Children left in homes judged unsafe

The Campbell administration left vulnerable children in homes it judged unsafe, according to British Columbia's independent child protection watchdog. Public Eye exclusively learned about the controversy in records obtained via a freedom of information request. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says she's launched an unprecedented audit that will investigative this and related matters. But the ministry of children and family development says it's already responding to the children and youth representative's concerns.

At issue: the government's child in home of a relative program, which will service an estimated 4,767 kids in 2008. Under that program - which was transferred from the ministry of housing and social development to the ministry of children and family development last month - parents who can't care for their children can place them in the home of a relative. And that relative will receive financial aid from the government if there's "no evidence of a level of risk to the child."

But Ms. Turpel-Lafond advised the government on July 10, 2008 she's identified "serious child and youth safety concerns" related to the screening process introduced on December 1, 2007 to assess that risk level.

In a three-page letter sent to Lesley du Toit and Cairine MacDonald - the top bureaucrats at the ministry of children and family development and the ministry of housing and social development - Ms. Turpel-Lafond cited four cases where homes have been denied assistance because there was evidence of risk. But the government hadn't taken action to remove the children from those homes.

Among the cases:

* A grandmother was denied assistance because her son - who was "found to have physically abused" the child and had a history of "sexually interfering with another child" - lived in the same home. The grandmother's spouse had also been arrested for drunk driving while a child was in his car. But a social worker found those risks had been "mitigated" and that funding could be "supported." Ms. Turpel-Lafond states "it is not clear what the outcome of this application is" or whether the risk the child "has been addressed." The representative also notes the grandmother was "apparently in receipt of CIHR assistance" for another grandchild "who is also in the home."

* A grandmother was denied assistance because she lived in the same building as the child's stepfather - "who is being investigated for sexually abusing the child." Ms. Turpel-Lafond states the ministry of children and family development's local office "attempted to have that decision overturned, but was not successful in doing so." Since then "some efforts" have been made to support the grandmother. But "it does not appear that the issue of risk to the child is being addressed."

* A grandmother - who had an extensive criminal history - was denied assistance. Her son, who lived in the same home, also had a record. And the home had been the site of a number of violent crimes - including a domestic assault case where an "unregistered and unsecured shotgun was apparently seized from the child's bedroom." Turpel-Lafond states the child's social worker unsuccessfully appeal the denial." And, at "last report," the child remains in the home - despite the risk being "extreme."

* An aunt was denied assistance because her spouse had "several past charges for assault, including sexual assault, sexual interference with a person under 14, and he had been convicted of sexually molesting his daughter." The aunt had also been contacted by the government "with respect to instances of physical abuse." But the child "apparently remains in this home." And it doesn't appear she's being assisted by the ministry of children and family development. Nor does it appear the risks posed to her are being addressed.

As a result, Ms. Turpel-Lafond stressed the need for government to develop a policy that "addresses the risk faced by children left in homes that have been judged unsafe for them." And it is "difficult to understand" why social workers attempted to "over-ride the results of a process intended to reduce risks to vulnerable children."

The government's three-paragraph response to the representative came six days later. The letter stated "a review and evaluation of our experience to date" with the child in home of a relative program is "planned for the end of August."

The government also promised the four cases Ms. Turpel-Lafond identified "will appropriately be reviewed and considered under the Child Family and Community Service Act and the results of those assessments and investigations will be shared with you."

But Ms. Turpel-Lafond told Public Eye she didn't have "adequate resolution" when asked about the present status of those cases.

The representative also said she hasn't heard anything further from the ministry regarding her concerns about children who have been left in unsafe homes.

But the representative says she has written to regional child welfare directors expressing her concern about funding being given to such homes.

"The social worker on the line was saying, "˜Okay, we know there's a failed criminal record check. But we're satisfied it's safe. So let's place a child there under CIHR. So a criminal record check doesn't lead to an ineligibility. It's overridden and the child is placed."

Asked for comment about the representative's concerns, children and family development communications director Kelly Gleeson said in a written statement the four cases referenced by Turpel-Lafond have been investigated. And "in all of these cases the children or youth involved have been found to be safe."

Mr. Gleeson also stressed, "If over the course of the screening processes the ministry becomes aware of any protection concerns related to a family, the ministry will assess those child protection concerns, where necessary conduct an investigation and provide supports as necessary."

Mr. Gleeson added the ministry's review of those processes will be "conducted this fall" and examine "how staff have responded and the extent to which the screening checks have identified child welfare concerns in the homes of relatives applying for CIHR funding."

This isn't the first time concerns have been raised about the child in home of a relative program.

In May 2008, the Times Colonist's Lindsay Kines reported on the case of a four-year old aboriginal girl who had been beaten by her grandmother, who was receiving funding from the program.

The grandmother, who "drank too much, suffered from panic attacks and worked the night shift" received three years probation after pleading guilty to assault causing bodily harm.

