VICTORIA - Did the government attempt to cover up its role in the sad case of Sherry Charlie, the toddler battered to death after she was failed by the children’s ministry?
That was the direct charge from the NDP Monday in Question Period.
And an hour later, down in the minister’s office, Stan Hagen and a top deputy, offered no convincing rebuttal.
Sherry was beaten to death three years ago, days after being placed in the care of relatives under a new ministry policy. The man who beat her, the father in the home, had a long and violent criminal record.
The ministry and the First Nations agency involved both failed Sherry, according to an internal review done for the children and families ministry.
The review was not released until almost three years after Sherry’s death, a delay that took it past the election campaign. The ministry first released a summary, which turned out to omit damaging information about its role. Only after two weeks of pressure did Hagen order the full report released.
On Monday New Democrat Adrian Dix leveled a new charge.
The review into Sherry’s death was originally supposed to look at five issues, he said, including the role of the ministry.
But then the ministry rewrote the terms of reference, eliminating the review of the government’s role, Dix said.
Inside the legislature Hagen said he’d investigate.
An hour later he confirmed that the charge was true. The ministry had rewritten the terms of reference for the review to head off an investigation of its own role.
That was wrong, said assistant deputy minister Jeremy Berland. “It’s clearly not an acceptable way to conduct a review,” he said. And he was “irritated” when he learned of the change to the original terms of reference, which he drafted.
And then things got terribly fuzzy.
Why was the change made?
We don’t know, said Berland and Hagen. There was no memo, explanatory note or rationale, a bizarre thing in a ministry that considers effective record-keeping vital. Former ADM David Young, who left government in 2003, just ordered up the change.
It’s an unacceptable answer.
Berland acknowledged, when questioned, that he has known about the change to the mandate for about 10 months. All he had to do was ask Young for an explanation.
Hagen said he doesn’t remember being told about the decision to shelter the ministry’s role from scrutiny. Berland said he told the minister, but maybe not clearly enough, whatever that means.
Berland couldn’t explain why the ministry didn’t reveal the problems with the review when it released the report. He defended the decision not to re-open the investigation, saying it had taken too long already and he thought most issues had been covered.
And both men denied political pressure had been involved - although they had no basis for making that claim.
It was a discouraging meeting.
This isn’t a review of expense account policies - a child died.
And there are real concerns that budget cut pressures and chaos in the ministry played a role in Sherry’s death. The ministry had rushed ahead - with inadequate preparation - on a new program to place children at risk with family and friends, instead of in foster care. Done correctly, that is better for children. It also was cheaper, and had to be implemented quickly to allow the ministry to achieve its planned spending cuts.
Yet the ministry blocked a full examination of those issues. And no one has taken the effort to find out why, or - until the NDP revealed the facts - to come clean with the public.
Expect many more questions.
But at the minimum the case shows that the ministry can not investigate its own performance. It failed to conduct a proper review of Sherry’s death, by Berland’s admission, and it is only by good fortune that the failure has come to light.
Surely it is time to reinstate the Children’s Commissioner to provide independent oversight.
Footnote: Hagen praised ministry staff in the legislature, but said the case involved errors by a social worker. A reading of the review suggests much broader problems in the system played a role in the failure to protect Sherry Charlie.