Tuesday, November 11, 2008

FOI cover up, or isolated mistake - your call

Children's Minister Tom Christensen says it was a mistake. Yes, his ministry violated freedom of information law and tried to hide reports that children who had been sexually abused weren't getting needed help.
But it was an honest error, he says, not a cover up or attempt to avoid the release of information embarrassing to the government.
You decide.
Back in June 2007, Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines filed a freedom of information request with the Ministry of Children and Families. There were signs of problems with a program that was supposed to help children who had been sexually abused. Kines wanted to know if the problems were real and what, if anything, the ministry had done about them.
It took three months, but he got a response to the FOI request. The material included a report based on a 2006 review of the sexual abuse intervention program.
The report was heavily censored, with paragraphs and pages whited out. The ministry said it was keeping much of the report secret because it was advice to Children's Minister Tom Christensen. The FOI laws give the government the option of choosing to keep such information secret.
Kines is a persistent reporter. He dug up an uncensored copy of the report. And he found that the censorship didn't appear to involve advice to the minister.
Instead, almost anything critical or that revealed problems in services for children who had been abused was kept secret. Positive comments were left untouched.
The ministry hid the report's finding that agencies working with sexually abused children "were unanimous in their view that program funding is insufficient." It removed the finding that the program is a "critical element" of service children, "deserving of a more explicit focus."
And it censored the passage that reported "pervasive view among providers that the program has been neglected by government decision makers over the past several years."
The ministry also blanked out a list of the main concerns expressed by agencies that deliver the program across the province, including a lack of money, low wages for counsellors and limited support for training.
And it hid some recommendations, including a call to "establish appropriate funding" for the needed services. At that time, budgets had been frozen for years.
Christensen he didn't know anything about the censorship. Kines sent both reports to Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis and asked him to investigate the way his request was handled.
And Loukidelis has just reported.
The censorship wasn't justified, he found.
In fact, the ministry had based its decisions on the claim the report was a draft version. Then it said that was a mistake; the report was really in its final form and the law required it to be released.
Even given the claim, Loukidelis called the ministry's decisions on what to keep secret "perplexing." Information that was critical was generally hidden; the same types of information, if positive, were left untouched. The result was a falsely positive impression of the program.
And Loukidelis also noted that the ministry had failed to fulfil another part of its obligation under the act. While freedom of information law allows government to keep some things secret, it doesn't require secrecy.
Government is supposed to consider whether the principle of openness really needs to be abandoned. That didn't happen.
Christensen it was all a mistake. Staff have been added and training improved. The failure was an aberration.
But how can the public rely on that? If Kines had not pushed harder and discovered the uncensored version of the report, the hidden truth would never have been revealed.
And what impact does a system of flagging "sensitive" requests - from journalists, political parties and interest groups - for special treatment have on the process. Earlier this year, Loukidelis raised concerns that government was discriminating against environmental groups using the freedom-of-information process, charging more and moving slowly on their requests.
Aberration, or a culture of secrecy? You decide.
Footnote: The Liberals were the biggest users of the FOI process in opposition and champions of the principle of openness. In government, they have been criticized by lengthening delays and unnecessary hurdles in dealing with requests.


Kali Advocacy Project said...

There's more to the story too, Paul.

Although Commissioner Loukidelis stated the Ministry believed they made an "understandable mistake," he further noted that "none of the evidence clearly establishes that the Ministry's head [in this case Deputy Minister Lesley Du Toit] considered the exercise of discretion in deciding to rely on s.13(1)to withhold information , as opposed to waiving that section and releasing the information, and if the head did exercise discretion, on what basis."

There are lots of people who know that MCFD is trying to perpetuate an organizational culture of media and information spin that has banished "negativity." Which in most cases means "the truth, the whole good, bad and the ugly of it."

This government is built on spin, just look at the top-heavy Public Affairs Bureau to see that. I'd like to see the employee appraisals and work produced by the HUNDREDS of PAB employees on the BC government payroll (and by extension, BC taxpayer's payroll). Remember, Campbell said he's going to be looking at government expenditures, I suggest he starts there, after cutting the gas tax and his own dramatic salary increase, of course.

It really speaks to judgment of those in the senior ranks in MCFD that, in this case, some fairly innocuous statements like a program needing more funding would get whited out. It's not like it's a secret that MCFD/the BC government is underfunding pretty much everything and anything to do with the child welfare system these days.

Anyone heard of the disaster that is Community Living BC? Remember the millions of taxpayer dollars spent for the devolution? And in the yet to be decided future, MCFD is going to spend another few cold ones taking CLBC Children's Services back into the mothership again.

This FOI bit is just the tip of the iceberg of what MCFD is hiding. I'd like to issue a challenge to all of you pro journalists and bloggers to get busy with the FOI requests. We've got an election coming folks, let's get it all out in the open so the people know who and what they're voting for.


adzha said...

what a good story...nice man


Anonymous said...

I cannot accept the idea that a Ministry managed to forget parts of a document. Had the real one not been leaked to someone, we might have believed the present Minister and his right hand person, the lady from elsewhere. Time for some more firings, starting with the Minister at the upcoming election and of course his selected by Gordon Campbells deputy minister. The families in this province deserve more honesty and less BS from elected folk.

Anonymous said...


This is not just about politics, which is how the "pundits" will discuss it. It's above all about what kind of people knowingly allow terrible things to happen to vulnerable children and try to cover it up, thus ensuring the perpetuation of further horror.

It's hard to express just how reprehensible this is, but sadly no surprise from a government that approved cuts after being told they would leave children exposed to "moderate" sexual abuse in the first place!

This also confirms something what I - and probably anyone else who has submitted FOI requests - have long suspected: This Provincial government under Premier Campbell's leadership has been routinely abusing the discretionary power allowed under the legislation to selectively withhold politically damaging information that they are required to disclose.

Any administration this afraid of putting its record on display has a lot to worry about. The only way they can survive and avoid accountability for bad governance is by sacrificing transparency. Conversely, the only way we can be sure of holding governments to account and discouraging such abuse is through stronger independent oversight of transparency mechanisms.

Anonymous said...

This is not new. In 2000 I was involved in a children's commission complaint. The ministry representatives lied about the existance of a series of files I had been told to request. They said they never existed. I fumbled my way through the hearings and filed a freedom of information request for federal and provincial documents. The non existant ones arrived with the mix. Senior ministry regional manager Dana Campbell was proven in the documents the have misrepresented himself in the course of the action. It took months to recieve the information. A summary conviction could not be filed as it timed out of the six months from the original action. Pages of documents arrived blacked out to the point of only having a line or two per page, but on the whole they were damning and inargueable. God, I get so tired of this story as though it hasn't been told a dozen times before and always the outcome is the same, it fades away to recylce with a few new facts, and all of the attached surface outrage.
I am not leaving my name off of this for reasons other than I do not have a user identity
Judy Sims

Anonymous said...

People keep missing the picture = the more money the Ministry gets, the bigger they get, the more damage they do. They take children from good homes, and ignore the relatively few children who truly are abused. CPS is the same all over the world: unaccountable, totally out of control, and corrupt. It DOES NOT help families; but it does destroy them. If you don't believe me, do your own research. There are plenty of parents out there with horror stories about the Nazi-like tactics of CPS.