Friday, November 18, 2005

Government failed 713 forgotten children

VICTORIA - They sat in a Victoria warehouse for almost three years, partially completed reviews of the deaths of 713 children.
Almost 50 children who killed themselves. Twenty-five who were victims of homicide, and another 25 whose deaths were still mysteries. Fourteen who were in the government’s care.
Apparently no one in government had noticed that the deaths had fallen through the cracks when the Liberals eliminated the Children’s Commission.
Solicitor General John Les walked into the Press Theatre this week to announce the forgotten children, only days after he had said there might be about 80 cases. Work will start now on the forgotten reviews, he said, and his deputy minister will report on what went wrong.
I can offer some suggestions.
The Liberals eliminated the Children’s Commission in 2002 and handed the responsibility for child death reviews to the Coroner’s Office. But they cut the coroner’s budget by $600,000 at the same time, without reducing his responsibilities. The Children’s Commission, by my best guess, had been spending about $1.5 million a year on child death reviews. The coroner was doomed to fail.
And the government made the change without any real transition plan, or monitoring system.
Premier Gordon Campbell denied that this week. The legislation clearly set out a transition plan, he said.
But the premier is forgetful. The Office of Child and Youth Advocate Act simply says the Children’s Commission must transfer any remaining incomplete death investigations to the coroner’s office. The coroner “may” continue the investigations, the law says.
That’s the supposed transition plan. And it was followed. The coroner signed for the 713 incomplete death reviews, taking legal control of the files. And then they sat in the warehouse.
Why does it matter?
For the families of those children, it matters because some wanted answers. They wanted to know why their children died. They hoped that the deaths would gain meaning if something was learned that would help others.
For government, and all of us, it’s important to understand any lessons that could help prevent future deaths. That is the purpose of child death reviews.
And in 713 cases, that wasn’t done.
What is more worrying is that no one noticed. The ministers who should have been paying attention over the last few years - Rich Coleman, Gordon Hogg, Stan Hagen - all said they have no idea what happened.
But those cases represent about two years worth of deaths. How can the government, if it is paying attention, not notice that those reports have just dropped from sight?
Ted Hughes is looking at the whole system of death reviews. He was chairing a panel that included Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and Chief Coroner Terry Smith. Hagen changed that Friday, handing sole responsibility to Hughes.
That’s reasonable. Morley designed the current system; Smith, according to the premier’s interpretation, was legally responsible for the 713 incomplete investigations. They shouldn’t have been on the review panel.
The small good news is that this failure should end the government’s claim that public accountablility and open reporting is unnecessary.
The Children’s Commission, and the Child Youth Advocate, reported frequently on how children were faring in B.C. The commission reported publicly on close to 200 deaths a year, and over its history made 800 recommendations to keep children from harm.
In the last three years the coroner has released a report on one death, and one report on keeping children safe in bed. It says it has done 546 other child death reviews, but hasn’t released them, or shared recommendations.
And all the while the government has maintained that all is well.
But the Sherry Charlie case and the 713 forgotten children show that all is not well. The secrecy has made it impossible to tell how large the problems may be, or what we must do to respond.
It’s time to admit a major mistake, and restore full, independent reporting on the lives - and deaths - of children in B.C.
Footnote: Campbell said this week that all of the 713 deaths had already received a coroner’s review, which determines cause of death and other basic information. But in fact 40 per cent had received no review before being sent to the warehouse. The coroner says he hasn’t yet begun doing any full child death reviews and needs more money and authority.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

