Friday, September 23, 2005

Sherry Charlie and broken promises, broken hopes

VICTORIA - I am running out of ways to say how sad it is that we are so indifferent to the people who need us most.
The families on the edge, people who need a little help to cope, and the kids struggling to fall asleep in some new foster home, they all trust us to care.
That's mostly why we have a children and families' ministry, because we've decided that we won't let children's lives be wrecked. We - you and I - will make sure that somebody cares for a scared little boy when his family can't or won't.
It seems such a long time and so many columns about the mess we've made of this essential task.
I expected better from Gordon Campbell. The NDP government was hopeless.The children and families' ministry was underfunded and mismanaged, and the government ignored good advice and useful criticism.
But Campbell and the Liberals, they were inspiring with their principled, focused commitments in opposition.
The ministry had to have more money, Campbell said, in order to do what was needed. In fact Linda Reid, now junior minister for child care, wanted a needs-based budget. Figure out what it would cost to give people the help they needed, make the information public, and then make the hard choices, she said.
And Campbell and Reid were huge fans of the Children's Commission and the Child and Youth Advocate, the offices that provided effective, public oversight of the ministry. Reid grilled the NDP on a score of recommendations from Child and Youth Advocate Joyce Preston. Campbell demanded that every child death be reviewed, and the results reported, so no chance to improve our response was missed.
I believed him. Policies may change, but this was about principles, and they aren't shed like a cheap suit after a long hot day.
But the needs-based budget never happened. Instead of finding more money for the ministry, Campbell backed plans to cut its budget by 23 per cent. When that proved a fantasy, the cuts were reduced to 11 per cent.
Despite soaring revenues, and all the promises, provincial spending on children and families is about $160 million less now, in constant dollars, than it was before the Liberals were elected.
The Liberals also eliminated the Children's Commission and the Child and Youth Advocate.
And they halted independent reviews of children's deaths.
The Children's Commission used to review about 150 deaths per year, making scores of recommendations based on its findings.
Since the commission was eliminated in 2002, there has been one public report, by the coroner, on the death of a child in care, and two by the ministry.
If the Children's Commission still existed, the government would have been spared its fumbles and stumbles last week over the death of Sherry Charlie. An independent review would have been automatic.
Instead the government looked secretive, and inept. Attorney General Wally Oppal, who instructed Children and Youth Officer Jane Morley to investigate the ministry's review of Sherry's death, acknowledged he hadn't read the original report before deciding what questions that Morley should answer.
Instead of giving Morley a free hand, the government tried to restrict her review. Under pressure, Oppal amended the terms of reference to offer her slightly more freedom.
But still not enough. Morley rightly swept aside the government's instructions, and has launched her own sweeping review. (The Ombudsman and the coroner's officer are also reviewing Sherry's death. Scores of others have received no such attention.)
The ministry faces huge challenges every day, and terrible choices. Things will inevitably go badly wrong sometimes, no matter how well the system work, and people perform.
That's why we have to demand commitment, and openness, from government. We need to learn when things go wrong, or right. We have to know if we're giving the ministry the resources needed.
Government, the ministry, may do the work. But caring for the children and families is ultimately our responsibility.
Footnote: Morley has proposed an all-party legislative committee on children and youth, just as there are on education, health and finance. Campbell hasn't yet responded to the idea. He should seize on it as a chance to show that the issues matter to his government.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Government fumbles again in toddler's death

