Friday, August 07, 2009

System just wasn't set up to help this baby

This is a third column about a three-year-old boy. He started life healthy, loved by capable parents who faced some big challenges.
He was taken from them, based on legitimate concerns, at three weeks. The basic problem was that they were too poor to find a safe place to live. He moved through three foster homes in a matter of months and then ended up in hospital, with symptoms suggesting he was shaken.
He's back with his parents today. He's blind in one eye, can't walk and has cerebral palsy. But they're all doing OK, for now.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth, was asked by a legislative committee to review how this all happened.
The real problem was that the parents were poor. They couldn't afford a place to live. Income assistance stalled them, despite the babe in arms. So they stayed with relatives on a small First Nations reserve.
There were concerns about some of the people living in the house, leading to the child's apprehension.
One of Premier Gordon Campbell's earlier enthusiasms was for breaking down "silos" in government - ministries and departments operating in an unco-ordinated fashion, oblivious of their shared objectives.
In this case, parents were about to have their child taken by one ministry because they didn't have a safe place to live.
At the same time, another ministry turned down their request for emergency help finding adequate housing.
Oh, there was communication between the two.
On the day the child was taken from the mother, a Ministry for Children and Families employee called a counterpart in the Income Assistance Ministry.
Not to get help for the family, but to tell them the child had been taken into care in order "to ensure the child's mother would not apply for income assistance for the child as well."
The representative reports that members of the child's family and community thought the apprehension was rushed and other options for care within the family weren't considered.
That, I suppose, could be blamed indirectly to the media. If a protection worker delays taking a child into care and something bad happens, the decision is closely scrutinized. That's appropriate. But we should start with the assumption that workers are making hard decisions based on limited information and managing a big workload.
A friend I respect worries about columns like this. They might give the public the idea that there aren't successes or discourage frontline workers, she fears.
I have to disagree. What the workers helping this family needed was a mandate - and time - to work at a way of keeping the baby boy with his family.
In five months, the report found, at least six frontline ministry staff, a delegated aboriginal agency, a contract family services agency and income assistance were involved with the family. Everyone was clear about their role.
But, the report found, no one thought about how their role affected the little boy's life.
One week after the boy was taken from his parents, a Children's Ministry social worker said in court that the baby would be returned if they had place to live. But ministry staff did nothing to help the family take the one step that would bring their child back (and save the taxpayer money).
This is not an isolated case, the report suggests. It notes two ministry internal audits found 50 to 84 per cent compliance with its standards in the region where the boy lived while in care. The B.C. Association of Social Workers - representing frontline workers - said the report documents "the tragic consequences of a multi-directional systemic meltdown and a lack of supports, resources and anti-poverty measures."
And considering that this baby was taken from his parents and sent through a series of foster homes because his family was poor, it's notable that B.C. has had the highest rate of child poverty in Canada for the past six years. This baby boy's rough life, sadly, wasn't an aberration.

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