Friday, April 21, 2006

Posturing aside, there is no Conservative child care plan

VICTORIA - Stephen Harper is busily talking tough about the Conservatives' plan to send $1,200 per preschooler out to Canadians.
The money's going to be in the budget, Harper vows. If the opposition votes against it, we'll have another election.
It's Harper's right to spend your money this way. He campaigned on the promise.
But the opposition parties have no intention of waging a fight to stop the payments. What politician in his right mind would take a stand aimed at keeping parents from getting money?
Once Harper is through posturing, he needs to recognize that it's ridiculous to call the payments a child care plan.
The Conservatives want to send families $1,200 a year for every child under seven.
It's a weird notion. The idea that the government will take money from a low-income senior in Duncan and hand it to a millionaire parent in West Van makes no public policy sense.
Still, for many parents the money will make a useful difference. A single parent with two small children on welfare in B.C.receives up to $555 for rent, and another $573 a month for all other expenses. It's tough life, and children suffer. The extra $1,200 a year will make a real difference. (Income Assistance Minister Claude Richmond has promised the province won't claw back the money.)
But it's not a child care plan. It's not enough money to come close to allowing parents to pay for child care, which typically would be about $550 per month. And it will not stimulate entrepreneurs or non-profits to provide more spaces.
The Harper government says it will eventually unveil a plan to create child care spaces. Companies will be offered $20,000 per space in tax credits. The government says it will offer a total of $250 million in credits, enough to pay for 125,000 spaces.
But Ontario and Quebec have tried similar tax schemes, without success. Companies don't want the headaches of becoming responsible for a child care centre, even one run by a contractor. It's a complicated, regulated, demanding operation. Their focus is on their business.
Nothing Harper has talked about replaces the $5-billion federal-provincial child-care agreement negotiated by the Martin government.
That five-year deal provided the provinces with money to increase child care access. They could subsidize new centres, or come up with targeted assistance for parents or add child care to community schools. B.C. planned to increase parent subsidies and aid for child care providers with its share.
B.C. was to get about $120 million a year. Harper honoured this year's commitment, but told provinces to forget about seeing any more money under the program.
Child care is a real problem.
Parents can't find it, and many can't afford it even if they do. If they are fortunate, a friendly neighbour or relative can provide care. Otherwise the lack of child care becomes a serious barrier to employment.
Children who would benefit the most from quality care are often from families least able to afford it. They lose out on a chance for a fair start at life.
And the problems are yet another drag on productivity. People who could be working aren't, and companies suffer as employees book off to handle the latest child care crisis.
Sending $1,200 cheques out to parents isn't going to takes us closer to solving the real problem. It was politically effective, and is highly popular among parents campaigning for their right to subsidies even if they stay home to care for their own children.
But it's not going lead to better care, or more spaces, or real help with what is a serious crisis for many families.
The provinces haven't given up. They accept the fact that the $1,200 cheques are going out, but hope Harper can be persuaded to honour the federal-provincial child care deal.
It would be a wise decision.
Footnote: The child care debate has focused on costs. What's also needed is a serious consideration of benefits. What's gained if we can offer a three-year-old a safe, educational and stimulating social environment, especially a child who would otherwise start school at a significant disadvantage? For many children the cost would be an investment with lasting benefits.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

