In the fall of 2021, Nathaniel Lowbeer-Lewis and Racquel Smith’s son was going to a community daycare near their home in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.
He seemed to be integrating well and Smith said the staff’s feedback about him was positive.
So it came as a surprise when the centre called her in for a meeting last November to discuss the three-year-old’s “troubling behaviour.”
At first, Smith thought it might be about strong language, as he’d recently discovered the F-word.
But at the meeting, Smith was told he had been making increasingly violent and graphic comments. Until this point, Smith said no one had raised any concerns with their family.
Smith told the daycare staff her son could be quite dramatic. He’d also been telling far-fetched 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 he’d spent time with his older boy cousins that summer. She assured them she and her husband would keep a closer eye on what he might be picking up from TV shows.
But at the end of the meeting, Smith was told the daycare had reported them to Quebec’s youth protection services, known in French as the DPJ.
“I nearly fell off my chair,” Smith recalled. “I was so shocked.”
Smith quickly got her son from his 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 reported, the powers the department of youth protection have are extremely scary,” said Lowbeer-Lewis. “They have the right to come in and take your children based on any report.”
“You never know if someone is going to barge in.”
The couple immediately withdrew their son from Le Carrefour des Petits Soleils. Lowbeer-Lewis met with the director a few days later.
She told him a trainee in his son’s class came to her with concerns in mid-October and had then documented what the little boy was saying over the next six weeks.
The director told him she had complete confidence in her employees and the centre had followed its protocol.
“Then she said, ‘If you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about,'” said Lowbeer-Lewis.
Following months of uncertainty and distress, a social worker with the local health authority deemed the concerns to be unfounded and the case was closed this spring.
But that hasn’t erased the pain or stress of being flagged in the first place. Their family had used the centre’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 the daycare, they also began to question whether they were judged differently. They have asked the board to review its reporting policies and adopt better training around unconscious bias.
WATCH | Mother describes shock of being reported to youth protection services:
Le Carrefour 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 may have been disruptive for the family, but Le Carrefour acted preventively and with the child’s well-being and best interests in mind,” the statement said.
Le Carrefour, which has been in operation for 43 years, said it discussed its concerns about the child — and what approach to take —with professionals at the community health centre (CLSC). It then consulted Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, which serves Montreal’s English-speaking population, and was told to make a report.
The statement didn’t address why Le Carrefour hadn’t been in contact with the parents prior to their discussions with authorities, nor did it answer a question about training staff receive or whether race may have been a factor in how the child’s case was handled.
Black families overrepresented
Smith and Lowbeer-Lewis’ concerns are reflected in research that shows Black families are overrepresented in youth protection in Quebec and beyond.
The rate is particularly high for the province’s English-speaking Black population; they are about five times more likely to be reported than 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 the decision by authorities, whether a daycare worker or a school administrator, tends to be “stronger or heightened when it comes to Black children and Black families because of anti-Black racism.”
“We won’t necessarily give this Black family the benefit of the doubt or we might not feel comfortable addressing or having a conversation with this Black family,” she said in an interview.
Her research was cited in a landmark report last year on the reforms required to fix Quebec’s youth protection system.
An entire chapter was devoted to improving services for racial and cultural minorities and new immigrants. Another focused on the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care.
Before child protection is called in, Boatswain-Kyte believes community organizations that serve those same groups should be called in to work with the family and find out what kind of support they need.
She said they are “in a better position to support families because of the fact that they’re not in this investigative space and role.”
In a statement, the health authority responsible for Batshaw Youth and Family Services said it is “very sensitive and fully aware of the overrepresentation of Black communities in the reports we receive at the DPJ.”
“We work closely with several community organizations to implement support services for families and put in place actions to prevent, as much 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 flagged to youth protection last fall as a dispute over her son’s schooling dragged on.
Ismé feels her son, who is Black and has autism, is unfairly treated by his school and was sent home more often because of the colour of his skin.
She said the school called youth protection in October, and she had to meet with an investigator. It took until the new year to deem 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 over the school’s handling of her son’s care.
“I don’t think there’s any words, because when you know you’re giving 100 per cent and this happens for no reason. It was devastating.”
‘Violation of trust’
Smith and Lowbeer-Lewis can empathize with Ismé. They were reported to youth protection in November and only met with a social worker in mid-February. The case was closed a few weeks later.
“It’s clogging the system and depriving people who really need the help,” said Smith, who quit her job to look after her son full time.
She admits the whole experience has made her more self-conscious. Even something like her sons arguing in the backyard has made her worried about what people may think.
She has had a hard time squaring the positive feedback staff were giving, knowing they were building a different narrative behind the scenes.
“It felt like a complete violation of trust,” said Smith.
For Lowbeer-Lewis, the experience was eye-opening. In theory, he understood people of colour report being more closely scrutinized by authorities, but until this happened, he had no idea what it felt like.
“There’s this constant level of stress,” said Lowbeer-Lewis. “Is the reason I am being reported because of the colour of my skin, or where I am from, or because of something real?”
“If they are the ones doing the reporting, they should have training that allows them to check these biases for one and then two, look at their protocol,” said Smith.
“From the step where you are worried about a child to where you go to the DPJ, what happens in there?”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.