The province's top children and family development bureaucrat appears to have had a conflicted relationship with British Columbia's independent child protection watchdog. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is the children and youth representative - a post that was created in 2006 to safeguard the child protection system following the tragic death of toddler Sherry Charlie. Lesley du Toit is the deputy minister of the ministry of children and family development - which was criticized by Ms. Turpel-Lafond in November 2007 for being slow to enact reforms. Evidence of the conflict emerges from correspondence exclusively obtained by Public Eye via a freedom of information request. Among the examples:
* In an email sent on October 31, 2007, the deputy informed the representative of her need to "clarify some boundary/role issues." Writing at 6:54 in the evening, Ms. du Toit stated, "I respect and understand your role" and "I would like that respect afforded me."
"I run the ministry and my leadership team run their particular pieces. The role of the RCY (representative for children and youth) is please not (sic) in anyway to impose on these roles." Among her concerns: uninvited staff from the representative's office attempting to attend meetings held by the ministry on "our ongoing and day to day work" - something Ms. du Toit deemed inappropriate.
In response, Ms. Turpel-Lafond stated she wasn't "certain of the circumstances" the deputy was referring to. But, she said, "It would not be my intention to participate in any of your internal meetings except when invited and for the purposes of information sharing."
* On March 26, 2008, Ms. du Toit informed Ms. Turpel-Lafond she has "made every attempt to address" Ms. Turpel-Lafond's "perception" that her ministry was "demonstrating poor cooperation with your office."
But she was troubled the representative's office "did not need or wish" to see materials the ministry had pulled together documenting its progress in meeting the Hughes Review's recommendations. And "after a number of attempts" to provide that information to Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office, the deputy stated her chief operating officer Mark Sieben "walked to your office to hand deliver the binder."
Ms. du Toit also stated she and the representative had "agreed" to hold a regular joint forum. And she appeared concerned about the cancellation of their second such meeting.
But, in her response, Ms. Turpel-Lafond wrote she could "make no sense" of the deputy's concerns, which came "somewhat out of left field for me as no one from the Ministry has attempted to pass me materials and been met with a refusal."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond then stated, "I appreciate you were not pleased" with the representative's November 2007 report criticizing the ministry's progress in meeting the Hughes Review's recommendations. But "it would appear that not having met or discussed this further may have caused you to reach conclusions about information sharing which are erroneous."
Indeed, Ms. Turpel-Lafond expressed concern she and Ms. du Toit hadn't met to discuss the ministry's progress. Nor had she heard anything about the deputy's plans to transform the ministry, despite a commitment to keep the representative "abreast" of those plans.
* On June 29, 2007, Ms. du Toit notified Ms. Turpel-Lafond she had a "serious" concern with wallet-size information cards telling vulnerable children how to contact the representative's office. Those cards encourage children to phone the representative if they "feel someone is hurting you."
But, according to the deputy, the wording is "ambiguous," "extremely difficult for a child to understand," and assumes "wrongdoing on the part of the ministry." She also requested "assurance" that calls would be handled by professionals skilled in responding to a abused children. And Ms. du Toit was concerned that, when a child phones into the representative's office after hours, the voicemail refers them to the ministry's helpline.
The reason: those lines could be "too busy" or "not available" because "as your staff would be aware, after-hours services are not available in all parts of the province and are not available 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
But, in her response, the representative noted the government's recently released BC Handbook for Action on Child Abuse and Neglect and the ministry's Website both "indicate the line is staffed at all times. If the situation is otherwise, may I respectfully suggest that it is your duty to inform the public that the materials provided by the Ministry may not be accurate."
The representative also told Ms. du Toit, "the wording on these cards is by no means to assume wrongdoing" on the part of the ministry. Instead, the cards were written to "engage" children in "language they could grasp" rather then offering a "bureaucratic statement of respective authorities."
* On June 29, 2007, the deputy asked Ms. Turpel-Lafond to "refrain from the practice employed by media of disclosing as much person information as possible without technically infringing privacy requirements." At issue: a statement, released by the representative on June 5, that used the first name of a Snuneymuxw First Nation child who suffered brain damage while in foster care.
According to Ms. du Toit, "We believe a higher standard is owed. If there is a need to reference some portion of a name, often an initial is used instead of a name."
But, in her response, the representative stated, the band released the name of the child - Baby Cody. And, because that identification had already taken place, Ms. Turpel-Lafond wrote, "Our concern was not to create confusion through the use of initials."
* On July 4, 2007, Ms. Turpel-Lafond informed Ms. du Toit her staff had received calls from the ministry of children and family development's communications director about the case of Baby Cody. And, according to the representative, the director "requested I make a press statement that MCFD has been doing a "˜good job' with planning for the child." But the representative didn't take that advice, because she felt such a statement wouldn't be "appropriate" for an independent officer.
* Ms. Turpel-Lafond was appointed representative in November 2006. But, eight months later, the representative informed Ms. du Toit "no concrete action has been taken to date to explain the role of the independent office" in the ministry of children and family development's public materials on abuse and neglect. This, despite the fact "the door to better collaboration has been open to address this."
* Ms. Turpel-Lafond has repeatedly asked the ministry of children and family development for information about its plans to establish aboriginal authorities. But the ministry has been slow in responding to those requests.
Writing to the deputy minister on November 7, 2007, the representative states, "I have been seeking information for several months on this topic and have yet to be briefed in detail or receive any material other than broad public statements and agreements."
And, when she informally asked aboriginal regional services assistant deputy minister Deb Foxcroft for information about those plans, Ms. du Toit informed the representative her request was "inappropriate."
A briefing eventually took place in December 2007. But, on June 16, 2008. Ms. Turpel-Lafond filed an extensive request seeking materials for a report she is considering on "Aboriginal planning and service delivery." And, in that email, she "apologized for the breadth but the information requested has been overdue for some time."