Monday, July 25, 2005

A child is dead, and three years later big questions remain

VICTORIA - Little Sherry Charlie shouldn’t have died.
The Port Alberni toddler was battered to death days after being placed in a foster home.
The man who beat her, the father in the home, had a long and violent criminal record. He was on probation for assaulting his spouse.
The children’s ministry knew there was a risk. It had already investigated concerns about the well-being of other children in the home.
But the ministry, and the First Nations agency that arranged the placement, both failed Sherry. And a little girl - 19 months old - died a terrible death.
Bad things happen. And in the difficult world of the ministry of children and families, some things will inevitably go very wrong.
When they do, the public needs quick, complete answers, to help avoid future errors. We are the ones responsible.
It took the government almost three years to release a report on her death. There were reasons for some delays. But taking three years to report on the death of a child is inexcusable.
When the report was finally released, the public got a five-page summary - prepared by the ministry - which left huge unanswered questions. The actual report, still secret, was almost 50 pages long.
The summary confirms that Sherry shouldn’t have died. It reveals that the ministry and Usma Nuu Chah Nulth Community and Human Services made major mistakes.
But while it offers up some facts, it does not provide needed answers.
The Nuu Chah Nulth agency, acting on the authority of the ministry, placed Sherry in the home of her uncle, the man convicted of manslaughter in her death. (The ministry believes - rightly - that placing a child with family is preferable to foster care with non-relatives.)
The agency had not done a criminal record check. It had done only one reference check before Sherry and her few possessions were dropped off at the home.
Why not more diligence? The summary doesn’t provide the needed answers. The agency may have violated ministry policies, the summary says. But it adds that the agency staff thought the policies were just guidelines.There was no training in the new rules. Nobody really knew what it all meant.
Why not? Was the ministry unclear? Were things happening too fast? Was there no money for training? Did the push to find family placements take priority over proper checks? Those questions aren’t answered in the skimpy summary.
When the First Nations agency did try to to get information, the ministry failed.
The agency asked the ministry to check its files to see if there were any issues with the prospective foster family.
There were. The ministry had information about past concerns in the same home. But it didn’t disclose them to the First Nations agency.
The summary says only that the failure was “inadvertent.” But why did it happen? Are ministry files incomplete? Was the worker too overloaded to check? Was training inadequate? No answers.
In the 15 days Sherry was in the home before she died, were there any follow-up visits to see how how was she doing? The ministry summary doesn’t say.
All this matters because we need to know if the problem has been fixed. If frontline workers are prevented from doing their job because budget cuts have left them with too many clients, and too few resources, we need to know. If training is inadequate, or systems don’t work, we need to know that.
Three years after Sherry’s death the only completed review has been done by the ministry - an obvious conflict of interest. The public still doesn’t have answers to basic questions.
The immediate solution is simple - release the full review, edited to protect individuals’ privacy rights.
The real answer is to bring back the Children’s Commission, eliminated by the Liberals, and restore effective independent review of the ministry.
Sherry didn’t have to die this way. At least let’s make her death mean something.
Footnote: The ministry contracted with Nicholas Simons, then employed with a First Nations service provider on the Sunshine Coast, to conduct the still-secret review. Simons is now the newly elected NDP MLA from the area, an indication of how long this has taken - and that the government can expect informed questions when the legislature resumes sitting in September.


Anonymous said...

It is but one of many situations where children are left at risk and the MCFD has been negligent and deceitful.You cannot cut so many dollars and push workers to keep children out of care before you have a disaster.To deal with this MCFD has taken up a culture of callousness and antagonism towards children and families to demarket their mandate. reductive logic dictates what is a child at risk.This is a major problem and one that needs to be exposed for what it is, government shirking responsibility.

Life in Victorola said...

While budget issues are real, they are in this case a red herring and represent classic hot potato buck passing. We don't need another multimillion dollar inquiry to determine that a basic criminal record check is a no-brainer.

If you want to work with Scouts or Brownies you need a criminal record check. Leaving an infant at risk with a relative unknown to you should require an equivalent test don't you think?

No amount of training can inculcate common sense. The band, the bureaucracy, the fiberal gummint all have their advocates. Just who was the disinterested advocate for that young child? Who was in loco parentis? Let the finger pointing begin...

BC Liberals Suck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
all our children said...

copy of a letter sent to the province colomnist michael smith

I am writing to ask you to consider reporting on child in care status, focusing on the lack of standards and safeguards pertaining to aboriginal children in B.C. particularly those caught in the dismal black hole of jurisdictional disputes between the province and band structures, in unique cases funded by the department of Indian affairs and northern development, citing Spallumcheen Band, bylaw 3, enacted in 1980. This is a band with a unique status in Canada that has been operating a floundering childcare system for over twenty years under repeated calls for review. It is documented and highlighted in part through the Children's Commission Review regarding a decision to remove a toddler from her stable foster placement absent a risk assessment, care plan, or transition plan. The review focused on the legal issues created by the abandonment of provincial jurisdiction and the federal limitations of funding a program they do not evaluate or recognize in terms of parameters with the federal government restating the obvious, the role of child protection falls to the province, and the province making so many misstatements around their legal responsibility they could not present a remotely united statement under the quasi judicial system of a children's commission review. Months following the close of that review which clearly stated problems with the ministry's function, documents were obtained through federal and provincial foi requests that showed repeatedly ministry representatives misrepresented themselves on topics vital to the review outcome. Along with those documents came letters from band members and staff defining deplorable lapses in protocols, a roadmap to the current disaster on the table. Aside from the gross misconduct that the labyrinth of law around the spallumcheen agreement created, and the substandard care, and the resulting myriad of concerns to spallumcheen children, when under review, the ministry for children and families declined the opportunity to assess the program and apply learned outcomes to the emerging band / government care agencies. This is in no small part a matter of liability and dollars misappropriated and dollars denied band children through three layers of government each accountable for over twenty years disservice, including neglect, including worse case outcomes with child fatalities, and fiscal responsibilities for millions of dollars. The case you are currently reporting on is only one of many tragically outlined and foreseeable through the child fatalities stats collected by the disbanded children's commission, not definable through band systems evaluations which are largely lacking and in their absence should red flag concern. Rather than focus on this case in exclusion, not because it is not worthy of sole attention but because there is culpability in the fact it was foreseeable by those charged with the responsibility of administering care without political distraction, why not consider the definitions of dereliction of duty and when that becomes as blatant and extreme as it is in the Ministry for Children and Families relating specifically to the care of aboriginal children, as outlined reviewing the child fatalities considered by the children's commission wherein roughly 25% of child deaths reviewed represented under 7% of the population, and upward of 80% of those included system error, when does lack of foresight become criminal neglect?