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COVID-19’s impact on children

Their legal rights are suffering under pandemic restrictions.

Pensive sad boy

Discussion of the impact COVID-19 has had on children usually centres around online learning, or how to safely fill their need for both physical and social activity.

An update to the report that the CBA’s Child and Youth Law Section sent to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in February provides an interesting snapshot of the legal impact the pandemic has had on some of Canada’s most vulnerable.

Delayed legislation, pro forma adjournments of court matters, and concerns about parents disregarding custody orders are just some of the concerns mentioned in the update.

“Children experiencing conflict and violence in their homes or other residential settings are more vulnerable because they are less visible in the community,” the Section writes. “The pandemic has also limited their access to support services such as social workers, counsellors and legal representatives, which are only available remotely in some cases.”

Public health restrictions created “significant impediments” to establishing confidential communications between children and legal representation, the Section says, which limits counsel’s ability to adequately assess their interests.

Other impacts from the pandemic include:

  • The private member’s bill to create a Commissioner for Children and Youth died when Parliament was prorogued, and was reintroduced in September; changes to the Divorce Act, which were to come into effect in July, have been deferred until March 2021.
  • Challenges to normal operations of courts, tribunals and the family justice system resulted in lengthy delays in many matters involving children. The suspension of in-person interviews by Immigration Refugee and Citizenship Canada led to undue delays in obtaining the work permits and refugee identification documents needed to secure housing and school registrations, which risked jeopardizing children’s access to shelter and education.
  • Custody/access decisions handed down during COVID established that it is inconsistent with a child’s best interests to interfere with their time with a parent unless there is evidence this contact would be dangerous. Fears that a parent isn’t serious about social distancing was deemed insufficient to curtail parent-child contact.
  • Pro forma adjournments of many court matters have limited the ability to challenge suspensions of in-person contact between children and their family members through the courts, contrary to several articles of the UNCRC and section 7 of the Charter.
  • As of March 31, in-person supervised and unsupervised contact with family members for children in alternative care was suspended in all but three provinces and territories, with some jurisdictions allowing exemptions for extenuating circumstances. Indigenous and Black children, who are over-represented in the child welfare system, are disproportionately affected.
  • Inconsistent territorial and provincial policies can make it difficult for many Indigenous children to maintain contact with their families and cultures – barriers to maintaining family and cultural connections for Indigenous children from rural areas have been exacerbated by travel restrictions
  • An IRB policy makes the presence of children at refugee hearings discretionary, which infringes on children’s right to be heard and increases the risk that children seeking refugee status will face refoulement, exploitation or violence.

The Child and Youth Law Committee is currently conducting a survey as part of its review of the Child Rights Toolkit, which shows lawyers how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child forms part of Canadian law, and how to use the UNCRC to support the rights and wellbeing of children in practice.

Please take a few minutes to complete the survey