Thursday, November 08, 2007

Surely children deserve adequate protection

When children are at risk of being abused or neglected, their safety - their lives - can depend on a quick, thorough investigation.
The children and families ministry isn't doing that. Investigations routinely remain incomplete for months, while children are at risk and clouds hang over families.
And the situation is substantially worse now than it was a year ago, or even four years ago, when the ministry was in chaos.
The ministry's standards say that child protection investigations should be completed within 30 days.
But that's not happening. NDP critic Nicholas Simons revealed that in September there were 3,264 child protection investigations that were still incomplete more than 90 days after the files were opened. That's three times longer than the ministry standard.
More than three out of four active cases had been open longer than 30 days and were still incomplete. Half the cases were still incomplete after three months.
Worse, the situation is deteriorating. The number of cases still incomplete after 90 days was up almost 20 per cent over last year. And it was 60-per-cent higher than the backlog in 2003.
This is one of the most important and basic indicators of the ministry's effectiveness.
Social workers can never protect every child. At times, they will do their best and bad things will still happen. A boy who is apprehended will suffer in care; a girl who is left with her family will be abused.
That makes it even more critical that frontline workers are able to do the job to the best of their abilities. Their inability to complete child protection investigations signals a critical breakdown.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen didn't have any good answers. He noted that the ministry had added 200 social workers this year to address underfunding and staff shortages. And he said there were fewer investigations open for more than a year than in 2001 - hardly a bragging point.
Sometimes, Christensen said, investigations just take longer to do properly. Managers review cases that drag on once a month, he added.
But remember, the ministry set the standard of 30 days. It said that the risk should be assessed and any needed protection measures taken within that time.
And for thousands of children, that's not happening.
The children's ministry continues to be a problem for the Liberals, as it was for the NDP.
The day after Simons raised the issue of incomplete child protection investigations, Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines revealed more problems.
Earlier this year, Kines reported that children who had been sexually abused were waiting months for counselling and support, because the program's budget had been frozen for 17 years. Christensen had refused funding requests from a Victoria agency that worked with abused children and was being forced to lay off therapists.
Kines also submitted a freedom of information request for information the ministry had on the issue. He received a review done in early 2006, heavily censored.
And then he tracked down the original and found what the government had tried to hide. The censored passages reported that the 47 agencies providing services to sexually abused children "were unanimous in their view that program funding is inadequate to meet the needs." Programs for abused children had been "neglected" for several years. Children in remote communities were particularly poorly served.
It looked like a cover-up. And it also raised questions about Christensen's statements that he didn't know about funding problems. "It hasn't been identified by communities as a priority for increase," he said this spring. "I'm asking my staff questions about that to see if it's something we need to be looking at more closely."
But that was a year after the report highlighting underfunding was delivered,
Meanwhile, as all this was revealed, Sean Holman at revealed the ministry had spent $560,000 on a truly lavish head office reno.
It's discouraging.
Footnote: I made a stupid mistake in a recent column on the release of forestland from tree farm licences. I wrote that TimberWest benefited in 2004 when the government ripped up a tree farm contract. The benefits really went to Island Timberlands, en entirely different customer. It was a bad error; I apologize.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fall session going badly for Liberals

Three weeks into the fall session and you can see why Gordon Campbell only let MLAs sit for three days last fall.
The Liberals expected to make the Tsawwassen treaty the focus this year, celebrating a success and highlighting NDP divisions on the treaty.
Instead, they have been battered. Every few days brings another damaging revelation or more tough questions about everything from mismanagement of the out-of-control Vancouver convention centre to abuse and neglect of seniors.
It's often tough for governments when the house is sitting. Most of the time, the party in power can control the news agenda. It can decide and where to make announcements or hold press conferences; ministers can usually command some media attention.
For the opposition, it's tougher to get noticed.
But when the legislature is in session, the opposition gets its big chance. Every day, just before 2 p.m., there is question period. For 30 minutes opposition MLAs get to question cabinet ministers. (Give full credit to Premier Gordon Campbell, who doubled the time for questions as a way to make the legislature more effective.)
That's enough time for a big kick at a main topic and a briefer look at a couple of other issues.
It's not that the public pays any attention. But the 15 reporters and columnists assigned to cover the legislature do. The opposition's goal is to get them to do a story on the issue of the day, one that says the government has messed up. (No one said democracy would be pretty.)
There is a public benefit in all this. Governments don't want to be caught, so they're more careful. And when they do go wrong, the public attention brings change. Ted Hughes' report on children and youth, and the resulting changes, came about because of the relentless questioning of New Democrat Adrian Dix.
For the three weeks of this sitting, the Liberals have faced tough questions of competence and integrity.
They had to respond to questions about seniors abused and neglected in a Victoria care home. Former cabinet minister Graham Bruce's lobbying activities for the Cowichan Tribes were challenged, and are under review.
Forests Minister Rich Coleman still hasn't answered questions about why the government is ripping up tree farm licence agreements that protected forests. Companies are being handed concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with no benefit for the public or justification.
The auditor general handed the Liberals another black eye, with a report on the mismanagement that allowed the Vancouver convention centre cost to escalate from $495 million to $883 million, and counting.
Once again, the government was bedeviled by problems in the children and families ministry. NDP critic Nicholas Simons revealed growing delays in completing investigations into child abuse or neglect.
Time Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines revealed the government had censored a report that said services for child sex abuse victims were inadequate and underfunded.
And then last week reporter Sean Holman revealed on that the ministry had spent $560,000 - almost three times the basic estimate - for a head office renovation. A consultant was paid $40,000 to recommend ways to make it welcoming to First Nations. There's art and great interior design features.
But it's also a ridiculous waste of public money. Frontline workers are swamped; a lavish head office is offensive.
The problem for the Liberals wasn't just the questions; it was the answers. The NDP questioners grew more confident; the ministers' answers lamer.
It's good news for Carole James, who had been criticized for being unable to advance the party lately.
And it's a wake-up call for the Liberals.
But don't expect the Liberals' strong poll standing to slide much. It's not enough for the New Democrats to raise doubts about the Liberals. Carole James and company have to convince voters they can do better. And that's still a big leap.
Footnote: The downside of the session has been a plunge in basic civility in the legislature. That could reflect and NDP decision to be tougher or the increasing tension on the government side. The heckling, shouting and abuse represent a sad decline from the generally higher standard of the last two years.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Liberals betray public with forest-land giveaway

