Campbell administration risks another tragedy

In April 2006, an independent review judged the Campbell administration of having mismanaged the ministry of children and family development - which some said contributed to the deaths of two toddlers. "I don't think there's any doubt" government cutbacks "took the knife too far," said former Justice Ted Hughes, the man appointed by the administration to make sure such a scandal didn't happen again. But 33 months later, the status of the 62 recommendations included in Hughes's independent review of British Columbia's child protection system is in the doubt. And Premier Gordon Campbell is again to blame.

The premier needed to create a clear process and chain of command to right this badly-listing ministry. Instead, the two powerful child protection officials put in place by his government - Lesley du Toit, the deputy minister of children and family development, and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province's children and youth representative - have become, in effect, rivals.

This is the story of the frustrating stand-off between Mses. du Toit and Turpel-Lafond, as well as their competing visions for the ministry.

Following the last election, the Campbell administration faced accusations from the media and the opposition that its policies had put vulnerable children at risk - contributing to the deaths of toddlers Sherry Charlie and Savannah Hall. In response, the government appointed Mr. Hughes in November 2005 to "examine oversight, public reporting and advocacy" within the child protection system. The problem is the premier didn't stop there.

The Hughes Review, which his government had expected would be "accomplished in the space of a few weeks," took four and a half months. In the meantime, the premier's office - anxious to act - retained Ms. du Toit, then a South African child care agency executive director, to "assist government in developing a response" to that review's yet-to-be-written recommendations.

But Ms. du Toit, who would later be named the deputy minister of children and family development, seems to have had her own future vision for the ministry. After all, three months prior to her hiring, she had been in Victoria delivering a presentation to senior bureaucrats and community members entitled "Transforming the Child Welfare System."

But Ms. du Toit's transformative vision - which, according to her, was "strongly influenced" by the Hughes Review - appears at odds with the report's recommendations.

Mr. Hughes wanted to repair the ministry - stressing a need for "equilibrium and stability." By comparison, Ms. du Toit appears to want to remake it - changing the ministry's culture and structure.

As a result, implementing his recommendations seems to have become, at best, a secondary consideration for her. In fact, the new deputy minister's first message to ministry staff included no reference to that review.

Instead, Ms. du Toit wrote she had been appointed to "facilitate and accelerate the transformation of the system for children, youth and families in BC with which this ministry began some years back."

And that appointment meant the government - which had also commissioned the Hughes Review - had created, by accident rather than design, two competing futures for the ministry of children and family development.

But that might not have become apparent if government hadn't followed Mr. Hughes's first and foremost recommendation, appointing a children and youth representative to oversee that ministry.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond, a Saskatchewan provincial court judge, assumed that responsibility on April 1, 2007. And within three months she was privately expressing concern about the future of the Hughes Review recommendations.

After all, the deputy minister, according to Ms. Turpel-Lafond, told her during a meeting "many of the recommendations were not possible to achieve" because the review was "informed by ideas which are entrenched in an old system."

"I take from this that the Hughes Review recommendations are something that should be left behind in light of transformation," continued the representative, in a letter addressed to Ms. du Toit.

In November 2007, Ms. Turpel-Lafond went public with her concerns, stating there was "too little evidence within MCFD of a coordinated effort to implement numerous Hughes recommendations where its leadership is required." And, last month, she made a similar statement following the release of her second Hughes Review progress report.

In the past, the government has attempted to defuse those concerns, with children and family development minister Tom Christensen assuring the legislature he would be "moving forward with each and every one of Mr. Hughes's recommendations."

In fact, the ministry's Strong, Safe and Supported action plan - which was released this past April - included the ministry's own assessment of its progress in responding to the Hughes Review.

But, recently, the government has become dismissive of Ms. Turpel-Lafond's criticisms and even, arguably, the review itself. In response to the representative's latest progress report, Minister Christensen told reporters the government isn't taking an approach "where - to the letter of each recommendation - we must be able to satisfy it completely."

Instead, "what we've said is we want to address those recommendations in the context in which they were offered and within our own Strong, Safe and Supported plan."

So, 33 months following the release of the Hughes Review, the government has become entrenched and so has the representative.

The representative, who is now seen by government as a critic rather than a watchdog, is convinced "there is still no coordinated effort" within the ministry to implement the review.

