Monday, October 11, 2004

Children and families needs share of surplus

VICTORIA - The voices of children aren't easily heard in our society, especially the thousands of children in foster care, or in families struggling to get by.
That's what makes Jane Morley's reminder that those children, along with the families of the mentally disabled, shouldn't be forgotten when it comes time to spend B.C.'s surplus.
Morley is the child and youth officer for B.C., the watchdog charged with ensuring we do right by the people served by the ministry of children and families.
The Liberals' New Era has been bad for those people, those children lugging their few belongings from foster home to foster home, or the families desperate for help in caring for a disabled child. Budgets have been chopped, and the ministry has been plagued by mismanagement and half-baked plans.
Now B.C. plans on a surplus of more than $1 billion this year, and even more in the next two years.
Everyone has ideas on how to spend it. Cut taxes. Get real per-student education funding back to where it was three years ago. Shorten waiting lists. Build roads.
"The advantages of tourism promotion, infrastructure enhancements and increased law enforcement resources, along with many other initiatives new and old, have been drawn to our attention by a multitude of thoughtful and articulate interest groups and public officials," Morley noted in a recent comment piece.
But children and families - or at least the most vulnerable ones - are often unheard in the competition for public attention and money.
The government's budget consultation questionnaire gives people a checklist of possible ways of using the surplus. The list doesn't include restoring cuts to the ministry, or improving the lot of children and families.
"In the competition for shares of what are always limited public resource (even with a budget surplus), the voices of children and youth are not loud: they need champions to ensure that they are not forgotten when scarce resources are allocated," Morley says.
The children's ministry has seen its budget cut by $145 million since the Liberals were elected. (Even though in opposition the Liberals, including Gordon Campbell, said the ministry didn't have enough money to do the required job.).
It's time to put a significant sum back into the ministry, Morley says.
"The existence of a surplus is an opportunity for the government to provide the up-front resources necessary to achieve its goal of transforming a child welfare system that has been in place for decades and which is not easily amenable to change," she says. Fund the cost of changing the way services are delivered. Provide money to figure out what works. Pay for the move towards local control, and get the money into communities so they can decide what needs to be done.
"Real transformations do not come about easily or cheaply," she says. "The government should now spend some of the surplus that has become available on the children and youth in British Columbia."
Morley isn't alone. The BC Association for Community Living has also asked the government to reverse the cuts to ease a "crisis" in services for disabled adults.
The association has been a big defender of the government, keen to see the transition to an independent authority and willing to try and cope with reduced budgets.
Executive director Laney Bryenton says things have just gone too far. Waiting lists for services are growing, and families - including some elderly parents caring for adult children with mental disabilities - are stretched to the breaking point.
It's time to push for more money, she says, or at least the return of the money that was cut - and helped create the surplus.
Morley gets the last word.
"The voices of children and youth are not loud," she said in a report earlier this year. "They need champions to ensure that they are not forgotten when scarce resources are allocated."
Consider it a personal challenge.
Footnote: The money available to support children and families has been cut by eight per cent since the election. At the same time, inflation has pushed up the cost of providing most service by up to 10 per cent. All in a ministry Campbell used to argue was under-funded by the NDP.

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