MLAs' secretive pay grab an abuse of public

VICTORIA - You have to wonder if the Liberals and NDP lost their collective mind in their rush to raise their salaries.
In the morning the government admitted that 713 children's deaths weren't properly investigated, their files forgotten in a Victoria warehouse.
And in the afternoon both parties rammed through a 16-per-cent pay raise for all MLAS, taking their base to $86,580.
Most will get extra money for heading up committees, or filling party posts, with a half-dozen MLAs getting pay jumps of at least 30 per cent.
Premier Gordon Campbell will see his pay jump 22 per cent to $146,000 on April 1; NDP leader Carole James and cabinet ministers are up 15 per cent to $131,000.
MLAs also restored their pension plan, even though the Liberals led the crusade to get rid of the former plan.
I have no problem with a raise. Most MLAs sacrifice much to do the job, personally and financially. Their pay should reflect that. And a sensible pension plan also makes sense.
But this was a bushwhacking. Every one of these people ran for office six months ago knowing what the compensation was. None of them suggested that one of their first priorities would be to get down to the business of increasing their pay.
And the entire deal was reached in secret meetings of a legislative committee, with not one word of public discussion or debate. No outsiders were involved; no independent review was done.
MLAs even voted unanimously to suspend the normal rules of the legislature to get the increase approved in 51 minutes. The rules require bills to be debated over several days, to allow public debate and sober second thought.
The change sets the stage for continued big increases.
The MLAs voted to set their pay from now on at 60 per cent of the salary of federal MPs. But federal MPs salary increases are already controversial. They've linked their pay rates to federal judge's salaries, which are set by a commission and have been soaring.
It's remarkably brazen, and unfair to the public. Why not a discussion of linking MLAs' pay to the average weekly wage in the province, so they gained as all British Columbians gained?
Or why not appoint a commissioner - the route taken in the past - to look at MLAs' pay and come up with public recommendations?
The secret deal stinks.
And it is going to create massive headaches. Don't forget that every public sector contract is up for renegotiation over the next seven months. Teachers, for example, fresh from their legislated contract with no pay increases, will soon start their next round of talks.
And predictably enough BCTF head Jinny Sims says the union will now be looking for 15 per cent. Doctors, nurses, government workers can now say that all they want is the same increases that MLAs voted for themselves.
Since MLAs felt no need to justify their proposed increase to their employers - that's you - the unions can make the same demand.
There's no easy way for politicians to increase their pay, and some people will object to any raise, no matter how well-deserved.
But this secret surprise deal violate the principle of openness, transparency and fairness to taxpayers. There is no clear justification offered for the big increases, beyond the fact that MLAs thought they deserved more money.
The pension plan was re-introduced in the same rushed, secretive way. MLAs voted to bring back a pension plan without even knowing what it would cost taxpayers.
The Liberals and New Democrats stood together, with MLAs voting unanimously for the increase, so no party comes out ahead or behind.
But politicians all lose. This is the kind of behaviour that rightly fuels cynicism. This is an obvious case for third party review, an informed public discussion and some common sense.
Instead British Columbians were kept in the dark as MLAs failed to recognize their duty to the public.
Footnote: MLAs also approved a 40-per-cent increase in funding for constituency offices - badly needed for many large rural ridings - and big increases for political support staff. No justification was provided.

Opposition scores win for firefighters, despite Liberal qualms

VICTORIA - It's a brave or foolhardy politician who gets into a fight with volunteer firefighters.
So even though rushing to extend special WCB status to volunteer firefighters isn't particularly sound public policy, the Liberal government jumped aboard the bright red bandwagon this week,
On one level, it's democracy in action. The NDP saw what they considered a weakness in a government bill making it easier for firefighters to get WCB compensation if they get cancer. Only full-time firefighters were to get the break. Part-timers, and more importantly volunteers, were left out.
Labour Minister Mike de Jong defended the decision earlier this month. There just isn't evidence that volunteer firefighters face the same exposure to harmful substances. Like other workers, they would continue to have to prove to the WCB that their cancer had been caused by fighting fires.
Liberal backbenchers supported the exclusion. Volunteers are important, said Kevin Krueger, and should get protection. But not now.
But New Democrats, led by labour critic Chuck Pulchmayr, weren't so hesitant, and introduced an amendment extending the special status to volunteers and part-timers.
And the squeeze was on. Worries about a lack of scientific evidence vanished, swept away by the tides of political pressure.
De Jong changed his mind, the NDP withdrew its amendment - governments hate accepting opposition ideas - and the Liberals introduced their own version to extend the special status to all firefighters.
Cheers all round and a speedy passage for the new law. What was unsound three weeks ago will now be law.
The Liberals opened the door to all this with a pre-election promise to give full-time firefighters special status with the Workers' Compensation Board.
If you're employed and get sick, you are only compensated if you can prove that your work caused the illness. That can be long, costly and difficult; firefighters lost two out of every three appeals over the years.
The Liberals' legislation gives them special status. For firefighters suffering from seven kinds of cancer, the WCB will be ordered to assume that their illness was work-related. The board will have to prove that the disease was caused by some other factor, or pay up.
The WCB legislation already attempts to streamline the process for some common illnesses, with a schedule of ailments and causes. If you work in a mine and are exposed to silica dust, the WCB has to prove silicosis wasn't caused by your work.
Firefighters get a different, better deal. They continue to benefit from the status even if they have left the job or retired.
The notion of extending special privileges to one occupational group is troubling. If the WCB system isn't working, or is unfair, it should be fixed for all employees.
But full-time firefighters waged an effective lobby, producing scientific studies to show that they did suffer from much higher rates of cancer.
And it helped hugely that firefighters are seen as good guys, making the move a political winner for the Campbell government. The promise was enough to win a rare union endorsement for the Liberals, and the government launched its legislation with a big reception for about 50 firefighters from around the province.
Those same political factors led to the quick reversal on volunteers and part-timers, who make up about two-thirds of the 15,000 firefighters in the province.
The part-timers and volunteers have a case. In many rural communities volunteers - while still invaluable - face limited exposure to toxins. But in small cities they work side by side with full-time firefighters, and face the same exposure. It's complex to sort out - only two provinces have so far extended special status to part-time firefighters. De Jong was likely right to delay a decision.
But politics won out, with the biggest factor the strength of the opposition. In the last legislature, the bill would have sailed through unchanged.
This time the political pressure was enough to outweigh the government's view that there just wasn't enough evidence to extend special status to 11,000 firefighters.
Footnote: The provisions covering full-time firefighters carry some serious restrictions. Kidney cancer is only automatically considered work-related, for example, if the firefighter has been on the job for 20 years. The bill will allow the government to come up with different standards for volunteers and part-timers.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Liberals stumble again in child death reviews

