The ministry of children and families is a competency test for government. The Liberals, like the NDP before them, are failing.
They bungled the ministry in their first four years. As the scandals mounted, the government asked Ted Hughes to review the problems.
He blamed botched restructuring and budget cuts, in part. And he made 62 recommendations, including restoration of the independent oversight the Liberals had eliminated.
Premier Gordon Campbell promised to adopt them all. He appointed Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as Representative for Children and Youth. Oversight and advocacy and complaint resolution were important for children in trouble, the government conceded.
But four years after the Hughes report, the ministry is ignoring the office. And Children's Minister Mary Polak looks badly out of touch.
Turpel-Lafond reports to a legislature committee, which met this month for an update. She told the MLAs most ministries had responded to her recommendations in two reports from last year.
But not the children's ministry, which had by far the largest role. Polak told reporters she was "perplexed." Not once, but 11 times in a 16-minute scrum. (Publiceyeonline.com has video.)
"We have been regularly meeting with her," Polak said. "She's aware of how we intended to be responding. Some of the reports, of course, have yet to be responded to. Some we have responded to."
The representative was clearer.
She told the committee about Kids, Crime and Care: Health and Well-Being of Children in Care, released last February. It found children in the government's care - some 9,000 this year - were more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than to graduate from high school.
We claim responsibility for these children and then fail them. The report, delivered to the government a year ago, remember, had sensible recommendations.
Take one. After studying the factors that snared children in crime, the representative recommended that each time a child was involved with the justice system, the plan of care would be reviewed within 30 days to include steps to deal with the criminal behaviour.
If your son or daughter got in trouble, Turpel-Lafond told the committee, that's what you would do. You would look at their stresses, their friends, whether drugs are a problem. You would do everything to get them back on track.
And children in care need the same help.
The recommendation called for the ministry to have the first step - a plan to report quarterly on children in care involved with the justice system - by last November.
But a year after the report, the ministry hasn't responded to the recommendation.
It doesn't have to adopt the measure. The ministry could judge the recommendation not needed or impractical. "It's perfectly fine," Turpel-Lafond said, "to say we reject your recommendation."
But some response is required.
"In order for oversight to work and for change to happen when we do major pieces of work like this, there has to be engagement," she said.
And in her view - not really refuted by Polak - there has not been.
The second report, completed last July, dealt with the terrible story of a baby taken from his parents because they couldn't afford housing. He was injured and permanently disabled while in care. Now he is back with his parents.
The representative's first recommendation said that by Jan. 1 the ministry should have a policy for front-line staff that every effort should be made to avoid taking children from their parents because of poor housing. (Children need their parents and it's cheaper to help with housing than to pay for foster care.)
The ministry, Turpel-Lafond said, has not responded.
Something has gone wrong. If the process were working, Polak wouldn't have been perplexed.
Even days later, when the Public Affairs Bureau released its written statement on the problems, there was nothing about the ministry's actual response to the recommendations.
Polak is to present at the committee's next meeting on March 3. She needs to have real answers.
Footnote: It's unclear why the process has broken down so badly. But Polak or the committee is going to have to find a way to get it back on track.