New children and families head has chance for change

VICTORIA - I have not quite been able to let go of Ted Hughes' report on the children and families ministry.
The government has just announced a new top manager for the troubled ministry. Lesley du Toit, the South African who spent the last few months working in the premier's office, now has the permanent job.
But big questions about what went wrong remain. Hughes said the government has mismanaged the ministry for five years. Big changes were introduced without any effective plan. Unreasonable budget cuts were made, Hughes found, even though implementing change costs more money. So children and families suffered.
Governments, like all of us, mess up. What's baffling is that for four years the government was in denial. Plans were falling apart, budgets were based on wishful thinking, child death reviews were forgotten in a warehouse. And the politicians said everything was just fine.
We still don't know if they were hopelessly out of touch, or misleading us. Hughes said he favours the out-of-touch explanation. But if politicians are so insulated from reality that they can ignore warnings from front-line workers, families and the public, we have a profound structural problem.
There was, for example, no plan or budget for completing child death reviews after the Children's Commission was eliminated in 2002. Long after the failure became a major issue Gordon Campbell stood in front of reporters and said there was both a transition plan, and a budget. Somebody must have messed up, he said.
As Hughes pointed out, the premier was wrong. There was no plan, and no money.
Politicians shouldn't be so sadly and obviously misinformed. How can they be accountable, if they don't know what's going on?
Enter du Toit, newly named deputy minister for children and families. She's spent the last few months talking to staff and service providers as part of her consulting work for the premier's office. This week Campbell surprised no one by appointing her deputy minister.
Du Toit becomes the ninth deputy minister in 11 years. If you're on the front line, you aren't be betting much on her longevity.
But du Toit has some advantages, starting with a four-year contract. That's consistent with Hughes' concern about turnover in the ministry's senior management ranks.
She can still be dumped, or course. But the government would have to explain why it had soured on its chosen candidate, and had ignored Hughes' call for stability.
That gives du Toit considerable power to make change. The government has budgeted an extra $100 million over the next three years to fix things, based on the recommendations from Hughes and other reports that are still due. (It's alarming that after five years of fumbling the government is still waiting to figure out how to help kids and families in crisis. But that's where we are.)
Du Toit has the mandate, the money and the clout to make things better. For a year or two, she is charmed. The premier annointed her; should she fail, it will be a reflection on his judgment. It's a talisman for a manager.
Can she deliver? Those who have had dealings with her are impressed so far. She's familiar with many of the issues in B.C., serving as an advisor to the ministry since 2001, mainly as part of an international advisory panel.
It's tougher to see how her resume fits with this job. In 1995 du Toit helped set up the a child and youth care system for the Mandela government, a significant task. Since 1999, she's been executive director of the Child and Youth Care Agency for Development. That's a small organization, involved heavily in helping communities' cope with the effects of HIV/AIDS.
It's a leap to become top manager of a large, troubled B.C. ministry. But at least du Toit starts with the political clout to make the premier's office finally pay attention.
Footnote: A key thrust of du Toit's South African agency is promoting Circles of Care. HIV/AIDS has destroyed traditional family and community support for children in the many communities. The agency is experimenting with ways of building new local capacity to help vulnerable children and youth. The lessons should be applicable in many First Nations' communities.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Spending now, to help the wounded, is just good sense

VICTORIA - I got a call a couple of years ago from a man who wanted to talk about his son. The boy had fetal alcohol syndrome. He couldn't see the consequences of actions, and made terrible decisions.
That had changed for a while in foster care, when he was living on a small farm. Life was structured, and he took to the responsibility involved in caring for the animals. Things were good.
But he turned 19, and was pushed into the world. Trusting and inept, he hung with the wrong people, and became criminal and victim. His dad expected it to end with a terrible phone call.
Meanwhile it was costing us a lot of money to patch him up, lock him up and push him back on the street.
Just like my acquaintance Dave. He's often charming, and an addict. I suspect some fetal alcohol disorder, since he makes such bad decisions.
Dave is a very expensive member of society. In the last year I count two jail stays, at a cost to you of about $12,500.
He landed in hospital at least three times once with one of those nasty - and expensive - drug-resistant infections. Dave skipped out of hospital twice, once with an IV attached to his arm. The ER is still looking for the borrowed crutches, I'm sure. Figure $13,000 for hospital bills.
Then there's the regular calls for an ambulance and ER visits. Say another $1,000.
There's more. Dave sleeps mostly in shelters, or on the street when they kick him out for bad behaviour. Living half the year in shelters, at $70 a night, would cost $13,000.
Social agencies provide support, police keep him moving - say $5,000 minimum for their efforts. And then add welfare, at $7,300 a year.
The grand - yet understated total - is $52,000 a year. All that's buying is a slow-motion decline.
That's not even a complete tally. Here in Victoria people have started to get worried about homeless men and women sprawled on the sidewalks around our busiest shelter. They are bad for business, and tourists don't want to see rough-looking people in sleeping bags sprawled on the sidewalk. There's a cost to that. (People are understandably concerned. It's not good for anyone to have often difficult people camping on city sidewalks.)
Still, figure $52,000 for Dave, without actually providing much of a chance for change. (Dave is a real person, heavily disguised.)
Dave really needs a place to live, with a house parent to help him with choices and talk him out of bad ideas. It could probably be done for about $30,000 per resident.
He'd be better off. Maybe he'd even start to get a handle on things
And we'd be spending $30,000 instead of $52,000.
So why doesn't the government do it?
I got to thinking about how much Dave costs because of a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker that looked at some of these issues. He was writing about power law theory, which suggests that to fix a problem you don't need to come up with a solution that works for everyone involved. Target the hardcore, and things improve dramatically. (For them, and the collective.)
But Gladwell notes that can be a tough sell. How can we provide free housing to a self-destructive alcoholic, and not to a more deserving single mom? We'll save a fortune by keeping the alcoholic out of jail, the ER and the street, but it still troubles people.
And partly we just don't think people like Dave deserve that kind of help.
But he does. He's clever, and charming and pays attention to what much of the time. He just needs help at life.
And even if you're not so sure he deserves it, the numbers are clear.
Spend $52,000 to support a crazy, dangerous life, or $30,000 to provide a home.
Catching him, and keep him safe, is just the right thing to do.
Footnote: Addiction treatment offers enormous payback. Victoria Police Chief Paul Battershill says that 90 per cent of property crime in the city is done by addicts looking for drug money. That's 8,500 crimes last year. Deal with the addiction - or even just the daily struggle to get drugs - and you create safer cities, and free police for other issues.

