Nerves of Steele

Last week, we reported Ted Hughes wouldn't be releasing the public submissions made to his B.C. Children and Youth Review. The reason: according to review executive director Maureen Nicholls "there was some sense of unease (by social service agencies) in terms of the ministry knowing" their views. But special needs advocate Dawn Steele isn't afraid of publicizing her concerns.

Ms. Steele's submission notes community living activists - those who speak up for the developmentally disabled. - have "organized and communicated concerns to the Ministry, the public and politicians more effectively" than those concerned about child protection. As a result, British Columbia's child protection system hasn't received the attention or funding it deserves from government.

Ms. Steele, who criticizes plans to regionalize child protection, also notes "the reform process has politicized the bureaucracy, rewarding those who put political agendas & considerations foremost and punishing those who insist on putting children and families first." And she calls for the establishment of an independent watchdog to monitor that system. The following is a complete copy of her submission.

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December 17, 2005

BC Children & Youth Review
Attn: Ted Hughes, QC

Dear Mr. Hughes,

Thanks for the opportunity to comment. As parent of a child with special needs, I've volunteered extensively for six years with formal and ad hoc advocacy groups re services for children and youth with special needs, community living and MCFD child/youth services in general. As such, I've engaged extensively with other parents, advocates, service providers and MCFD staff. I've provided many submissions and met with the MCFD Minister, Deputy Minister and MLAs from both sides re transformation and actual services. My comments focus on advocacy, performance monitoring, transformation, and improving services to children and youth, mostly from the perspective of special needs.

Advocacy

MCFD's community living/special needs side has traditionally had a far stronger base of family advocacy. We've organized and communicated concerns to the Ministry, the public and politicians more effectively than families on the child protection side, and we've engaged far more in ongoing reforms. This relates to having the means and clout to be heard, but creates a squeaky wheel syndrome and inequities (both within our own sector and vis a vis kids on the child protection side).

*If the onus for advocacy falls primarily on families, as it does now, political reality means those who most need help will often be last in line to get it.

*Under the current administration, the lack of strong advocacy supports for families who most need it has skewed transformation towards solutions such as community governance, individualized funding, flat rate autism funding (i.e. regardless of need). All are less helpful for families who are poorer, ESL, less educated, single parents or who can't contribute spare time and resources to get the best results.

*Deep cuts, bitter disagreement over restructuring, and the Ministry's failure to respond to input and advocacy has severely fractured & demoralized families and advocates on the special needs/adult community living side.

*Once-strong advocacy networks are barely hanging on. Over 7,000 kids with special needs are on waiting lists for MCFD services. That's likely just the tip of the iceberg. Many families no longer even request services they know will be denied indefinitely.

Whatever the shortcomings of predecessors, the Child & Youth Officer has failed to effectively advocate for individuals and for children with special needs in general. The agenda and interests of political leaders have consistently trumped MCFD's mandate to serve children and youth. Effective advocacy requires an office that is independent, politically neutral, sets its own agenda, is adequately resourced and reports to the public, though I'm no expert on how specifically one assures this. Families need effective, easily accessible mechanisms when their kids are denied reasonable, timely services. We also need someone who can paint the bigger picture effectively to guide ongoing system improvement.

Performance monitoring

The failure of performance monitoring - indeed, much of the overall problem - has a lot to do with the lack of an effective Opposition until recently. Small problems were allowed to become endemic, piling up into crises. Parents like me tried to fill the gap, spending many, many hours trying to provide input, to access and share information and enlist media attention. That experience suggests you shouldn't count on families, the media or "community" governance as watchdogs. Legislative oversight and direct Ministerial accountability isn't perfect but it works and the past few years have been anomalous. The Auditor General or someone like him should review performance regularly, reporting conclusions & suggestions for improvement publicly, in ways that the media & public can grasp. Sure there are tough judgment calls in child protection. But many of the problems are not as intractable as is often suggested. It comes down to a willingness to invest in kids, which won't happen unless the public clearly understands what's needed, what's not being provided and the human (and future economic) costs of this

Improving services: Transformation

* In the transformation that began in 2001, individuals engaged in planning have also been engaged to carry out jobs that they have in effect written for themselves - e.g. the Child & Youth Officer and key roles in CLBC. I don't know if this is normal in gov't but suggest prohibiting this in further reforms.

* The Child & Youth Officer is now urging regionalization and community governance as the solution for the troubled child protection system. That's a cop out, pure and simple. If the MCFD with all its resources and expertise hasn't solved these problems, then dumping them on local/regional bodies with little experience, expertise or resources will only add to the challenge.

* The reform process has politicized the bureaucracy, rewarding those who put political agendas & considerations foremost and punishing those who insist on putting children and families first. Ministry staff must be judged on how they live up to the mandate, first and foremost.

Improving services: Budget

* The pivotal problem and obvious solution is the one that political leaders are least interested in hearing. They have very effectively declined to hear about it, partly due to ineffective advocacy and political opposition, partly due to moves that have undermined advocacy, partly due to the skills of their "communications" experts and partly because the solution of increasing resources was antithetical to the 2001-05 political agenda of downsizing and fiscal restraint. Political leaders shouldn't be allowed to set up government systems to ensure that they don't hear what they don't want to hear.

* Budget cuts removed vital checks and balances; eroded the ability to respond to needs and encouraged reforms and programs (e.g. Kith & Kin) that were driven more by the need to meet fiscal targets than anything else. Budgets must be restored and supplemented to cover added demand and costs of reform.

* The province should not foist the problems of child protection off on communities because it is unwilling to devote the necessary resources to do a proper job, as was done for community living and kids with special needs. MCFD must demonstrate that it has successfully achieved service reforms and budget stability before any further devolution, as recommended by a series of experts, including Doug Allen's Sage Report. The experts also recommended that any new governance bodies demonstrate their readiness and capability before devolution occurred - something MCFD also ignored with CLBC.

* I seek no personal benefit in recommending this, as we currently receive more than needed via the autism program (Yes, really!).

Services for children and youth with special needs/CLBC

As mentioned, the above expert recommendations were ignored when MCFD devolved responsibility for community living and services for children and youth with special needs to CLBC on July 1, 2005. MCFD also ignored the advice that it should resolve concerns re fragmentation of children's services and that CLBC should demonstrate it was capable of serving adults successfully before any children's services were devolved. An internal audit by the Comptroller General in June 2005 that assessed readiness for the July 1 devolution acknowledged that none of this had been done. In effect, it was acknowledged, in that report and elsewhere, that all key issues remained unsolved and that CLBC may not be fully ready to carry out its responsibilities for years. This raises grave concerns for the welfare and safety of the children, youth, adults and families that now rely on this agency.

I therefore urge that you recommend the pulling back of all services for children and youth with special needs/developmental disabilities until CLBC has achieved budget stability, completed service reforms and proved that it is both fully operational and capable of adequately serving adults to the satisfaction of independent experts and/or a non-partisan, multi-stakeholder committee.

This is not exhaustive or particularly carefully thought-out, just a quick summary of key issues/ concerns that come to mind in this context, based on my experiences with MCFD. Best of luck with your task and feel free to follow up if you have questions.

Sincerely,

Dawn Steele

1 Comment

The lady brought forward her comments for all to read. Good for her, but maybe others are concerned if they do the same.

Ex Judge Hughes knows his stuff, and after going through everthing sent to him will no doubt make a sensible report. I figure is something needs being reported verbatim he will get permission from the folks to make it public. But his findings are most important so we all look forward to that report

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