Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Children's deaths need to mean something

VICTORIA - If it takes a study by Judge Thomas Gove to restore proper reviews of children's deaths in B.C., then let's get it done.
Something was lost when the Liberals wiped out the office that - among other useful functions - used to investigate children's deaths in B.C.
Look at the numbers. In six years the Children's Commission reviewed and reported on 800 children's deaths.
In the three years since it was eliminated, there has been one public report by the coroner, and two reviews by the ministry.
It is a big loss.
The Children's Commission released the reviews every few months, in batches. It was generally a depressing day. The reports were sad - children dying of sickness, or in car crashes, or committing suicide.
But the deaths often offered lessons, and the commission made sure they were heard. Sometimes, the children were in government care, and the lessons involved the ministry of children and families. The reports raised alarms about children bounced between foster homes, or left with too little support.
And they raised alarms about other issues, reminding us how many youths die because they don't wear seatbelts, or how often warnings of suicide are ignored, or how adult alcohol abuse puts children's lives at risk, or even how the right choice of a bicycle can save lives.
They were lessons from death. Because someone was looking, they were discovered. Because someone reported them, those lessons were shared.
It seems a useful government function, a way of providing the public with information on how well the ministry was doing, and on how we could keep all children safer. But the Liberals shut it down.
That is about to change.
Children and Families Minister Stan Hagen announced this week that he and Gordon Campbell had met with Gove to hear his concerns about the accountability lost along with the Children's Commission.
As a result Gove, Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and Chief Coroner Terry Smith would be reporting on the current system on reviewing and reporting child deaths, and possible improvements, Hagen said.
Gove, whose 1995 review into the death of Matthew Vaudreuil led to the creation of the children and families ministry, has made his views clear.
The controversy over the death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie was unnecessary, Gove told the Victoria Times-Colonist's Lindsay Kines.
"If the children's commission. . . was still in existence at the time that this little girl died, they would have done a death review in the normal course," he said. "It would not have required any politician to instruct anyone to do so. That report would have gone to the experts panel. They would have made recommendations, which may well have examined and challenged some of the policies that had her placed where she was. . . And that report would have been made public."
"We do not have a service close to what we had before," Gove said.
He's right, despite the government's denials. The numbers speak for themselves. Maybe too many reviews were being done, and the scope can be narrowed. But eliminating all public reporting was damaging.
The other troubling aspect to this is the government's inability to look critically at its own actions - to learn from mistakes, and successes.
The government insisted that the summary of the internal review of Sherry Charlies' death was all anyone needed to see - until public pressure, helped by Morley forced release of a more complete version.
It insisted that the report was adequate - until questions from the New Democrats forced the promise of one narrow review, then a slightly wider one. Then Morley and the Ombudsman both stepped in.
And it has insisted that reporting deaths is fully adequate - until Gove and the NDP raised the political pressure.
It's good to respond to public concern. But what's emerging is a picture of a government unable to take a hard look and learn from is own inevitable mistakes.
Footnote: "When any child dies in this province, that should be referred to an independent review board, with people with the expertise, knowledge and understanding to get to the bottom of every single death, so that we can do everything in our power to prevent such deaths from taking place." - Gordon Campbell, 1996.

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