Friday, August 07, 2009

What I think the utilities commission was saying about private power

The B.C. Utilities Commission deserves a slap upside the head for its ruling on B.C. Hydro's plans to sign deals with private power companies that will cost consumers billions of dollars.
Not for its substance. As far as I can tell, the murky, acronym-laden swamp of a decision makes sense.
But it's incomprehensibility - not just to dabbling journalists or interested readers, but to energy experts - is appalling.
The utilities commission exists to protect the public interest. B.C. Hydro is a monopoly. It sold $2.8 billion worth of electricity within the province last year - about $650 for every person in the province.
The commission, among other things, scrutinizes B.C. Hydro's operations and plans to make sure it isn't making mistakes that result in unnecessarily high electricity costs.
This decision ruled on B.C. Hydro's long-term plan to meet energy demand in the province.
And the utilities commission had some big doubts.
It had to look at several components of the plan, starting with B.C. Hydro's forecast of future energy demand. That was OK.
Then it reviewed B.C. Hydro's plans for reducing demand, through increased efficiency and conservation and off-peak power. Curbing demand can be cheaper than adding new dams or wind turbines.
Those didn't pass the commission's scrutiny. The corporation wasn't doing enough, it ruled.
Next the commission looked at how B.C. Hydro proposed to meet the province's energy demands in the coming decades. That matters because wrong decisions mean unnecessary costs for consumers and companies. If B.C. Hydro enters into a long-term deal to buy electricity from a company developing a big power project on a B.C. river system, for example, when it's not needed, consumers pay the price.
The utilities' commission rejected B.C. Hydro's long-term energy acquisition plan.
The Crown corporation, acting on government direction, has set three criteria for new power. It has to be green - hydro, wind or burning wood waste. It has to come from private companies, not B.C. Hydro's own projects. And the capacity has to be so great that no imports would be needed.
That's consistent with the government's decision, two years ago, that climate change was an over-riding issue.
But it comes at a cost. New, green energy from private companies is expensive. If B.C. Hydro commits to paying too much, or buying too much, energy prices will be higher than necessary.
The commission - based on my reading of an opaque 200-page decision - thought B.C. Hydro could be planning to buy more power than was necessary, building a large cushion into its plans.
And the corporation had reduced the potential capacity of Burrard Thermal, the gas-powered plant in the Lower Mainland. Burrard is old and inefficient and produces a lot of greenhouse gases. But it can provide cheap standby insurance power, an alternative to costly contracts with private power corporations.
The ruling baffled everyone. It didn't order a halt to the current call for new green power projects from private corporations. But it did reject B.C. Hydro's plans to reach power deals with those companies.
Plutonic Power, one of the big IPPs, saw its share fall 19 per cent on the day after the decision's release, making it worth about $35 million less.
The bottom line, I would say, is the utilities commission judged that B.C. Hydro is trying to buy too much expensive energy from private companies, at consumers' expense.
The Crown corporation is in an interesting spot. The government and the well-connected private power companies want it to go ahead with more long-term deals.
But the utilities commission has served notice that B.C. Hydro will be taking a risk if it goes ahead.
The commission might not allow those costs to be passed on to consumers, which would threaten the $500 million - more or less - the government expects in profits from B.C. Hydro.
Unless, of course, the government abandons its commitment to an independent utilities board and opts for political interference.
Footnote: Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom called some of the analysts for the big investment houses who track the private power companies operating in the province in the wake of the ruling. The ministry won't say who got the chats with the minister. No transcript exists of the briefing, the ministry says.

