Friday, October 20, 2006

Chaos, confusion and coroners' secrecy put boy at risk

VICTORIA - There's some new appalling detail on almost every page of the report into why a little boy was left for months in the care of the man who beat his 19-month-old sister to death.
The government finally released Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley's report Friday, after sitting on it for three weeks. The report paints a terrible picture of failure, of a system snarled in rigid bureaucracy and plagued by paralysing secrecy, suspicion and indecision.
Ministry of children and families staff were keeping secrets from Usma, the First Nations' agency delivering child protection services to the family. Usma workers were keeping, it turned out, the same secrets from ministry staff.
Pleas for help and direction from front-line workers were ignored by senior ministry staff.
Even as chaos and confusion mounted, no one at the top levels of the ministry stepped in, called people together and sorted things out,
And all the while the Coroners Service, responsible for child death reviews, was refusing to provide critical information - including the details of the terrible injuries that killed Sherry Charlie - to the people charged with protecting her three-year-old brother Jamie and the other children in the Port Alberni home.
It's a grim recitation, made bearable only because the children weren't physically harmed.
Sherry Charlie, who had been placed in the care of family members by Usma on behalf of the ministry, was beaten to death Sept. 4. Within five days preliminary autopsy results made it clear to the coroner and police that she hadn't died from a fall down a few stairs, as the family claimed. She had head and abdominal trauma, a lacerated liver, internal bleeding and other injuries.
But neither coroner nor police shared that information with the ministry or Usma for almost two months.
Some scenes in the report stand out, moments that can convey the bizarre way this case was handled. By late October, eight weeks after the killing, the coroner had told ministry staff - vaguely - that Sherry's death hadn't been caused by a fall down stairs. But the coroner had insisted the information be kept secret.
Usma was about to extend Jamie's placement in the home. A senior ministry official was concerned enough to call the Usma supervisor and ask if she was sure that was the right decision. The puzzled Usma worker asked if the ministry knew something that she didn't.
Instead of answering, the ministry manager allowed a silent pause. She thought that was a good way to hint at problems; the Usma worker thought she was acknowledging there were no concerns. It was a ludicrous way to deal with a child in danger.
What also stands out is the failure of the Coroners Service to discharge - or even grasp - its responsibilities. It took four months for the coroner's service to produce an autopsy report on Sherry's death, which confirmed the original findings. It took another two months of effort to get the coroner to provide the report to the ministry.
This despite a legal requirement that coroners, like others, immediately report to the ministry any facts that raise questions about a child's safety.
It's grim. The Coroners Service priority appeared to be the police case, not children's safety.
Worse, Morley notes that the coroner involved and the Coroners Service both tried to argue that she shouldn't be allowed to comment or report on the possibility that the service had made mistake, broken laws or make any comments that "reflect adversely on the Coroner's competence." It's an incredible attempt to deny public accountability and hide from independent scrutiny.
The other alarming element to all this is that the facts are only coming out now, more than four years after all this happened.
And for much of that time the government has insisted that there was no need for an investigation, that the case had been properly handled and the Coroners Service was handling its responsibilities effectively.
Morley's report shows that none of those claims were true.
Footnote: The report includes on recommendation which urges the government to create a "system of multi-agency child death teams" to investigate when a child dies unexpectedly in the home of a caregiver and other children remain in the home. If the system had been in place, Morley says, police, coroner, the ministry and Usma could have worked together quickly and effectively.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Government leaves welfare children out in cold