Meanwhile, the government seems just as convinced Ms. du Toit's vision will meet the overall objective of that review - improving the "safety and well-being of B.C.'s children, youth and families" - even if it doesn't specifically respond to all the Hughes Review recommendations.

An impasse of the premier's own creation has been reached.

The Campbell administration was wrong to have appointed both Mr. Hughes and Ms. du Toit to do what became the same task - envisioning a future for the ministry of children and family development.

But the consequences of that decision are more than bureaucratic.

Ms. du Toit's poorly-articulated vision may indeed improve the province's child protection system. But to-date, there's little evidence that's the case. Nor has the representative found any - perhaps because there is none, perhaps because of her own belief in the Hughes Review.

Meanwhile, many of the review's recommendations have gone unfulfilled - perhaps because they are unnecessary, perhaps because of the deputy minister's equally strong belief in her own vision.

And, in the end, it is the children who will suffer as a result of this in-fighting.

***

November 2005 The government appoints Ted Hughes to conduct an independent review of British Columbia's child protection system.

February 9, 2006 The premier's office retains Lesley du Toit to "assist government in developing a response" to the Hughes Review recommendations.

April 7, 2006 Mr. Hughes releases 62 recommendations to improve the "safety and well-being of B.C.'s children, youth and families."

April 18, 2006 The government appoints Ms. du Toit the deputy minister of children and family development.

May 11, 2006 Ms. du Toit's first message to ministry staff includes no reference to the Hughes Review.

July 19, 2006 Following a meeting with Ms. du Toit, Ms. Turpel-Lafond concludes the ministry intends to leave behind the Hughes Review recommendations "in light of transformation."

November 27, 2006 Ms. Turpel-Lafond's first progress report finds "too little evidence within MCFD of a coordinated effort to implement numerous Hughes recommendations where its leadership has been required." In response, Ms. du Toit tells the Times Colonist the ministry will complete about 90 percent of the Hughes recommendations within a year.

November 28, 2006 Minister Christensen tells the legislature, "We are moving forward with each and every one of Mr. Hughes's recommendations."

December 1, 2006 Ms. du Toit's first transformation update includes no references to the Hughes Review.

April 25, 2008 The ministry releases it's Strong, Safe and Supported plan.

December 11, 2008 Ms. Turpel-Lafond releases her second progress report, telling reporters "there is still no coordinated effort" within the ministry to implement the Hughes Review recommendations.

1 Comment

Bravo, Sean! You’ve hit on the pivotal contradiction that’s confounded progress at this Ministry for almost a decade, despite the huge resources diverted towards conceptual reform (and away from improvements to actual front-line services, importantly!)

Let me quote from MCFD's 2001-02 "Annual Report - A New Era Update":

"During fiscal 2001/02, the ministry made significant progress on New Era commitments outlined below.

1) Stop the endless bureaucratic restructuring that has drained resources from children and family services.

- The new community governance models to be introduced by the ministry will create more stability in the system and ensure more effective service delivery for children and families.

- A critical first step was the announcement to move to a five-region structure, to come into effect in 2002/03.

- Through the Core Services Review, foundation principles were established for the effective, efficient delivery of services to vulnerable people:...

- The ministry has begun a shift from decision-making based in headquarters towards community governance.

- The shift will involve the transfer of budget and staff resources to the community governance structure, and will be completed within three years."

Since before 2001, Premier Campbell and the BC Liberals have been stating publicly that what this Ministry really needs is an end to the endless restructuring that has drained the capacity to actually to do anything to help children and families. That commitment was restated with the Hughes Review, and Ms Turpel Lafond's appointment. They clearly know this is what they should be doing.

But what they have actually done to achieve that goal - and this has been consistent all the way back to 2001 - is to pursue ever more “endless bureaucratic restructuring.”

The root of the conflict between Du Toit’s agenda and Turpel Lafond’s agenda is clear and simple and it's the same reason this Ministry has been a non-stop disaster. It's the fundamental (and enduring!) contradiction that we've seen since 2001 between what the Premier says he wants to do and what he’s actually trying to do.

Mr. Campbell is supposed to be a smart man. How can he not grasp the supreme insanity of this schizophrenic approach? I can only hazard the guess that this is really about political necessity and trying to please the competing demands of the broader public vs the ideological party base. And that his faith in the power of his communications and issues management staff, fear of the NDP and his advertising budget is so profound that he remains convinced he can continue to get away indefinitely with stating one thing while actually doing the exact opposite.

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