The radical roots of Mother’s Day were embraced in Toronto last Sunday by a group calling for a stronger social safety net and reforms to the allowable actions of the Children’s Aid Society in Ontario.

Take Back Mother’s Day, a group that calls for a return to the origins of the holiday (Mother’s Day was originally created by war-protesting mothers in 1872), rallied at a Children’s Aid Society office to demand an increase in social assistance rates, more day-care spaces and affordable housing.

They also spoke out against the discrimination adult entertainment workers and disabled mothers face when trying to keep their children when the CAS intervenes.

Standing on a street corner in front of a small group of mothers and supporters, one unidentified woman told the crowd about her two children in foster care, “I felt like shit this morning. People called to say ‘happy mother’s day,’ but it doesn’t feel like mother’s day. I’ve been fighting for eight years for my children … It eats me away.”

Women took turns at the megaphone, each telling her story with poverty, discrimination and the ever-present threat of Children’s Aid either taking their children away, or adopting them to other families.

Many of the mothers who spoke no longer had custody of some or all of their children and felt helpless in getting them back.

Take Back Mother’s Day was not a day against the CAS — most of the speakers agreed that there are some children who are safer in foster care — but rather against what factors are used to take children from their parents.

Abuse and neglect are certainly factors for CAS intervention, but the Take Back Mother’s Day organizers say that there are other factors relating to family poverty, addictions, disabilities and employment that lead to children being taken from their families unfairly.

For the most part, the CAS agrees with the concerns of the mothers: affordable housing in Toronto is scarce and social assistance rates make providing for children extremely difficult.

But, they say that no child has ever been taken from a parent because she is a sex trade worker or because of a disability, unless those things impede the parent’s ability to look after her child.

“We don’t have any policy related to [sex workers],” says David Fleming, assistant director of intake at CAS Toronto.

Fleming has been working with the CAS for 25 years and says he can remember only one child taken into protective custody regarding the mother’s work in the sex trade. He says CAS got involved not because the mother was a sex worker, but because she would leave her young child alone at night while she worked.

“Whether she’s shopping for groceries or an exotic dancer, the child’s alone,” and that’s why the CAS stepped in, Fleming says.

While there is disagreement over how invasive CAS is to families (the organizers of Take Back Mother’s Day still maintain that many children are taken from their mothers without just cause), the message of the rally was that families are hurting because of a misconceived notion of our social safety net.

Abuse is not the only reason children can’t live at home; sometimes there isn’t a house to live in.

According to a report by the CAS in 2000, housing was a factor in 20.7 per cent of cases where children were taken into care.

The report also states, “The number of children admitted to care where housing was a factor increased by about 60 per cent over the eight-year period — from about 290 children in 1992 to about 450 in 2000.”

In 2003, there were 73,697 households on the social housing waiting list in Toronto.

“I fell on hard times, on welfare, and couldn’t afford rent,” says Wendy, an organizer of the rally, whose child is in foster care.

“My only crime was poverty.”