VICTORIA - A train wreck of a scrum with Attorney General Wally Oppal smashed any confidence that the Liberals are responding competently to the death of Sherry Charlie.
In the space of 10 minutes Oppal betrayed a lack of knowledge about his job, and the toddler's death - even though he claimed to be taking the lead in the government's latest response.
It was painful, and sad, to see that this is the best the government can do in a case that has dragged on for more than three years. Oppal stepped up Wednesday to expand the mandate for Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley's review of the government's initial investigation. On Tuesday, Children and Families' Minister Stan Hagen had announced that Morley would be stepping in. His announcement drew immediate criticism, because Morley's mandate  was strictly limited. She could look at why it took almost three years to complete and release the report. And she could investigate why the ministry rewrote the terms of reference for the initial review to eliminate a question about its own role in the little girl's death.
But Morley was barred from examining the gaps in the initial investigation and identifying any shortcomings in the ministry's response.
Not needed, said Hagen. "I think the ministry has acted appropriately. We're not reviewing the review that was done."
The child and youth officer actually works for Oppal, who issues the formal instructions for reviews. He initially backed Hagen. "I'm completely satisfied that the terms of reference here are exhaustive, they're thorough, and they will provide the appropriate answers and recommendations," Oppal said Tuesday.
A day later, and things had changed. Oppal said he had listened to the debate in the legislature, and talked to others in government, and decided the review should be expanded.
There is nothing wrong with changing your mind.
But this isn't some issue that has just arisen on the edge of the government's agenda. A child died, the questions have been clear and the controversy growing. The response should have been carefully considered.
It wasn't, as Oppal revealed in a series of damaging answers.
He said Morley had already done one report on Sherry's death, apparently the one he thought he was asking her to review. She hasn't.
He acknowledged that he hasn't read the ministry report on her death that is at the centre of the controversy - the one that he is actually asking Morley to investigate. That raises the obvious question how he determined what the scope of the investigation should be. (The report is only 45 pages long.)
And Oppal revealed he doesn't understand some of the key issues tied in to this controversy, including the tole of the Child and Youth Officer.
"The idea that Ms. Morley is not independent is patent nonsense," he bristled. She's appointed by the legislature, he said.
Except she's not, as reporters had to explain to the attorney general.
The Child and Youth Advocate, eliminated by the Liberals, was an independent officer appointed by the legislature. The Child and Youth Officer isn't.
The Children's Commissioner, also eliminated by the Liberals, reviewed and reported publicly on all child deaths. The Child and Youth Officer takes instructions in such cases - as in this instance - from the attorney general.
She has not reported on a single death.
Since the opposition and most of the people involved in helping children in the province have called repeatedly for the restoration of the Children's Commission; you would expect Oppal to know and understand the distinctions.
It's reasonable to allow new politicians time to learn some of the skills.
But Oppal was taking the lead for the government on a major issue - the death of a child. Serious questions have been raised about the government's role in the case, and whether the push to reduce spending played a role, and about the
handling of the investigation.
Oppal's lack of knowledge, about the case and related issues in his own ministry, was painful.
The public has right to expect better.
And so do all the children and families who are counting on the ministry
Footnote: Oppal apologized for any misunderstanding Thursday, saying he wasn't used to answering so many questions. But he did not respond in the legislature when asked to apologize for not reading the report on Sherry's death.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Children’s ministry fails to counter cover-up charge in girl's death

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.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Budget puts debt payment before service gains, tax cuts

VICTORIA - The Liberals launched their minibudget with the normal political spin, proudly proclaiming “Improved Support for Seniors at Heart of Budget Update.”
There was good news for seniors, with an extra $242 million earmarked over the next three years for income and housing supports and long-term care improvements. The main benefits will flow to those with the lowest incomes.
But there was better news for corporations, although it didn’t make the headlines in any press releases. They got another 11.5-per-cent tax cut, a benefit worth almost $360 million over the next three years.
The tax cut came out of the blue. It was never mentioned during the election campaign (but then the Liberals never mentioned plans to cut corporate and personal income taxes by 25 per cent during the 2001 campaign).
And the business community - while generally keen on paying less in taxes - hadn’t placed tax cuts high on its wish list, focusing instead on land use, labour and regulatory issues.
The theory is that lower taxes will encourage businesses to locate here. But even before the latest cut, B.C. had the third lowest tax rate in Canada, after Alberta and New Brunswick. The province was already competitive.
The other big budget commitment, like the tax cut, was not even hinted at in the election campaign.
The government budgeted $100 million this year for a First Nations New Relationships Fund, supporting its effort to build a more effective working relationship.
The Campbell government was already well advanced on its new relationship project during the election campaign, but kept the effort - which is worthwhile - under wraps. First Nations have been promised shared decision-making on land use issues, a chunk of the revenue from development and broad recognition as partners by the provincial government.
The $100 million is intended to help First Nations develop the skills and institutions needed to take on their expanded role. No one is sure what that means; the budget promises a plan by spring.
The biggest news in the budget may lie in what wasn’t there.
Taylor’s minibudget acknowledged that the budget introduced in February underestimated government revenues by about five per cent. That means the government had an extra $1.8 billion available to spend on programs, or to fund tax cuts. (That number is still far too conservatives, and understates the likely year-end surplus by some $500 million.)
But the Liberals only increased program spending by another $400 million in the minibudget, with new tax cuts consuming another $400 million.
The Liberals’ overwhelming priority remains paying down the debt., not cutting taxes or improving services. Last year 75 per cent of the surplus money went to debt repayment; the minibudget means a similar commitment is likely this year.
Debt repayment makes sense, as one part of a balanced approach to the finances of the province - or a family.
But the government, by making it the top priority, is running counter to the wishes of British Columbians. A legislative committee on the budget held consultations last year, and reported that the public wanted most of any surplus funds spent to improve health care and other services.
That’s reasonable. B.C.’s debt is relatively small, and easily manageable. Paying it down makes sense, but not at the expense of useful tax cuts, or improved health care. Most people balance their eagerness to pay down their mortgage against the needs of their family today.
The needs exist. A small share of the money going to debt repayment could allow hundreds of hip and knee replacements, or a reduction in MSP premiums, or more money to prepare for the long-term impact of the pine beetle.
The government had decided that paying down the debt is more useful than a grater commitment to any of those.
The budget now goes before the legislature, for the first real scrutiny any government financial plan has received since the Liberals questioned the Dosanjh government’s 2000 budget.
That alone is something to celebrate.
Footnote: The budget includes no money for a teachers’ pay increase. But while the government says it hasn’t worked out a pay mandate for the next round of contract talks with government workers, which start later this year, the budget numbers suggest something like two, two and two is planned. Expect some serious conflicts.