When words fail

"Wow!" That was the audible and accidental reaction from one journalist listening-in as children and youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond raised significant concerns about child welfare practices in northern British Columbia. Speaking at a news conference, Ms. Turpel-Lafond summarized the results of her most recent investigation which found "an inability on the part of the Ministy to learn" lessons from the deaths of children. In fact, according to the representative, recent proposed changes to the way those deaths are reviewed, do "not demonstrate enough detail to serve the interests of public accountability" and are "quite possibly a step backward in terms of defining when to conduct" such inquiries. Her investigation also found work to improve child welfare practices in the north "is not yet in hand." And Ms. Turpel-Lafond told reporters "the standard of practice has not appreciably improved" since 1995. But that wasn't the only news being made as a result of the representative's review.

* During her news conference, Ms. Turpel-Lafond parlayed when questioned why the ministry is apparently resisting some of her past recommendations - as well as those made by Ted Hughes in his independent review of British Columbia's child protection system. And she gave this careful response when asked how senior bureaucrats have responded to her most recent investigation: "In think that the reaction is an ongoing process...I certainly am of the view that I want to support them to succeed. And they have enormous responsibility. But I also want to support them to pay attention to the front-line of the system." That suggests a continued disagreement between the practical Ms. Turpel-Lafond and deputy minister Lesley du Toit - who seems to favour a more cerebal approach to reforming that system.

* As in past reports, Ms. Turpel-Lafond critized the ministry's quality assurance system. According to the child and youth representative, the ministry "cannot speak with specificity or confidence about the outcomes achieves in relation to children it is serving or in its care. Nor can it provide the public with adequate assurance as to the beneficial impact of the interventions it undertakes directly or funds at the community level." While this is undoubtably the case, it must also be remembered the children and youth representative has an institutional interest in drawing attention to such matters. After all, without such qualitative measures, Ms. Turpel-Lafond's watchdog work is made more difficult.

* Among Ms. Turpel-Lafond's most troubling findings was the fact focus groups with frontline workers have suggested "confusion and uncertainty as to where practice is going, particularly with child safety." Asked to elaborate, the representative said, "The workers have been asked to embrace all these various different shifts. They've also faced very significant human resource challenges - although those appear to be overcome now. But the fundamental concern is they are not sure what the practice model is. The B.C. risk assessment model was adopted after the Gove Report. It has been in place and it has had limited uptake. And there's been real challenges with it. And the workers don't appear to find it very helpful to do their work. And yet that risk assessment model hasn't been evaluated and replaced with another tool."


Now I can see why there was reluctance on the part of the committee's Liberal Chair to allow the release of this report.

This is not a matter of "accidents will happen" or of blaming parents or communities or front line workers. It's about the Ministry accepting that there was a societal responsibility to intervene to assure the safety of children and then failing to meet its own standards - repeatedly - with disastrous consequences.

What's really worrying is the systemic nature of the problem. Once again it's a picture of a Ministry that repeatedly fails to heed its own lessons or the advice of its own experts. It's about ideology repeatedly trumping an evidence-based approach. And it seems to point quite clearly at a failure of leadership.

Ultimately it's about hypocrisy. We cannot on one hand believe that society has a responsibility to intervene to protect children whom we see to be at risk and then turn around and deny the resources and structures to ensure this will happen (and worse still to stand in the way of those seeking to strengthen accountability and effect positive change).

But that's exactly the contorted mandate that's handed down from the top - a whole bunch of talk about how much we value children and communities and dedicated front-line staff, backed by a high-powered PR machine to deflect attention from the reality that we don't really value any of this enough to put our money where our mouth is.

That three of the four were Aboriginal kids is just a further sad commentary on just how wrong it is on so many levels.

Thanks to the Representative for an excellent analysis, however it should be recognized that this kind of systemic negligence is occurring throughout the province. It is ideologically driven, based on the neo-conservative agenda of the Liberals.

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