System just wasn't set up to help this baby

This is a third column about a three-year-old boy. He started life healthy, loved by capable parents who faced some big challenges.
He was taken from them, based on legitimate concerns, at three weeks. The basic problem was that they were too poor to find a safe place to live. He moved through three foster homes in a matter of months and then ended up in hospital, with symptoms suggesting he was shaken.
He's back with his parents today. He's blind in one eye, can't walk and has cerebral palsy. But they're all doing OK, for now.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth, was asked by a legislative committee to review how this all happened.
The real problem was that the parents were poor. They couldn't afford a place to live. Income assistance stalled them, despite the babe in arms. So they stayed with relatives on a small First Nations reserve.
There were concerns about some of the people living in the house, leading to the child's apprehension.
One of Premier Gordon Campbell's earlier enthusiasms was for breaking down "silos" in government - ministries and departments operating in an unco-ordinated fashion, oblivious of their shared objectives.
In this case, parents were about to have their child taken by one ministry because they didn't have a safe place to live.
At the same time, another ministry turned down their request for emergency help finding adequate housing.
Oh, there was communication between the two.
On the day the child was taken from the mother, a Ministry for Children and Families employee called a counterpart in the Income Assistance Ministry.
Not to get help for the family, but to tell them the child had been taken into care in order "to ensure the child's mother would not apply for income assistance for the child as well."
The representative reports that members of the child's family and community thought the apprehension was rushed and other options for care within the family weren't considered.
That, I suppose, could be blamed indirectly to the media. If a protection worker delays taking a child into care and something bad happens, the decision is closely scrutinized. That's appropriate. But we should start with the assumption that workers are making hard decisions based on limited information and managing a big workload.
A friend I respect worries about columns like this. They might give the public the idea that there aren't successes or discourage frontline workers, she fears.
I have to disagree. What the workers helping this family needed was a mandate - and time - to work at a way of keeping the baby boy with his family.
In five months, the report found, at least six frontline ministry staff, a delegated aboriginal agency, a contract family services agency and income assistance were involved with the family. Everyone was clear about their role.
But, the report found, no one thought about how their role affected the little boy's life.
One week after the boy was taken from his parents, a Children's Ministry social worker said in court that the baby would be returned if they had place to live. But ministry staff did nothing to help the family take the one step that would bring their child back (and save the taxpayer money).
This is not an isolated case, the report suggests. It notes two ministry internal audits found 50 to 84 per cent compliance with its standards in the region where the boy lived while in care. The B.C. Association of Social Workers - representing frontline workers - said the report documents "the tragic consequences of a multi-directional systemic meltdown and a lack of supports, resources and anti-poverty measures."
And considering that this baby was taken from his parents and sent through a series of foster homes because his family was poor, it's notable that B.C. has had the highest rate of child poverty in Canada for the past six years. This baby boy's rough life, sadly, wasn't an aberration.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A child taken away because his parents were poor

A child taken away because his parents were poor
This is a second column about a three-year-old boy. He started life healthy, loved by capable but challenged parents. But he was taken from them, based on legitimate concerns, at three weeks.
The basic problem was they couldn't afford a safe place to live. He moved through three foster homes in five months and then ended up in hospital, with symptoms suggesting he was shaken while living in the third foster home.
Now he's back with his parents. He's blind in one eye, can't walk and has cerebral palsy. His disabilities are permanent. But they're all doing OK.
The Representative for Children and Youth examined the case to find out what, if anything, could have been done to produce a different ending.
The ministry has already done an internal review. It found that required steps in investigating child protection concerns were skipped, available information wasn't considered and there was too little effort to learn about the child's extended family.
Once the boy was taken from his parents, care was "not fully consistent with legislation, policy and service standards," the internal review reported vaguely. Assessment, training and monitoring of the foster home were he was living when injured were all "were not fully consistent" with policy and standards.
The review resulted in mushy recommendations to review plans and send out memos and hold meetings.
The representative didn't find that adequate. And Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond offered a reminder of what this was all about - a child a few months old, removed from his parents by the state, completely dependent on the adults in his life for all his needs.
The representative's report noted that only one thing blocked the parents from keeping their child - the lack of housing. Everyone acknowledged that.
But in the five months from the time a child protection concern was raised until the baby was hurt, no worker or agency addressed that problem.
The income assistance ministry turned the family away when they sought emergency help; the children and families ministry didn't address the housing issue. If they had been found a one-bedroom, safe apartment, even a motel room, everything might be different.
Helping the family into housing might have cost some money and time. But even at $800 a month, that would be at least 50 per cent cheaper than foster care,.
And, as the representative notes, because of the injuries "the lifelong cost of caring for this child is unknown." I'll guess though, at something well over $4 million.
But there was no evidence that the ministry considered finding a motel room or coming up with a housing subsidy as a better alternative for the baby than apprehension and foster care.
The problems - poverty and no or bad housing - aren't new. The Hughes report, in 2006, noted that poor families were far more likely to have their children apprehended. The First Nations community that was home to this family has a housing waiting list of 200 people.
The representative noted that in First Nations communities, a housing shortage means many family member share one home out of necessity. The ministry acts as if parents have a choice about where the live. So their children are apprehended "largely because they are unable to immediately create a living situation that they could not reasonably be expected to achieve."
Even if people can find their way to income assistance, the representative found, the housing allowance leaves them $200 to $400 a month short of what is needed. A family of three, like this baby boy's, is allowed $660 a month for rent. Check out the apartments and basement suites in your community and see what is available for that rent.
The result, the representative found, is that children are taken from their parents because they are poor. "This places the basic human rights of children in jeopardy and tears families apart in tragic way, especially aboriginal families trying to recover and rebuild," the report found.
The baby boy's parents kept working to reunite their family. They finally secured suitable housing in November 2008. "They deserve credit for their determination, but will now care for a developmentally disabled child while continuing to struggle with poverty," Turpel-Lafond said.
All because, instead of finding them a place to live, the state took their child away.
Next: Isolated case, or a systemic problem?

