Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Four children's deaths, four children failied

I should have written about the children's representative report on four child deaths last week, when it came out.
But I am so tired of these sad stories, and there were other topics worth writing about: Gen. Rick Hillier's departure; the Conservative election spending scandal.
Really though, I was dodging. It gets hard to read the same reports and write the same columns year after year, hear the same empty reassurances from the ministers. So many ministers: 10 since I started writing about the ministry some 11 years ago.
New Democrat, Liberal, bright, not so bright, all unable to set the ministry on the right course. Otherwise, why the lurches in new directions every few years?
Not one of them wanted to see little kids suffer, but not one of them could ensure an adequate budget, consistent direction or competent management.
There's something to celebrate simply in having the report from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth.
Since the Liberals recklessly eliminated the Children's Commission in 2002, children's deaths were treated as inconsequential. After a shameful six years, B.C. is once again paying attention to the fate of the most vulnerable children.
That doesn't make it any less sad.
It's the details that get you. This time, it was a slice of the life of Amanda Simpson, beaten to death when she was four. That's a great age - kids are increasingly articulate but still unselfconscious. They mostly haven't learned to hide their hearts.
The ministry had contact with Amanda's family before she was born.
When she was two, Turpel-Lafond recounts matter of factly, they came to child protection workers' attention again.
"The oldest sister, then six years old, reported that she was frequently the only caregiver for her sisters, ages one, two and four years." the report says. "She complained of a headache and was very tired. She also requested some help with caring for her sisters.
"The child was able to describe in detail a meal and bedtime routine she had created to keep her sisters quiet: She fed them 'freezies and ice cream' and played with them. The child described a past incident in which one of her sisters had set off the fire alarm while playing with a lighter. She said that the girls were cold and wanted to start a fire to warm up. The fire department reportedly attended the home."
There's something haunting about the line - that the six-year-old, caring for three little girls, was just so tired.
The four deaths reviewed in the report were all in the north between 1999 and 2005. That's an indication of how badly things had fallen apart. Only now, nine years later, was Amanda's death given the respect of a proper independent review.
The problems the report raises are familiar. The ministry had difficulty recognizing and responding to child abuse and neglect. Social workers were unable to complete the child protection investigations in a reasonable time. When it did gather information, it wasn't used properly.
Even when risk was identified, support and supervision weren't inadequate.
And when the ministry identified problems and lessons in its own, generally superficial reviews of the death, it didn't share the information with frontline workers who needed it.
It was another grim report.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen didn't see it that way. He hasn't committed to any of the recommendations in the report.
And like the nine ministers before him, he insisted the ministry has things sorted out now.
But that's not what the representative said.
"This investigation found that current safety assessment and planning practices for children have not shown marked improvement since these children died," the report says.
Things will always go wrong in this ministry. It's simply inevitable that misjudgments will be made, sometimes with terrible consequences.
That just makes it more important that the government do everything possible to support workers, children and families.
And it's not.
Footnote: The performance of the Coroners Service, which the government claimed has been reviewing child deaths, was terrible. The reviews of the children's deaths were left incomplete, with no effective monitoring. The service's review of Amanda's death was stalled for two years because the coroner was "uncomfortable" with the task. The chief coroner took no action.


Gary E said...

I too have resisted writing about the disgraceful manner in which this government has treated our children.
In law if you are indirectly involved with a death which you could have prevented then you are charged with manslaughter.
The people we elect to office in any government are elected to serve the population. Where is the service for these most vulnerable citizens. I find it reprehensible that any elected official would ignore recommendations that would most probably save the life of anyone much less a child.
What goads me even more is that there are reports coming out of Victoria that some elected officials on the government side are increasingly unhappy with the fact that their hands are tied, from the top. If the reports are true then I suggest that a revolt from within is now in order.

Save the children

Kali Advocacy Project said...

Paul, as you've recognized the frequent changes in "leadership" have had some impact, although not as much as many may believe. At the heart of the decades of problems are a dysfunctional organization and Ministry that is treated like any other, which it is not and never will be.

