Friday, August 05, 2005

More answers in the sad case of Sherry Charlie

VICTORIA - Two weeks after releasing a five-page summary of its review of the death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie, the government changed course and made the full report public.
And the full version revealed significant omissions in the summary.
Sherry was battered to death almost three years ago, days after being placed in the care of relatives under a new ministry policy. The man who beat her, the father in the Port Alberni home, had a long and violent criminal record. He was on probation for assaulting his spouse. The children’s ministry had already investigated concerns about the well-being of other children in the home.
Sherry wasn't properly protected.
There's no shattering differences between the summary and the full report on most of the facts.
But the ministry's summary left out significant context about how this came to happen, and what needs to be done prevent similar cases.
The summary reported that Usma Nuu Chah Nulth Community Services, 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 generally preferable to foster care with non-relatives.)
The agency had not done a criminal record check. It had done only one reference check. It had contacted the ministry to find out if there were any previous concerns about the home. There were, but the ministry didn't tell the agency about them.
The whole process was new to all concerned. The government had just proclaimed the sections of a six-year-old act that set up a separate, less involved procedure for placing children with family and friends as an alternative to foster care. Sherry was the first child the Nuu Chah Nulth Agency placed under the new policy.
The summary acknowledged problems. "The newness of the policy, the lack of training and the lack of clarity on the requirements contributed to some confusion in the agency," it said.
But the report adds useful detail. The six-page policy was faxed to the agency that summer, with no follow-up or training, and the language suggested the guidelines were optional.
And it adds context about the change. "It was introduced in 2002 as an element of MCFD's new strategic shift, placing more onus on communities (families, informal support networks) to care for children, to reduce the number of children in foster care by a specific percentage and, in the opinion of the review to reduce costs," the report says.
Children and Families Minister Stan Hagen disagrees with the report. Placing Sherry in foster care would have been less costly, he notes, since the federal government would have paid.
But the finding is consistent with other, similar concerns about the ministry's direction, and it is relevant. It should have been disclosed.
Just as the report's observations about the wider issues that led to the case should have been disclosed. The report notes sherry was from Ahousat, a small island community about 40 minutes from Port Alberni by boat.
"The resources available to social workers in small, isolated communities are often woefully inadequate; there are often waiting lists for alcohol and drug treatment programs, day care facilities are inadequate, family support programs do not address underlying social problems," says the full report. "The lack of resources and the isolation result in agencies having difficulty supervising the progress or lack of progress a family is making."
To me, that's important enough to make the summary.
Hagen has, to his credit, acted to deal with the obvious perceived conflict involved in having ministry staff summarize reports that may be critical of their actions. Future reports will simply be released in full, subject to editing for privacy issues.
But the three-year delay, the reluctant disclosure and the missing information are all troubling.
Things are going to go wrong sometimes in this ministry.
What the public, the children and families served, and the people on the front lines all deserve is quick, full disclosure, and fast action to fix any problems.
Footnote: Sherry's brother remained in the home for five months after her death on Sept. 4. The summary said "between September, 2002, and January, 2003, the agency and ministry received information that the coroner was suspicious about the explanation for the child’s death." The full report shows the ministry was told Sherry's death was suspicious on Sept. 17.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

U.S. war on drugs belongs on other side of the border

VICTORIA - Do the crime, do the time.
That's a fair starting point for looking at the plight of Marc Emery, Vancouver's high-profile marijuana activist. The Americans have come gunning for Emery - with the help of Canadian police and prosecutors - and want to take him across the border and lock him up for a long time.
Look a little harder at the issues, and the picture changes.
Emery has been running a big marijuana seed business, with a catalogue that reads like a brochure for an upscale wine shop. His business is effectively legal in Canada. The law banning the sale of seeds hasn't been enforced since 1968, and Emery has been selling at his store and through multi-page magazine ads without any police action.
But Emery has also been selling seeds to customers in the U.S., and the Americans have spent years - and a pile of money - building a case against him.
On one hand Emery apparently made the decision to send seeds into the U.S., despite the obvious risks. (None of this has been proven, but there haven't been a lot of denials.) Decisions, especially bad ones, have consequences.
But the case isn't quite so simple.
Start with the legal issues. Canada and the U.S. have extradition treaties that make it easy to yank people across the border to face charges. Prosecutors just have to show is that there is enough evidence to justify a trial - whether a conviction is likely or not - and the suspect is on his way.
But the treaties say that people can't be extradited for offences that aren't considered crimes in their own country.
That raises one likely argument. The law against selling seeds is on the books in Canada, but unenforced. Prime Minister Paul Martin has promised to remove marijuana possession from the Criminal Code. Emery can make a good case that what he has been doing is no longer illegal in Canada, and he shouldn't face extradition. In Canada, there is no effective penalty for selling seeds. In the U.S., Emery and the two other people charged face a minimum term of 10 years, and the possibility of life behind bars. It's the kind of disparity that should raise doubts about the extradition request.
There are other questions.
While Canada has a legal obligation to respond to extradition applications once the U.S. has gathered the evidence, Canadian police and prosecutors still have the right to decide how much time they're prepared to devote to helping make the case.
When the U.S. police and prosecutors asked for help in investigating Emery, their Canadian counterparts could have politely declined.
That would have been a legitimate response. When DEA officers want to operate in Canada, they first need RCMP consent, and are shadowed by Canadian officers. It's time-consuming and diverts effort from other priorities. In the past Canadian police have just said no when the targets didn't justify the commitment.
Common sense says they should have said no this time, rather than spending almost a  year working with American officers. After all, they hadn't considered the seed sales a priority for the last decade. The public, based on most polls, doesn't consider it important.  
And there are a lot of crime problems that do need tackling, from meth labs to gang activity to violent assaults.
The U.S. government has been waging a costly, ineffective war on drugs for decades. The approach - trying to reduce supply, and lock up offenders - has accomplished nothing. Twenty years ago there were about 80,000 drug offenders in U.S. jails; now there are 400,000, at a cost of $16 billion a year.  
Addiction, death, crime and prisoners have all increased. The Americans are, of course, free to choose their response to drug use, no matter how irrational.
But the Canadian government doesn't have to sign on as partners helping bring a ineffective, destructive war on drugs across the border.
Footnote: One reason for Canadian police co-operation with the DEA is their belief that if they don't agree, the U.S. officers will go ahead illegally. The BC Supreme Court tossed out an extradition request in 2002 because of DEA wrongdoing in Canada. "The illegal conduct is extremely offensive because of the violation of Canadian sovereignty without explanation or apology," the court found.  

