5 Nov 2010

Family law conference told religious minorities may be intimidated by child welfare systems

The Chronicle Herald - Halifax, Canada August 26, 2009

Agencies might face culture clash

By MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE | Chronicle Herald Reporter

The child protection system in western nations sometimes clashes with religious and cultural minorities, a family law conference in Halifax heard Tuesday.

Australian lawyer Mark Woods said not one of the world’s major religions sanctions child abuse.

But that doesn’t mean parents from minorities in such countries as Canada and Australia are going to always act amicably with child welfare agencies and the justice system, elements of society that, to them, can seem foreign and intimidating.

"I take it as a given that I don’t need to argue that there is hostility to western child protection systems by a number of cultural and religious minorities within the jurisdiction served by those particular protection systems," he told delegates at the fifth World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights.

During a seminar covering religion and children’s cases, Mr. Woods said bridging the cultural gap in western countries would be easier if professionals, such as doctors who are compelled to report child abuse to the authorities, were exposed more often to people of diverse backgrounds.

"The reality is that lots of medical graduates have never met a Muslim at all, never met a Sikh, never met a Sunni," he said.

The international symposium brought together judges,lawyers, legislators, doctors, policy makers and others to share their stories and insights about protecting children caught in family law cases.

Mr. Woods said UNESCO reports some 250 million youngsters worldwide "suffer child abuse in the form of slavery, bondage, serfdom . . . child pornography, prostitution and yes, female genital mutilation."

In Canada, "the biggest legal controversies" involving child protection and religion have been well-publicized disputes involving Jehovah’s Witness families and their views on blood transfusion, a Queen’s University law professor said in an interview.

Nicholas Bala said those cases usually involve older children, when kids start to voice their own views.

"If the child is very young, and obviously the child is not able to express any views at all, the legal position is very clear," he said. For instance, a toddler who needs a life-saving blood transfusion ends up a ward of the state and gets the transfusion.

"The issue starts to rise as the child becomes older and starts to articulate religious views, of seemingly his or her own, that the courts have to struggle with" in determining how much weight will be given to that child’s wishes about receiving medical treatment, Mr. Bala said.

Most Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions since they interpret the Bible literally, which forbids the consumption of blood.

Mr. Bala said much of the litigation in Canada has involved kids from these families aged 12 to 16.

The conference, at the World Trade and Convention Centre, wraps up today.

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