VICTORIA - Imagine two poor families living side-by-side, both with incomes of $18,000 a year and two young children.
That's not enough money to allow adequate housing in B.C. today, Forest Minister Rich Coleman said this month. Parents are forced to cut back on essentials, including adequate food for their children, to pay the rent. So the government launched a housing subsidy program to help poor families cope and ensure that their children get a fair start in life.
Everyone with children under 19 and an income under $20,000 is eligible for help.
Unless they are on social assistance. Those people are specifically excluded.
It's a bizarre decision. The program is supposed to be about children. Coleman said children from poor families are falling behind in life and in school because of inadequate nutritrition and other problems. The government launched the housing subsidy to to help them, he said.
But not if the children's parents are on welfare.
Coleman couldn't explain the decision. His best effort so far has been notably lame. People on social assistance already get a housing allowance, he said.
It's a non-answer. The issue, as Coleman acknowledged, is the income the family has available to provide for their family and the shelter allowance is part of that income. And housing allowances for people on social assistance haven't been increased in 12 years and are totally inadequate.
None of this is to knock the subsidy program, which is a small, useful initiative. Families with income below $20,000 can apply for a rent subsidy of up to $260 in the Lower Mainland and $182 in the rest of the province. The $40-million program could help up to 15,000 really poor families.
People on welfare qualify as a really poor. A single mom with two little children and "multiple barriers to employment" has an income of $18,200 a year. If the government hadn't barred her from the program, she would be eligible for a housing subsidy of about $90 a month. A single parent with one child on social assistance has an income of $14,060, enough to qualify for a subsidy worth about $140 a month.
It's enough money to make a difference in a poor family's life.
So what does the government have against those children?
Perhaps the government believes that life on social assistance should be miserable so people are motivated to find jobs or move away.
But that goal has been achieved long ago. In real dollars, welfare rates are 15 per cent lower than they were a decade ago. A parent with two children is allowed a maximum of $550 a month for housing, the same level as 1994, a. A pregnant woman is allowed - at most - $580 a month for housing, food, clothes, utilities, transportation and everything else. Figure a realistic $450 for housing and she is left to live on $30 a week for everything else.
It's a wretched existence and people are highly motivated to escape. About 100,000 people are on social assistance today, down from a high of 360,000 a decade ago. Many have moved into jobs, a good news story; a minority ended up on the streets. More than two-thirds of those left are on disability benefits or have what the ministry calls "persistent multiple barriers to employment." They are not quickly going to move into the workplace.
Or perhaps the government just doesn't like people on welfare and doesn't believe they - or their children - are worthy of help.
It's an alarming thought. But how else to explain a policy that offers aid to one family getting by on $15,000 a year, in the interests of their children, and denies it to the family next door with the same or a lower income?
Children are children. They all deserve compassion, help and a decent chance at life.
But the government has decided that some children in B.C. just don't matter as much.
Footnote: There is a myth that people on social assistance receive a wide range of benefits that might justify denying them the housing subsidy. The reality is that - rightly - government has done much to ensure that the working poor receive similar help with prescription drugs, MSP premiums and other costs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Government dragging feet on problems in disabled services

The B.C. government is being remarkably laid back about problems in its big experiment to change the way services are delivered to some 20,000 disabled people in the province.
This is hugely important to the people who need the services - adults and children with mental disabilities and their families. They’re counting on Community Living BC, the new Crown corporation taking on the responsibility.
The government has already made a mess of the changeover once, pulling the plug once on the whole thing amid scandal and mismanagement in 2004.
Now the agency is in its first full year of operation and serious new problems are emerging. Thousands of people are piling up on waiting lists. Exhausted parents - some in their 70s - are being told there’s no help available for their mentally disabled children. A leading advocacy group warns fears people are being pushed from group homes into the community without adequate support in a bid to cut costs.
And the board of Community Living BC - appointed by the government - says it doesn’t have enough money to provide the services that people need. More than 3,000 adults are on waiting lists. (The agency doesn’t yet keep track of the number of children not getting needed services.) The agency figures it is short $45 million this year and another $27 million over the next two years.
It sounds bad. These are children and adults who need help, people with significant mental disabilities. They can not fend for themselves and need support ranging from intensive, semi-institutional care to help living in the community. Families are looking for assistance in coping with the challenge of caring for a 50-year-old son with a five-year-old’s mental abilities.
About 10,000 adults and 8,000 children are counting on Community Living BC. The real need is probably greater. It’s important to get this right.
But Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen is not talking like a man in a big hurry to sort out the problems, which the Community Living board raised more than two months ago. Christensen has questioned whether the board has managed the money it receives from government properly.
But he hasn’t got answers to the question and is in no hurry to address the current $45-million shortfall. The agency’s money problems will be considered over the next few months, he says, as part of preparations for next year’s budget.
This is what many people feared would happen.
The theory was that Community Living BC would offer families and the mentally disabled a bigger role in figuring out how services should be delivered. The main advocates were families whose wanted to be be able to develop individualized care plans for their children, with the agency signing off and providing funding.
It’s a good vision in many ways. But there are risks, especially for disabled people who don’t have family members to advocate for them and may be squeezed out of the picture.
The biggest fear was that the government would use the change to avoid responsibility for providing adequate care. That was a special concern because demand and costs are likely to increase.
Community Living BC’s service plan - approved by the government - notes that population growth and increased awareness will drive demand. "Another significant factor is the aging of individuals with disabilities and their families that care for them, which leads to more complex needs," the authority warns.
And Christensen says demand is increasing at about three per cent a year. But funding for services disabled adults is slated to increase by less than two per cent a year in each of the next two years. (It did go up by five per cent annually in the last two years.)
The government’s response to the latest problems suggest the fears are justified. Whether the difficulties in delivering services stem from in an inadequate budget or management missteps, they need to be addressed now.
Footnote: Advocacy groups say funding has lagged far behind demand. The BC Association for Community Living says ministry documents report the 2002/3 budget for adult community living was $554 million. Christensen says the current budget is $550 million. That leaves the agency coping with many more families with less money than it had four years ago.[