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A father’s advice, on the eve of war with Daneland

VICTORIA - Son, I know you’re ready to serve your country.
Art school is fine. Perhaps you’ll go back there some day.
But right now, it’s important to stand up to the Danish war machine, before they launch a sneak attack from Daneland and crush the non-existent inhabitants of Hans Island.
No, that’s not near Saltspring. Don’t you students watch the news?
Hans Island is in the north somewhere between Greenland and some Canadian cold place. Defence Minister Bill Graham angered the war-mongering, cheese-loving Danes when he flew over the island in a helicopter and, in a rare carefree moment, said ‘Hey, let’s land on that rock and take some pictures.
Provocation, the Danes whined, scoffing their fancy open-faced eel sandwiches. Eel sandwiches, son. These people are barbarians, who have never even grasped the concept that a sandwich requires two pieces of bread.
Now the Danes are ready to do battle to try and take away an important Canadian rocky outcrop, which they falsely claim as their own.
Sure, Hans Island is nothing special. A flat rock in a cold ocean, about 100 metres wide and 3,000 metres long. Even birds aren’t dumb enough to live there, and based on that penguin movie they are not picky.
But darn it, son, Bill Graham says it belongs to us. And if we aren’t willing to support a man who has spent a lifetime travelling the world preaching the Gospel in overheated arenas, can we really be Canadians?
Yes, it’s a useless lump of rock today.
But wait a few centuries and global warming will turn Hans Rock into a strategic must-have, our government says. Cruise ships and oil tankers will be booting it through the Northwest Passage as if it was a police-free shortcut home from the bar on Friday night.
Hans Island could be our toll booth, or help us protect the environment, or something. And maybe there’s oil, or kryptonite, waiting to be discovered.
Anyway, that’s not the point, son. This is about sovereignty, and national pride.
Those Danes are laughing at us, an insult made more cruel because of their normal melancholy. They’re taking breaks from watching their beloved women’s handball games to sneer at our way of life, wandering around with their freakishly large dogs, munching their beloved Danish pastries, telling each other Canadian jokes.
They’ve been tormenting us for years, those Victor Borge loving lowlanders.
Consider Ole Kirk Christansen, his company supposedly making ironing boards, stepladders and wooden toys, flying under the radar. In 1955 Christansen struck, unleashing Lego. Three generations of Canadian parents have spent the best years of their lives on their knees each evening, picking up hundreds of tiny plastic blocks, inevitably missing the ones that will later stab into their heels.
The coming conflict won’t be easy, son. It took Germany less than four hours to conquer Denmark in 1940, but we aren’t Germany. Denmark has about twice as many tanks as Canada, and air and sea forces are evenly matched. (Although we outnumber them six to one in population.) We need to negotiate rules of engagement that allow some sort of time-out if anybody gets hurt or one of our submarines catches on fire.
I know what you’re thinking, son.
Is this really your fight? How come I’m talking so tough for somebody who never fought anyone? Where is Daneland? What don’t Graham and his Danish counterpart fight this out on the island, with an appropriate split of the pay-per-view money? What’s with all the question marks?
But ultimately this is simple. The enemy isn’t just trying to take our freedom, or extract some revenge because Aqua was a global one-hit wonder. (Though Barbie Girl was catchy.) No, they hate our freedom, and our liberty.
It’s tough to go to war.
It’s especially tough when the whole conflict would have been ignored if it wasn’t summer and the media desperately short of real news stories.
But life is cruel. Good luck, son. Bring us back some cheese.
Footnote: The Danes have a secret weapon - “hygge.” Hygge is a Danish term for a happy life, suggesting a "warm, fuzzy, comfortable feeling of well-being," a life of good food, good company, wine, nice furniture, good music. The risk, of course, is that our brave young warriors may end up lounging on an oiled teak chaise, knocking back Aquavit and herring. Be strong, son.