Then, in April, Ms. Turpel-Lafond issued a report stating there was an "inadequate assessment of the relative's ability to care" for the four-year old, "incomplete child protection investigations" and "no reassessment of risk completed while the family was receiving ongoing protective services."

The representative says her office is now undertaking an audit of the child in the home of a relative program - the first she's launched since taking office. That audit has been under design since June. The following is a complete of Ms. Turpel-Lafond's aforementioned correspondence, as well as Mr. Gleeson's response.

***

July 10, 2008

Lesley dui Toit
Deputy Minister
Ministry of Children and Family Development
4th Floor, 765 Broughton Street
Victoria BC V8W 1E2

Cairine MacDonald
Deputy Minister
Ministry of Housing and Social Development
7th Floor, 614 Humboldt Street
Victoria BC V8W 1A4

Dear Ms. Du Toit and Ms. MacDonald:

I am writing to advise you that serious child and youth safety concerns are emerging from the implementation of new policies and practices initiated on December 1, 2007 with respect to the Children in the Home of a Relative (CIHR) program.

Today, reports of concerns for the safety of four children, pursuant to Section 14 of the Child, Family and Community Service Act, have been made to the Ministry of Children and Family Development by staff in my office,

These are instances in which applications for CIHR assistance have not been approved because the homes have been judged to present risk to the children, the children have remained in the homes, and it does not appear that the issues of risk, although known, are being addressed. A general description of each of these situations follows.

* A (s. 22) child's grandmother applied for CIHR assistance. She is apparently in receipt of CIHR assistance for a (s. 22) grandson who is also in the home. The review process turned up information that the grandmother's spouse had recently been arrested for driving under the influence (DUI), and that the (s. 22) child was in the car at the time. There was also a history of previous convictions for DUI.

* The applicant's (s. 22) son, also living in the home, was found to have physically abused the (s. 22) and to have a history of sexually interfering with another child. The application was denied. Subsequently, a social worker recorded satisfaction that the risk had been mitigated, and that the CIHR arrangement could be supported. It is not clear what the outcome of this application is. It is also not clear that the risk to the (s. 22) or the (s. 22) child has been addressed, or if the children are safe.

* A (s. 22) girl's grandmother applied for CIHR assistance. The review process resulted in a conclusion that the home was not an appropriate place for the child. It appears that the local MCFD office attempted to have that decision overturned, but was not successful in doing so. Although the grandmother was not approved for assistance, it appears that the child remains in her home, in the same building as her mother and step-father, who is being investigated for sexually abusing the child. Although it appears that some efforts are being made to find day care and perhaps some community services to support the grandmother, it does not appear that the issue of risk to the child is being addressed.

"¢ A (s. 22) girl's aunt applied for CIHR assistance. The screening process resulted in a decision to deny assistance because the home failed to meet screening requirements. The aunt's spouse, living in the home, had several past charges for assault, including sexual assault, sexual interference with a person under 14, and he had been convicted of sexually molesting his daughter. There had also been prior contact with the applicant with respect to instances of physical abuse. The (s. 22) apparently remains in this home, and it does not appear that she is being assisted by MCFD or that the above risks are being addressed.

These circumstances are of great concern. Although the importance of a screening process is highlighted, a more comprehensive policy approach that addresses the risk faced by children left in homes that have been judged unsafe for them. In other words, we have examples here that illustrate that turning down a funding application does not have the effect that is intended by a rigorous screening process. It is also difficult to understand why workers in three of these cases appear to be trying to over-ride the results of a process intended to reduce risks to vulnerable children.

To better understand the issues and their implications for this group of vulnerable children, I will be undertaking a review of CIHR applications from December 1, 2007. I am particularly interested in assessing the implications of the CORNET and MCFD involvement checks on numbers of accepted cases, the services provided and by whom, and the safety and placement of children and youth. A case audit will be an integral component of this review. My staff will be following up to initiate this project.

I will be asking my office to arrange a meeting among us in early September so that we can discuss strategies to address these concerns. This will also provide an opportunity to continue discussion on establishing a process for reporting on critical injuries and deaths of children involved with the CIHR program.

In the meantime, I would appreciate receiving any comments you may have on the issues outlined above.

Sincerely,

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond
Representative for Children and Youth

pc: Honourable Tom Christensen, Minister of Children and Family Development
Honourable Rich Coleman, Minister of Housing and Social Development

***

July 16, 2008

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond
Representative for Children and Youth
Fourth Floor, 1019 Wharf St
Victoria, BC V8W 9J1

Dear Ms. Turpel-Lafond:

We are writing to acknowledge receipt of your July 10, 2008 letter pertaining to the Child in Home of Relative program (CIHR) and the screening function for applicants for CIHR which was implemented in December, 2007.

