Friday, September 23, 2005

Sherry Charlie and broken promises, broken hopes

VICTORIA - I am running out of ways to say how sad it is that we are so indifferent to the people who need us most.
The families on the edge, people who need a little help to cope, and the kids struggling to fall asleep in some new foster home, they all trust us to care.
That's mostly why we have a children and families' ministry, because we've decided that we won't let children's lives be wrecked. We - you and I - will make sure that somebody cares for a scared little boy when his family can't or won't.
It seems such a long time and so many columns about the mess we've made of this essential task.
I expected better from Gordon Campbell. The NDP government was hopeless.The children and families' ministry was underfunded and mismanaged, and the government ignored good advice and useful criticism.
But Campbell and the Liberals, they were inspiring with their principled, focused commitments in opposition.
The ministry had to have more money, Campbell said, in order to do what was needed. In fact Linda Reid, now junior minister for child care, wanted a needs-based budget. Figure out what it would cost to give people the help they needed, make the information public, and then make the hard choices, she said.
And Campbell and Reid were huge fans of the Children's Commission and the Child and Youth Advocate, the offices that provided effective, public oversight of the ministry. Reid grilled the NDP on a score of recommendations from Child and Youth Advocate Joyce Preston. Campbell demanded that every child death be reviewed, and the results reported, so no chance to improve our response was missed.
I believed him. Policies may change, but this was about principles, and they aren't shed like a cheap suit after a long hot day.
But the needs-based budget never happened. Instead of finding more money for the ministry, Campbell backed plans to cut its budget by 23 per cent. When that proved a fantasy, the cuts were reduced to 11 per cent.
Despite soaring revenues, and all the promises, provincial spending on children and families is about $160 million less now, in constant dollars, than it was before the Liberals were elected.
The Liberals also eliminated the Children's Commission and the Child and Youth Advocate.
And they halted independent reviews of children's deaths.
The Children's Commission used to review about 150 deaths per year, making scores of recommendations based on its findings.
Since the commission was eliminated in 2002, there has been one public report, by the coroner, on the death of a child in care, and two by the ministry.
If the Children's Commission still existed, the government would have been spared its fumbles and stumbles last week over the death of Sherry Charlie. An independent review would have been automatic.
Instead the government looked secretive, and inept. Attorney General Wally Oppal, who instructed Children and Youth Officer Jane Morley to investigate the ministry's review of Sherry's death, acknowledged he hadn't read the original report before deciding what questions that Morley should answer.
Instead of giving Morley a free hand, the government tried to restrict her review. Under pressure, Oppal amended the terms of reference to offer her slightly more freedom.
But still not enough. Morley rightly swept aside the government's instructions, and has launched her own sweeping review. (The Ombudsman and the coroner's officer are also reviewing Sherry's death. Scores of others have received no such attention.)
The ministry faces huge challenges every day, and terrible choices. Things will inevitably go badly wrong sometimes, no matter how well the system work, and people perform.
That's why we have to demand commitment, and openness, from government. We need to learn when things go wrong, or right. We have to know if we're giving the ministry the resources needed.
Government, the ministry, may do the work. But caring for the children and families is ultimately our responsibility.
Footnote: Morley has proposed an all-party legislative committee on children and youth, just as there are on education, health and finance. Campbell hasn't yet responded to the idea. He should seize on it as a chance to show that the issues matter to his government.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your tireless efforts and those of some of your colleagues in bringing these issues to public attention. With
the added pressures of a functioning political Opposition once again, there is hope that something might be done at last.

We suddenly have a whole string of separate enquiries into one tragic death, but little Sherry was by no means the only victim, as you rightly note. We really need to step back and look at the broader systemic failures from the perspective of all those whom MCFD has failed and is failing and why successive Ministers and governments have been unable to turn this around.

Anonymous said...

"I expected better from Gordon Campbell."

"Campbell and Reid were huge fans of the Children's Commission and the Child and Youth Advocate..."

"Campbell demanded that every child death be reviewed..."

"Campbell backed plans to cut its (children and families' ministry) budget by 23 per cent."

"The Liberals also eliminated the Children's Commission and the Child and Youth Advocate. And they halted independent reviews of children's deaths. "

What a wonderful 'New Era' we're in!

Anonymous said...

I was a complainant in a children’s commission review that spanned the original filing of the complaint in 1998 and concluded somewhat in 2001. The Children's commission, while good in principle had some significant limits to scope especially in jurisdiction with multi agency systems, and band agencies. We have been calling for a review since 1998 focused on the ministry's relationship with band agencies specifically Spallumcheens child welfare system. I have researched complaints against the band agency since its inception. Recommendations have been ignored from the coroner’s office, the family advocate the children's commission, and evaluations remain incomplete. Christy Clark and George Abbott brought our case to the legislation while in the position of opposition, and lost interest when in the position to actually affect change. Liabiulity is a major issue as this bands history spans over 20 years and thus has had relationship with the ndp, the liberals and the federal government which currently funds the program. The director claims and vehemently refuses jurisdiction. An audit has not been conducted though was promised by Gordon Hogg through George Abbott in my presense. Attached is a letter sent to Michal Smith, province news columnist, cc to The Child and Youth officer and the office of the Ombudsman.

Mr. Smythe,

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?

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