Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Budget cuts, not child’s death, preoccupied ministry

VICTORIA - Read Jane Morley’s report on the death of Sherry Charlie, and you’ll be left scratching your head at the fumbling in the children and families’ ministry.
You’ll see that the government’s claim that budget cuts had not hurt the ministry’s ability to protect children is not true.
And you’ll have confirmation that the Liberals betrayed their 2001 campaign promise to stop “the endless bureaucratic restructuring” of the ministry.
Faced with an important task - learning from the death of a toddler - the ministry proved incapable of getting the job done, dragging the process out for more than two years.
Everyone knew it was taking too long. Periodically there would be brief bursts of activity, followed by long stretches where not much happened. About 18 months were lost to “periods of minimal productive work,” reported Morley, the province’s child and youth officer.
"But during the lapses, no one was monitoring and systematically asking the question - what is happening,” she reports.
Morley concludes there was no cover-up, or interference by politicians.
But the decisions politicians made - including the decision to cut the ministry budget - helped ensure the process dragged on. And the ministry fought to prevent scrutiny of its policies.
Sherry Charlie was beaten to death in September, 2002, weeks after being placed in the care of relatives under a new, poorly introduced ministry “Kith and Kin” policy. The placement decision was made by Usma, a First Nations agency operating under the ministry’s authority.
It was a bad decision. The father in the home - the man who killed her - had along and violent criminal history. The ministry had investigated other alleged problems. Systems to protect Sherry weren’t in place, or broke down.
The director’s review, an internal investigation, was supposed to look at the lessons that could be learned. (The Liberals had eliminated the Children’s Commission, which provided effective oversight when a child died. The Coroners’ Service is supposed to investigate child deaths, but has failed. An inquest into Sherry’s death was only held this month.)
The ministry’s internal review was plagued with problems. It hired Nicholas Simons to do the review. Simons, now a New Democrat MLA, was then executive director of child and family services for the Sechelt Nation then.
Simons hadn’t done a review like this before, and the ministry never clearly conveyed its expectations. The review went through 25 drafts and ended up pretty much as Simons submitted it in September, 2003, Morley reports.
But not entirely. Recommendations on ways the ministry could improve were gradually eased out of the report.
The ministry view was that the report should only look at whether people followed existing policy, not whether those policies were adequate to protect children. (Simons’ initial draft said that homes where children were to be placed under the new “Kith and Kin” agreements should be evaluated as thoroughly as any other placement; the ministry resisted including the recommendation.)
It’s an unreasonably narrow mandate, one more likely to find individual scapegoats than systemic problems. That’s especially worrying in the light of the lack of any other timely, effective review.
Through this long process the ministry had other priorities than learning from a child’s death. The government had launched a massive shift to regionalization, then pulled back. It had announced a 23-per-cent budget cut, then reduced that to 11 per cent. Coping with budget cuts consumed managers.
“The issue of how to manage the budget cuts took priority for senior managers, particularly starting in the summer of 2003,” Morley reports. “The regular monitoring information received by the executive was focused on this issue, not on such issues as whether the director’s cases were reviews were being completed.”
Managers failed. They let things slide, communicated badly and didn’t do their jobs. The people in charge didn’t get the review done.
But they failed in part because the government’s policies - including a damaging budget cut - left them unable to do the job.
Footnote: Minister Stan Hagen’s written response tried to shift the blame on to Simons. But he did not address the impact of budget cuts, or the management failures. Morley didn’t address the role of her office in not responding to the fact that the report was so long overdue.


Anonymous said...

Weren't many of the changes the government made recommended by Ms. Morley

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Social conservatives talk a good ball game when it comes to family values but when the real game begins they are to be found in the clubhouse playing cards.

Anonymous said...

Organizational Failure

Did Jane Morley’s report on the death of Sherry Charlie address Nicholas Simons' shifting mandate?

It has been widely reported that Nicholas Simons was ordered repeatedly (by who?) to change the direction of his report. This change in mandate goes far beyond the "organizational failure" cited in Morley's review.

Anonymous said...

Did Ms. Morely explain why her office dodged the request to do a systemic review of band services and the ministry for Children and Families responsibility to ensure at minimum, ministry standards for care, risk assessment, placement decisions prior to the death of Sherry Charlie? While the kith and kin placement policy may have been new under that name the practice was not new. It had already failed with fatality outcomes in cases previously reviewed by the children’s commission. Again, it is not a case of not knowing, or not enough data, or poor review standards after the fact; it is a long-standing decision to ignore child outcomes in favor of political convenience and correctness.

Dawn Steele said...

Sometimes you have to say: "We told you so!" because it's the only way to learn from experience.

Between 2001-2005, with no children's commissioner, no official opposition, no powerful provincial lobby groups, service providers too afraid to speak up and media that generally only cover issues served up on a platter, it was left largely to the odd parent or ad hoc critic like myself to try to sound the alarm about what was happening in this Ministry.

We told everyone who would listen that the experts warned MCFD in 2002 that concurrent budget cuts and restructuring would cause chaos.

When it happened anyway, we warned over and over that the Ministry was paralyzed by the inevitable deepening chaos and that people were being hurt as a result.

But our system is not set up to take individual critics too seriously, especially on complex issues like these. I tried to get Jane Morley's office to take up our concerns, as I tried to enlist everyone else's support. A few did what they could: NDP's Jenny Kwan tried to raise some questions in the House, Sean Holman finally investigated the Doug Walls shennanigans and Paul, who has consistently used his columns to highlight the goings-on in this Ministry. They tried their best too, but it wasn't enough.

We also warned over and over that a succession of Ministers, under the direction of the Premier, were not responding by seriously trying to solve any of the problems, but by relying on "managing communications" to do damage control and pretend all was well. There never was and there still is no desire to improve services for MCFD's clients. The goal is and has been to cut costs while trying to keep a lid on complaints and Ms Morley has been an integral part of that effort.

With a functioning Official Opposition, we are now seeing increasing pressure for real change, but I still see no evidence that Premier Campbell has been convinced that communications won't be enough to "manage" this issue, and that what is needed is meaningful change.