hand”. Abdi describes how conflict in group homes often leads to police involvement and this experience becomes normalized for kids in care. This is a stark reality that must stand out to us as a reality that is unacceptable. Abdi faced the consequences of his actions and rather than being given the chance to demonstrate how he has changed, the federal government is acting to deport him.

Abdi broke the law, admitted his guilt, and accepted his consequence – however, as social workers we know that his worth isn’t predicated on “paying his dues.” He is entitled to the inherent rights and dignities of all Canadians. As a young man, Abdi didn’t know his status in this country – but too often he also didn’t know where he would sleep or how he would eat. He was a child in our care and we failed him.

We failed him by neglecting to support his return to his family and we failed him by neglecting his precarious citizenship status. Now that he’s served his time, we will fail him once again if he is sent to a country he does not know. A country that our government has also determined is unsafe.

Rebecca Bromwich refers to the “cradle-to-incarceration continuum” – “a major problem precipitating a disproportion of vulnerable, poor, indigenous and racialized youths from state care into the criminal justice system, and finally into prison.” (From the National Magazine, April 2017). Bromwich advocates for a large-scale reform of child welfare regulation across Canada to interrupt this continuum. Abdi’s citizenship status is an additional layer of complexity.

Premier Stephen McNeil has ordered a review of the Department of Community Services (DCS) policies on migrant children in care – and that’s important.

But what about Abdoul Abdi? What about other adults who may be in this position? We know that there are others, we know that there have been and there will be more. As social workers, how can we ensure that those in care are not subject to this systemic neglect?

Last week the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Indigenous Services, held an emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare, declaring that “the current situation resembles the horrors of Canada’s residential school system that forcibly removed young Indigenous people from their families and communities.” Child welfare representatives from all provinces and indigenous stakeholders came together to discuss the problem. At that meeting our colleague Cindy Blackstock noted that we have a solution that was written in a federal report on child welfare 51 years ago:


 “The provision of child and family welfare services shouldn’t be restricted to the narrow definition of investigating allegations or evidence of neglect of children, but recognition to the prevention of families’ deterioration and professional services given to strengthen and maintain family life.” 

We have consistently failed as a province to truly understand the structural issues that impact child welfare. For instance, the additional stressors of income and food insecurity, the continued colonial and racists bias that we have been conditioned to hold, and our continued lack of understanding of trauma are embedded structural issues that profoundly impact the safety of children. This situation becomes compounded more by increasing inequality which leaves the concerns of the oppressed to go unnoticed. This erodes trust, increases anxiety and illness for all which has a lasting impact on a range of social issues.

In NS, amendments to the Child and Family Service Act were aimed at providing early intervention to support families. What was missing in the analysis leading to the changes in the Act was an examination of the preventative tools required for early intervention to be successful.

It needs a paradigm shift.

To achieve this shift, we must continue to engage Nova Scotians in a dialogue that calls out our current political economy. We must take action that challenges us to think beyond the individual and towards the common good. We must ask ourselves if our systems disproportionately push vulnerable, poor, indigenous and racialized youths from state care into the criminal justice system, and finally into prison, then who are these systems serving. Surely, it cannot be the individual, nor can it be in the common interests given the ethical tensions embedded and of course the overwhelming cost of this approach.

To keep our children safe, we must shift our thinking and our priorities. Nova Scotians have the resources and the tools to support and strengthen families in their homes. What we need is the political will to act.

Questions or comments? Add your comments and join the conversation below.

Kate Matheson is a Registered Social Worker with experience in health care, criminal justice advocacy, research, and community non-profits. Kate’s passion for social justice started in the food and beverage industry, and has expanded with each opportunity in education and employment. Kate is passionate about social justice and is currently inspired by her role on NSCSW Council and with the Council’s Candidacy Program Committee.

Alec Stratford is the NSCSW’s Executive Director/Registrar. He has worked as a child protection social worker, school support counselor, community organizer wand as a sessional instructor. Alec has a passion and dedication for community development and believes that engaged informed communities can lead to transformative change. Alec brings a wealth of knowledge on adult and experiential learning and its connection to social change.