Fundamentally, politicians and senior bureaucrats who have never worked a day in their lives in social services in BC come to be in charge of a Ministry that provides services that are well beyond their capacity, knowledge, or skill base to even remotely understand. Let's look at the situation clearly, Minister Christensen, the latest is a lawyer. As far as I'm aware he's never worked in child protection, or family court. Deputy Minister Du Toit, well meaning, I'm sure, has never worked a day in her life in the actual BC child welfare system, except to be handpicked & hired by Gordon Campbell to tear the system apparent, limb by bloody limb.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to be around MCFD throughout all of this, the culture has been created that ignores the harm being done... CLBC, need anything more be said. The devolution of Community Living Services in BC is an unmitigated disaster and a human rights travesty that is the shame of BC and Canada and soon to be seen internationally. And, CLBC was the "blueprint" for all of the other plans for devolution.
Furthermore, Marilyn Hedlund is now the MCFD provincial director of Child Protection. And a note to all of you, after Ms. Hedlund left the leadership of the child welfare system in Saskatchewan after their devolution was completed, the entire system required and received a huge cash infusion, which only usually happens when there are a slough of child deaths, incompetent and/or negligent practice, or there are BIG lawsuits. This is by no means to say Ms. Hedlund is responsibile for that, but in carrying out a mandate of devolution and continuing an ideological agenda to devolve social services has profound implications on people, real live people, such as Amanda, Savanah, Rowen & Serena and the many, many other children who have lost their lives in BC over the past 7 years. In many other realms ignoring things until they go away is a strategy & tactic that works, as many in the BC government know, it's a familiar modus operandi.
Ignoring problems in child welfare is systemic negligence and problems don't go away, they become much, much worse and sometimes, children don't survive that. It becomes easier for all of us not to read the latest report, or the most recent news stories. But these children are all of ours and they deserve so much better from all of us. And the solutions are within our grasp if we only grab on to them.

For more, including instant recommendations for organizational improvements, see our blog:

Anonymous said...

Several reports have identified the revolving door at the top as a key problem - good Ministers and Deputies don't last long enough to make a difference. And sadly, those who do are often better at doing CYA than meaningful change. And if there is a leadership problem it's now really hard to make a change for fear of being hammered politically for perpetuating the revolving door problem.

Minister Christensen might be quite capable of making a real difference, if he had the full support needed from the Premier & Cabinet. That might have to include his bringing in the right Deputy, if necessary, plus top-notch organizational/ change management experts to manage the "transformation" aspects, so that the senior social workers can focus on the practice aspects that are consistent with their expertise.

The Premier would also have to send a clear message that he's serious about Ms. Turpel Lafond's role, and that everyone from the Minister down is expected to cooperate fully to effect real change. The messages from the BC Liberals to date have been anythng but - defensive, hostile, suspicious, uncooperative - which explains why, though some changes are happening, it doesn't seem to be anywhere near what needs to be happening.

Until the mindset from the Premier right down shifts from instinctive damage control and butt-covering to real openness and accountability, we won't see real real change. The Ministry will remain stuck in this nightmare spin cycle and the horror stories of avoidable tragedies will keep on coming.

At some point, surely the political costs of failing to keep the failures under wraps have to be greater than the political costs of opening up and admitting you and others have screwed up repeatedly and demonstrating a genuine commitment to seek help.

RossK said...

Mr. Willcocks said:

"There's something to celebrate simply in having the report from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth."

I agree with this very much.

However, I think it is also important to point out how hard the current government worked to malign Ms. Turpel-Lafond and her efforts to affect real change when she requested a budget increase last December.

Luckily, a number of folks, particularly media folks, made a fuss about this and this was reversed.

Mr. Willcocks wrote about that incident as well:

"Score another one for democracy and Vaughn Palmer.

The Liberals made a big blunder earlier this month, practically and politically. Government MLAs on the legislative finance committee cut the budget request of the Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.


The other officers of the legislature - the ombudsman, auditor general and the rest - had received their full requests. Why chop the representative?

Given the lack of any answers that made sense, it was hard not to notice that days before Turpel-Lafond had reported critically on the government's lack of progress on implementing the Hughes report.


The Liberal attack was led by MLAs Randy Hawes and Ian Black. It showed a remarkable lack of common sense or awareness of just what a mess the government has made of most areas affecting the lives of children and families over the last six years...."


What's my point?

Well, legitimate difficulties and dullards are one thing, but duplicity is something quite different, entirely.

And it must be named thusly, otherwise it will keep happening for reasons of political expediency that will damage the public trust even further.

Not to mention undermine the efforts those folks at MCFD who don't give a hoot-in-heck about ideology and instead are just doing their best to change things for the better to help kids at risk.