VICTORIA - John Les tied himself in knots Monday in a hopeless effort to minimize the government's bungling of child death reviews.
The latest revelation was that the government shut down at least 80 significant investigations into children's deaths when it eliminated the Children's Commission in 2002. The reviews weren't finished. The families didn't have answers, and the lessons that could be learned remained hidden.
But the government wanted the Children's Commission gone, and the simple way was to close the files. Sorry, Martel family of Kitimat. You'll never get a full report about how your little boy died during a superbug outbreak in a Vancouver hospital. It's not important enough to finish the review.
The NDP raised the issue in Question Period, and Les, as the solicitor general, gamely tried to answer questions in a scrum. (He's responsible for the coroner's service, which was supposed to be taking on all these child death reviews.)
So did 80 child deaths go unreviewed, falling through the cracks?
No, Les maintained. "The appropriate reviews were done on each of these unfortunate cases," he claimed.
And then, barely taking a breath, Les contradicted himself.
"There were some issues about whether the reviews were completed," he said.
In the real world, it's hard to claim that everything was properly completed, except for the fact that things were not actually properly completed.
In any case, actions tell the real story. And Les said that after he learned about the incomplete investigations about a month ago, he told the coroner to review them. And now he's come up with emergency money - several hundred thousand dollars - to get the job done properly. At least half a dozen deaths raise issues that demand a thorough review.
Les won't say how he learned about the abandoned investigations, or why no one in government did anything about the issue for three years. It was a hardly a secret - parents complained back in 2002 that the reviews of their children's deaths were being abandoned.
None of this is terribly complex. The Children's Commission, among its activities, reviewed the deaths of children in the province. It had a $4-million budget, with some $1.5 million going towards the death reviews. They established facts, and looked for ways we could avoid future tragedies.
The Liberals decided the commission was unnecessary (although they were very big fans in opposition).
So the commission, along with the Child and Youth Advocate, were gone, replaced by the Child and Youth Officer. Child death reviews were supposed to be taken over by the coroner.
Except at the same time the Coroner's Office budget was cut by $800,000, and only $200,000 was provided for child death reviews. It was obviously hopelessly inadequate.
Since then, the government has been playing word games to cover up what has been lost.
The coroner is still reviewing child fatalities, the government has said over the last several months, as questions over the death of Sherry Charlie have mounted.
That's at best an evasion. The coroner is still looking at all deaths. But child death reviews are not the same. They take a broader look, at what could have changed to save a life, or a family.
Chief Coroner Terry Smith has acknowledged as much. More than three years after his office took over responsibility, only one child death review has been done and released.
Smith hopes to start the work next year, and has asked for an extra $1 million to cover the cost. "We're now at a point where we need to start doing the fuller reviews, and I have asked for additional resources along with some legislative changes to accommodate that," he said. Now being three years after the government began maintaining nothing was lost with the elimination of the Children's Commission.
No wonder Les is struggling to come up with answers.
Footnote: In opposition, Gordon Campbell - like Judge Thomas Gove - rejected the idea that standard coroner's investigation was adequate. An independent commissioner was needed, he said then, and must look at every child death. Campbell was at a convention centre construction photo op in Vancouver when the new questions were raised in the legislature.