5 thoughts on “Our children deserve better: Reflections on how the system failed Abdoul Abdi

  1. As a child protection social worker for the last 17 years I am schocked and truely disappointed in the NSCSW. The College clearly does not represent or support social workers in the field of child welfare. I find it irresponsible to make such sweeping statements about my work with only having a fraction of the facts. This is the second time this year that the College has offended child protection workers, and it is only February! How do you know we “failed Abdul Abdi?” You don’t have the facts and the Agency is not permitted to provide them. These stories are always one sided, and you should know better! This is not ok!

  2. Ruth, thank you for taking the time to respond. I am sorry if you felt attacked or put down by the blog post. The intent of our advocacy is to work in solidarity with our child protection colleagues to address the major flaws in the “system” in order to better protect the public. We have continued to engage our colleagues in child protection and have heard the heartbreaking stories of the work pressures that child protection workers face and the impact on the public. Our goal is to call attention to the system and the structures that are in place, not the social workers who are working extraordinarily hard in impossible situations, with little resources, tools, and support. What the NSCSW has continued to point too is that “we” (which is all Nova Scotians) have failed our children. As Nova Scotians, we have not resourced the system properly and have not looked at the structures that impact overall child and family wellness. Our goal is to raise a critical discourse with Nova Scotians in order to pressure the government to make the needed changes so that the system keeps children safe. As we have met and talked with our colleagues in child protection this is the narrative that they have shared with us as well, that the system is not working and needs to be changed.

  3. It is very sad when an agency, who holds the best interest of the child as its primary focus, is yet again, generalized as creating more problems than solutions. When the government formed a committee to review adding PTSD to the worker’s compensation act, in relation to first responders, they outlined occupations like police, nurses, firefighters and EHS. With no mention to the work or role of social workers, I requested that to be reviewed by the committee. I was invited to testify before the house of assembly, along with the president of the NSGEU and the Nurse’s union. I testified to the difficult role it is to do not just protection, but social work in schools, hospitals, prisons and the community. I was joined in with both union presidents to have social workers named in the act. I will note, not one member of the college board attended, advocated, or lobbied for the profession at this public hearing. I also was interviewed by all the local news media to again, share the need for added awareness to the role social workers play the in ns society and how it affects the practitioners. Even though this was aired on multiple networks, it was not given any attention by the college in days following the hearing or the comments shared by one of its members to the province. I was pleased when the house of assembly shared that based on the testimony offered to them, they are putting forward a request to add the occupation of social workers to the list of first responders. I share all this not to self promote, because I would have remained silent on this issue, as it was nearly 2 months ago. After comparing the lack of support to advocate for protection workers by the college, to thier readiness to speak down to a large collection of thier members in this recent post, I can’t help but speak out.

    Before practicing social work, I worked for many years in Public Prosecution, dealing directly with youth court files, that are not available for the college to review, that speak very differently to the version of events that may directly address this youth. I can never disclose any information from a youth court matter, but I would agree with Ruth’s position that the college should wait till the review by the province is complete and also when all the facts are available, before making such strong statements. I am always happy when the college takes a position to advocate for change, but is it only able to do so by tearing down the hard work of others?

  4. Hi Micah, I am so happy that you and the union were able to advocate for this coverage. The College was not requested to speak at the hearing. However, we wrote several letters to both the Minister of Advanced Education and Labour and Community Services asking for this coverage. In addition, we have been working with the CASW to ensure that the federal bill on PTSD has social workers named in it. I know that Advanced Education and Labour has not completed their consultations yet but they have agreed to consult with the NSCSW on the regulations before they are developed. Our goal is to ensure that social workers are named in regulations.

    The position that the College has taken is that the “system” needs to change. That socials workers need the tools and most of all supports to succeed at keeping children safe. I certainly will continue to listen to members and the public who have stated this point and will be conscious that it remains focused on the systems in place, not the workers who we have noted at every turn have been working to hold the system together with everything they can give.

    Thanks for your courage to write in and share your point in on this matter.

  5. Thank you Alex for taking the time to provide feedback. I will also admit I don’t have privy to all the actions the college is doing behind the scenes and am happy to hear what has been done, and continues to be addressed by the college to better the profession.

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