Grow op law erodes your right to privacy

VICTORIA - You can understand firefighters' concerns about marijuana grow ops.
Almost 10 per cent of building fires in Surrey last year were in grow ops, says Chief Len Garis, and many were particularly dangerous to fight. In a normal house fire breakers trip and kill the power supply. But in some grow ops jury-rigged electrical systems mean firefighters encounter live wires as they fumble blindly through smoke-filled rooms and tangles of equipment.
That's why Garis and other fire chiefs lobbied for the new law that will force BC Hydro and other utilities to hand over information on customers and their electricity use.
But the law raises serious privacy issues. The legislation - still to be passed - would let municipalities require BC Hydro or other utilities to provide two years worth of power bills for every resident. (Regulations will limit the act's application, government officials say. Hydro will screen the reports and just pass on ones that show people who use a lot of power.)
The town will look at the files, and then be able to come to your house and post a notice giving you 48 hours to prepare for an inspection. The idea is that if you have a grow op, either you'll dismantle it or the inspectors will.
The plan worked in a Surrey pilot project. More than 90 per cent of the flagged properties had grow ops; 119 marijuana operations were shut down.
Or were they?
More likely they moved down the road, or into a neighbouring community. There is money to be made at a risk level that many people find acceptable.
And the tactic likely worked in part because the operators weren't aware that their power use information was being shared with the municipality. Once they are, they will adapt. The dangers may actually be increased if growers decide to try improvised wiring to bypass the power meter, or switch to propane or gas-powered generators. A move to more smuggling, or large outdoor grow ops, would bring different problems.
The firefighters' frustration is understandable. A University of the Fraser Valley study on grow ops found that in 1997 police across B.C. investigated more than 90 per cent of grow op reports within one month. By 2003, that had fallen to barely 50 per cent. That means grow ops operate longer, and the risks for firefighters increase.
But the new law isn't likely to make people stop growing marijuana, or make firefighters safer.
It will expand the state's reach into the lives of its citizens. Authorities can get your electricity records now. They just have to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion that you may be running a grow op. But BC Hydro has refused to hand over their customers' information on a random basis, citing privacy laws.
It's an important principle. The state doesn't get access to information about you unless it can show a good reason. The BC Civil Liberties' Association opposes the new law. B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis questioned the need for it, and says this kind of government surveillance - without any grounds for suspicion - is increasing, and a cause for concern.
It's not an easy public policy question, and it's made more difficult by our fumbling approach to marijuana use generally. The Harper government has announced it won't go ahead with decriminalization. But practically, marijuana use is legal since the laws are not enforced. Even grow ops have - as the study showed - become a low police priority.
StatsCan found almost 600,000 British Columbians fessed up to using marijuana in the last year. That's an attractive market. It is hard to imagine what sort of enforcement would actually cut off the supply of a product that many people want.
That's the challenge. Maintain some enforcement, especially aimed at organized gangs and keeping residential neighbourhoods safe, without sacrificing police resources needed elsewhere.
It's a tough balancing act. But it should mean the careless loss of individual rights.
Footnote: If the main marijuana public policy issues are the risks of grow ops in neighbourhoods and the role of criminal gangs in profiting from the industry, a different response should be considered. Allowing people to grow a handful of plants without penalty would reduce the threat to neighbourhoods and the available profits for gangs.