Friday, May 02, 2008

Raise in age of consent long overdue

Bravo Stephen Harper. After years of ineffectual stalling by previous federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, the age of sexual consent was raised to 16 this month.
No longer can sexual predators and sleazy old guys target naïve 14-year-old girls for exploitation.
No longer must parents watch as their children are lured off to some other city with a man who promises them love and excitement. Or risk arrest if they kick doors down and try to drag their son or daughter home because they fear for their physical and emotional safety.
No longer will men who buy beer for a 12-year-old and have sex her - a child in Grade 6 - be able to avoid conviction by testifying they thought she was 14.
That's from a real case in Saskatchewan, not some worst-case scenario. In Canada, men have been able to have sex with children in elementary school, as long as they could claim they believed the girls were 14. That made them old enough to consent to sex with a 50-year-old, under a Canadian law unchanged since 1892.
And 14-year-olds were free to take off for another city with anyone who persuaded them it would be a great time. They couldn't legally drink, or vote, or smoke or drive.
But having sex with a slick older guy, moving thousands of miles away with him - that was fine.
It was appalling. But past governments - under Trudeau, Turner, Mulroney, Chrétien and Martin - wouldn't do anything to protect girls.
It got positively creepy. Police chiefs and parents wanted the law changed. Eight out of 10 provinces wanted the change. (Saskatchewan and Quebec were the holdout defenders of the right of 14-year-old boys and girls to have sex with adults.)
But the federal government said no. Liberals and Conservatives were keen to protect the right of men to have sex with what most parents would consider children.
The excuses used by past governments to justify their inaction were embarrassingly and transparently lame.
Sorry, they said. The risk that a 16-year-old boy might get in legal trouble for having sex with his 13-year-old girlfriend is just too great. Better to leave children open to exploitation by adults.
It was a stupidly flimsy excuse. Other countries - not just Britain and the U.S., but nations like Thailand - have brought in protection for young boys and girls. Somehow Canada championed the right for men to sleep with kids.
The Harper government dealt with the problem pragmatically. The law doesn't make criminals out of teens who have sex. It accepts that teens are sexually active, no matter how much parents might be troubled by that. As long as both parties are within five years of each other in age, the law doesn't apply. A 17-year-old boy who has sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend won't be made a criminal.
The government's past failures have been bizarre. Partly, it seemed the whole notion of teens having sex was something the politicians just didn't want to acknowledge. Not many of us are comfortable with the idea.
But simply pretending it's not happening isn't a sensible response. The McCreary Centre conducts major studies on the behaviour of children and youth in B.C.
The last major report, in 2003, found that one in five B.C. 15-year-olds was already sexually active. That's perhaps 55,000 kids - not a small group. Seven per cent of 13-year-olds - another 51,000 kids - reported they had already had sex. That's two or three kids in an average Grade 8 class.
There's a big lesson for parents - and schools - in that. Children need to be taught about sex at a very early age, younger than most of us recognize. Ideally, they will wait before plunging into physical relationships. But in any case, they need information.
Just as they need protection from predators. The Conservatives deserve credit for providing that.
Footnote: Some organizations that work with young people expressed fears that the change could be confusing. Again, education is the answer, about all aspects of sexuality as well as the basic principle of the right to consent, or say no.

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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ritziest schools get playground money; neediest shunned

It's worrying that for the second time in six months the government has made a mess of the simple task of handing out money for school playgrounds.
The NDP were quick to hint at some sort of sinister plot in the latest bungle, which saw ritzy private schools get cash while schools in the inner city and struggling rural communities got zip.
And there is an ideological aspect to the decision to deprive poor kids of playgrounds, as if they just aren't worthy of them.
But mostly, this looks like a blend of insensitivity and incompetence. That could be even more worrying.
Especially because the government has been through this once already. In December, it announced $1 million in funding for 66 selected school playground projects across the province.
Good news, it seemed. But Jason Harshenin, editor of the Grand Forks Gazette, wondered why a small local school which had been left off the list despite a great application.
He found the government had passed the job of deciding which schools would get the playground grants on the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Council. There were $10 million worth of applications for the available $1 million.
But the confederation said it didn't have time to read the applications. So it just drew schools' names from a hat. More than 600 applied; 66 were drawn.
It's an irresponsible way to spend taxpayers' money - by lottery, with no effort to seek the best value or return or help schools with the greatest need.
The government looked sloppy. So you would think they would learn.
But no. This month, the government announced $1.5 million in playground grants to 96 parent advisory councils. The grants were based on "demonstrated need," said Solicitor General John van Dongen. (Van Dongen was involved because the money came from gambling profits; the Education Ministry actually ran the program.)
The claim simply wasn't true. Two of the ritziest private schools in Vancouver got $20,000 each. Other schools, with much greater need, were shut out.
It's hard to see any "demonstrated need" at St. George's School, for example. Tuition for an elementary student is $14,240 a year. The school has a big trust fund and full-time fund-raising staff.
It already has two gyms, an indoor swimming pool, three tennis courts, four basketball courts and a full fitness centre.
Yet it got $20,000 for playground equipment, while schools in desperate need of got nothing.
The government structured the grant program up to exclude some schools. It wasn't enough to need playground equipment for the children. Before schools could even apply, they had to have an active parents' advisory council.
That's a given in most affluent neighbourhoods.
But for other schools, keeping a PAC going is a struggle. In a community with a lot of single parents, many working two jobs, it's tough to get active participants. In urban areas with large populations of newcomers to Canada, the concept isn't really established.
And in small towns, where schools face problems of declining enrolments, the PAC can become too much work.
As well, the parents' advisory councils had to have raised matching funds before their applications would even be considered.
Again, no giant problem at St. George's or many public schools with affluent parents who are able to run a successful silent auction or fundraising campaign.
But the requirement is a huge barrier for schools in poor neighbourhoods and struggling committees - the areas in which the playground equipment is most desperately needed.
Education Minister Shirley Bond said the criteria would be reviewed, but offered no other help for schools left off the list.
She couldn't explain why the government thought children should be denied access to playgrounds of their parents couldn't raise thousands of dollars to cover half the costs.
And Bond certainly couldn't explain how her ministry had botched playground grants again after last year's debacle.
Footnote: The obvious solution is simply to provide playground grants to school districts and let them decide where the need is greatest. The current program is unfair and needlessly bureaucratic and complex. The government's reluctance to trust school boards to manage the process is baffling.