Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Children lose as government fights to keep secrets

Something has gone badly wrong when the person charged with looking after the interests of vulnerable children in B.C. ends up suing the government to get information.
And it's even worse when the government introduces legislation to allow it to keep secrets from the Representative for Children and Youth - and makes it retroactive to 2007.
The Liberals eliminated the independent agency monitoring the Children and Families Ministry and providing support for families and children in the government care after the 2001 election. It was dumb decision.
A damning report by Ted Hughes in 2006 revealed mismanagement and underfunding that hurt vulnerable children and families. The Hughes' recommendations included restoration of independent oversight, åsomething that the Campbell government had repeatedly insisted was unnecessary.
The representative's office was created as a result. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond - aboriginal, a Saskatchewan provincial court judge with an excellent academic background and an interest in child and youth issues - was hired by a committee of MLAs.
After a year on the job, Turpel-Lafond reported little progress had been made on the Hughes' recommendations. And she noted she had hoped for a co-operative report with the ministry, but was rebuffed.
That was a warning sign, it turned out. The ministry, it appeared, was not providing the co-operation you would expect if it accepted the idea of oversight and public accountability. It refused to provide briefings, tried to go around the representative and wouldn't respond to report recommendations. (Although other ministries, like health, did.)
From the outside, it was tough to judge all this. The ministry maintained it was co-operating, but the information requests were overwhelming and the representative's office was over-stepping its role.
But the latest developments suggest the government is trying to undermine the representative's oversight.
Turpel-Lafond has been working on a report on changes to the ministry's children in the care of a relative program. It provides support for relatives - most often grandparents - who care for children when parents can't. It's a useful alternative to foster care. At any given time, some 4,500 children are in the program. (About 9,000 are in other government care.)
The program wasn't even under the children's ministry until 2007. It was part of income assistance.
Turpel-Lafond wanted to review how the program is working after the changes.
That's important. There is no guarantee relatives will be able to cope with looking after these children. They might need financial support or help with the challenges. Not all homes would be suitable. Eligibility rules might exclude some families
And thousands of children's lives are affected by how well the program works.
Turpel-Lafond went looking for information. She asked for the reports that had gone to cabinet on the changes, believing those would be helpful.
The government stalled. It announced a replacement program - a new Extended Family Program - in February, with no details.
It said the representative could have the information, with conditions. The facts couldn't be revealed publicly. And the government would have a veto over any use of the information.
That's the law, said the premier's office.
But that's not the law the legislature passed in setting up the representative's office. It gives Turpel-Lafond the right to any documents, except those covered by lawyer-client privilege.
The Liberal government argues a different legal interpretation.
But the fact that it's also proposing to rewrite the law, changing the rules retroactively to dodge the representative's information request, indicates the government knows the representative has a legal right to the information, Otherwise, why change the legislation?
Turpel-Lafond talked about her role with the Calgary Herald last week. She explored the issue of independence.
"I'd be happy to work with a minister, but I'm not willing to have a minister say to me: 'Mary Ellen, you're not publishing that report.' Or: 'I'll release that report when I feel like it.'"
The Liberals promised, after the Hughes report, independent oversight. It does not like they meant it.
Footnote: Mary Polak, the minister, describes the legal case as a waste of scarce resources. But she supports both the amendments to the legislation and the court battle to maintain secrecy. The legislative committee on children and youth, created along with the representatives' office, hasn't met since March 3.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A pair of updates...

1 - Mary Polak and the BC Liberals lost. Here is The Honourable Madam Justice Griffin Reasons for Judgment a scathing indictment

2 - Ted Hughes has taken the unprecedented step of taking BC Liberal Premier Campbell to the woodshed over proposed amendments to the Representative for Children and Youth Act. In three damning pages Hughes rips Campbell.