Over 600 screening assessments have occurred since the practice was initially implemented. A review and evaluation of our experience to date is planned for the end of August. The 4 cases you have identified will appropriately be reviewed and considered under the Child Family and Community Service Act and the results of those assessments and investigations will be shared with you pursuant to section 16(3).

MCFD and MHSD have continued to meet and discuss our common business pertaining to CIHR and these discussions have lead to decisions relating to how best to facilitate overall program responsibility. We look forward to discussing these decisions with your office Thursday, July 17. Should you wish to meet again in September in order to discuss interests of your office in addition to the review and evaluation already planned by MCFD and MHSD, we would be pleased to accommodate your request for a future meeting.

Sincerely,

Mark Sieben
MCFD - Chief Operating Officer

Andrew Wharton
MHSD - Assistant Deputy Minister

pc: Honourable Tom Christensen, Minister of Children and Family Development
Honourable Rich Coleman, Minister of Housing and Social Development
Lesley du Toit, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Children and Families Development
Cairine MacDonald, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Housing & Social Development

***

On July 10th, when the Ministry was advised of concerns related to four specific placements under the Child in the Home of a Relative Program, the Ministry responded and advised that the four cases would be appropriately reviewed.

All four files have been assessed, an investigation has been conducted into each -- and in all of these cases the children or youth involved have been found to be safe.

Anytime the ministry receives a report that a child may be in need of protection, the ministry responds, whether the child is living with his or her parents or an extended family member.

When any placement decision is being contemplated, social workers need to examine a number of factors to determine the best interest for a child, such as attachment and continuity with family and extended family, Aboriginal identity, a child's wishes, and support of school and community.

The CIHR Program will only be administered in cases where a relative or family member chooses to take on the responsibility for caring for a child or youth in their home program. As an example, if a parent has decided that their child should stay with a brother, sister or grandparent, this program provides some financial assistance.

The ministry established a criminal record screening process and a ministry records screening process -- effective, December 2007 -- to identify any ministry involvement involving caregivers that may be of concern. If over the course of the screening processes the ministry becomes aware of any protection concerns related to a family, the ministry will assess those child protection concerns, where necessary conduct an investigation and provide supports as necessary.

More than six hundred screening assessments have occurred since a screening process for new CIHR applicants was implemented.

Work associated with a review and evaluation of the screening process began in August and will be conducted this fall. The review will examine new applicants for the time period between December 2007 and June 2008 and provide information related to barriers and challenges that have emerged, how staff have responded and the extent to which the screening checks have identified child welfare concerns in the homes of relatives applying for CIHR funding.

4 Comments

This is so sad and I just don't get it.

We're supposedly the "best place on earth" and when it comes to the Olympics, convention centres, sports stadiums, ferries, highways, etc - even the flower baskets on every city street - it's nothing but the best, regardless of the cost, because we're "world class".

But when it comes our orphans, our homeless, our school children, our elders, our citizens with mental health or disabilities, our government acts like we're a Third World country that can't afford to maintain even basic safety standards. If successive governments have seen it fit to allow 200,000+ school children to go to school in structurally unsafe schools every day (while upgrading hospitals, dams, firehalls, bridges, the Legislature and the central liquor warehouse), or to leave seniors in conditions the RSPCA wouldn't tolerate, then why indeed would they worry about placing children in unsafe homes.

Remember the BC Liberals' planned budget cuts for MCFD in 2002-03, when they decided it would be OK to proceed with cuts that would leave children exposed to "moderate" sexual abuse? They had to back down when word leaked out, but clearly, the underlying attitudes have not changed!

And with all these successive massive budget surpluses, no one can pretend it's because we can't afford to do better!

Well done Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond!!!

You are a credit to this province. Please keep up the good work, and don't back down or accept their weaselly excuses and replies that say nothing.

We're counting on you.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, you are our only hope to bring integrity, credibility and ethics to these Ministries that are supposed to be protecting the most vulnerable citizens of this province.

Sean - good job. Keep lifting those rocks.

Thank goodness for people like Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond...people of integrity who take their professional responsibility seriously...people of integrity who see their attachment to their job as secondary to the welfare of people they serve - in this case BC's children.

Too bad Premier Campbell appears not as eager to read Ms. Turpel-Lafond's material, as he was to read the scribblings of a "power-hungry" former U.S. Vice-President, whose term in office distinguished itself by its lack of anything useful.

But a note for Dawn Steele - don't for a minute fall for the spurious surpluses supposedly sitting in Victoria's coffers. Any fool can balance the chequing account by running up day-to-day bills on their credit cards; and that is exactly what the Campbell regime has done. It began with the $1.5 billion in 'tax cuts' in 2001, right after they came into office, and has continued ever since. Sounds good to get tax cuts - until you see the amount of interest on the debt, or the day of reckoning arrives and the bills have to be paid.

It would be interesting to see the graph of the provincial debt since, say, 1985.

Good work Sean! Who knows if we'd ever have seen this without your FOI request.

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