The guardian

Standing up for children in trouble is tough work — so why leave Bay Street to do it?

Standing up for children in trouble is tough work — so why leave Bay Street to do it?

Photography by Patrick Struys After graduating from the University of Toronto law school in 2002, Estée Garfin was poised for a thriving career in private practice. She articled at Torys LLP, then moved to Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP, a boutique litigation practice, where she saw more opportunity “to be on her feet in court.”

Two years into the job with LSRSG, however, she wanted a change. “The work was intellectually challenging, but it was a lot of hours,” Garfin, 34, explains. “I eventually wanted to start a family and didn’t think it would be easy to manage the work-life balance.”

What’s more, she says, “if you’re going to be spending that much time involved in your work, and it’s taking you away from spending time with family, it should be something meaningful.”

So when Garfin spotted a posting for a legal counsel position with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto in 2005, she applied.

As one of 21 CAS lawyers, Garfin is in court several times a week and carries about 40 cases at a time. Her clients are CAS social workers; as such she has limited involvement with families until concerns about a child’s welfare are serious enough to necessitate seeking a court order.

At that point Garfin launches a protection application, outlining why the child is in need of protection and recommending an order that’s seen as being in the child’s best interests.

They’re tough cases, like a mother living in a shelter with her two children to escape an abusive partner and father. The children were taken away when it was found that the mother was neglecting her children’s basic needs, the situation made worse by her drug use. Because the children were in care beyond the statutory limit, they were eventually made Crown wards and adopted.

Not all cases have sad endings. The CAS took an infant from her homeless, teenage mother at birth. But after the mother worked with a CAS social worker to get placement and support in a maternity home, the child was returned to her care within a few weeks.

Still, working in a system that can take kids away from parents — abusive or neglectful though they may be — gives Garfin mixed feelings, particularly since she herself became a mother (she has a son, almost four, and an 18-month-old daughter).

“It’s a very tough situation for parents when a child is removed,” Garfin acknowledges. “But ultimately the focus has to be on what’s in the best interest of that child and protecting him or her from harm.

“If you’re able to look at it that way, it helps you keep focused on what needs to be done.”

Garfin says the experience at CAS has helped broaden her perspective as a mother.

“It makes you appreciate how challenging parenting is. I find it hard and I’m privileged — I have support from my husband, our parents and extended family. We have financial resources and had good parenting role models growing up,” she adds. “For people who don’t have those resources and have other challenges such as mental health or substance abuse issues, it makes it that much more difficult to meet their children’s needs.

“When I look at those parents and the situations they face, I think, there but for the grace of God, go I.”

The Lowdown: Estée Garfin
Year of Call: 2003
Current Job: Legal counsel, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto
First Job: Babysitter
Proudest Moment: “Watching my children be kind to each other”
Greatest Frustration: Wait lists for services for families; lack of resources for children’s mental health
Favourite Law Movie: And Justice For All
Personal Style: Classic

This story has been updated from the original version that appeared in the magazine, in which we provided incorrect details regarding the length of time a child can remain in the care of the Children’s Aid Society. This misstep was made during the editing process. Precedent regrets the error.

Photography by Patrick Struys