The Liberal government's willingness to hand benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars to forest company owners is staggering. It simply doesn't make sense.
The government has written contracts with forest companies covering their private land that has been included in provincial tree farm licences. The public compensated the companies handsomely to get them to sign the contracts, which ensure the land is managed and protected as timber-producing forests.
But now all the companies do is ask and the government lets them out of the agreements.
The companies make huge quick profits.
The public loses access, green space, environmental protection, forest jobs - and gets nothing.
This started in 2004. Weyerhaeuser asked the government to take 90,000 hectares out of its tree farm licence.
Ministry staff told Mike de Jong, then the forest minister, it was a bad idea. The company had already been compensated for including the land; the tougher environmental and replanting standards were worth continuing; and the agreement ensured the land stayed as forest. Communities saw this as an important social contract, staff reported.
And if the government let the company take the land out of the tree farm licence, it would have to negotiate compensation, staff said, and that would be tricky.
But de Jong over-ruled the ministry’s non-political staff and said OK to the company's request. He got nothing in compensation for taxpayers. Within months Weyerhaeuser began negotiating its sale to Brascan, which agreed to pay $1.4 billion.
Much of that value was due to De Jong's decision, which meant a $500-million windfall for the company.
Brascan executives said that getting the lands out of the tree farm licence meant an extra $18 million to $24 million a year in profits for the company, now called Island Timberlands.
And for the first time, the company could sell the land for development instead of being obligated to keep it as timber to ensure the future of the Island forest industry.
That meant a huge increase in the land's value. The company now says it has identified 38,000 hectares it wants to take out of forest use. They're worth $300 million to $450 million as is, "with a significantly higher valuation potentially achievable through value-added development activities." De Jong could have said no; nothing bad would have happened and the company had no case for demanding the gift.
He could have asked for compensation for the public or job guarantees, or at least demanded a donation of land for parks. Instead, he handed benefits worth $500 million over and got nothing in return.
Forest Minister Rich Coleman did it again this year. Western Forest Products asked him to let it out of its tree farm licence, reducing its environmental and replanting obligations and allowing more raw log exports.
And, more importantly, freeing up 70,000 acres for sale and development, including waterfront west of Victoria used by surfers, campers and tourists and land adjacent to provincial parks.
It's a gold mine for the company. And the government got nothing for the public - not money, investment commitments or a single acre protected as a park.
Coleman didn't consult anyone - politicians or public - from any of the communities. It was astonishingly arrogant. A developer has already bought the Jordan River property. He won't commit to public access to the surfing beach and camping area.
WFP is also selling another big chunk of land near Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. Just two years ago, the public helped raise money to buy land for the park. Part of the appeal was the park would be surrounded by land protected as forest. It might be logged, but it would replanted. Coleman ended that. The company now has 561 acres for sale around the potholes.
So why did he do it? Coleman says the company asked for help and he delivered. There's no evidence he saved one job or that Western Forest Products needed a handout. Coleman hasn’t released a single scrap of paper showing a review or rationale or business case for his decision.
Now the government is planning the next giveaway, in the Kootenays. Pope & Talbot has been advertising 16,000 acres currently covered by tree-farm licences for sale for development. Coleman maintains he hasn't decided whether to let the company out of the contract.
But in fact, the same developer who bought the Jordan River property has purchased a large lakefront tract from Pope & Talbot. Both the developer and the company seem confident the deal is done, despite Coleman’s claims.
Again, why would the government give a bankrupt forest company a gift worth millions? Especially when the land includes property that's important for running the business.
A company asks for a favour worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The government doesn't negotiate, or protect the public. It says sure. And you lose.