Monday, August 03, 2009

A little boy, failed by the system and forgotten by the rest of us

It’s fitting, in a grimly symbolic way. 
Just when attention might be paid to the little boy who fared so badly in the government’s care, a swirl of bigger news stories pushed him into the shadows.
We don’t know his name. The little boy has a right to privacy. Not much else.
The representative for Children and Youth set out his story — how he went from a healthy baby boy to a three-year-old who had suffered devastating injuries that left him with cerebral palsy. He’s blind in one eye, can’t walk yet and faces a life of struggle.
The boy was born on July 9, 2006. His mom was 20; his dad 24. They were from the same First Nations community and had rough childhoods themselves.
But they loved their baby and were capable of nurturing him. They moved back into the boy’s grandparents’ home on an unidentified reserve to care for him.
It was not a great place for an infant. On July 28, someone called the ministry of children and families and said it was not a safe home for a child. Alcohol abuse, neglect, even physical abuse were possible.
The ministry responded admirably. Social workers checked the files and made immediate home visits. They checked on the baby boy, who was doing well. They explained to the parents why the grandparents’ home was not safe.
The mother understood. She said they were going to live with another relative as an interim measure.
There was a 200-person waiting list for reserve housing. To deal with the concerns, she needed help from the ministry of income assistance to get off-reserve housing.
And the mother applied for the help. The income assistance ministry told her to come back after the mandatory three-week wait, if she had found a place. She was denied interim financial assistance.
In September, the ministry received a report the family was back in the grandparents’ home and, apparently, other concerns were raised. The investigating social worker decided the risk was serious enough that the boy should be taken from his parents.
An RCMP officer and social workers from the ministry and the aboriginal agency that provided services found the mother walking her two-month-old son in a stroller.
She had been living in the grandparents’ home for a week because they had no money to live anywhere else, the young mother said. She had been in the hospital for several days and the boy’s father had been caring for him.
And the workers took the baby away.
He was placed in a foster home that day. (A relative who provided foster care offered to take him. That offer was apparently never followed up on.) The parents suggested two other relatives who could care for the child. The ministry says it couldn’t reach them; the family says they were never called.
The ministry came up with a risk-reduction plan that would allow the child to be returned to his parents, once housing was secured and support was provided. But it didn’t do the required plan of care for the child. This is tangled and difficult work, of course. The social worker referred the parents to family counselling. They didn’t go.
The first foster home placement was on a 30-day contract. When it ended on Oct. 2, the baby was moved to another foster home.
In early November, the boy’s mother requested the ministry return her child because she had found shared housing. It wasn’t safe enough, workers decided.
Meanwhile, the child’s second foster mother became ill. So on Dec. 12, he was moved to a third foster home.
It’s worth pausing to think about this. The baby was barely five months old and had been with his parents and in three different foster homes. All good intentions aside, as a parent or grandparent, how do you think a child you loved would handle those changes? How long would he cry for a missing blanket or a person he had come to associate with comfort?
On Dec. 18, the baby boy had a successful supervised visit with his parents. Two days later, it all went wrong. The foster home reported he was unwell. At B.C. Children’s Hospital, doctors said his injuries were consistent with having been shaken. Criminal charges were laid against a caregiver in the foster home and then later stayed.
After almost a month in hospital, the baby was sent to his fourth foster home in January 2007.
In July, he was returned to his parents and started receiving support because of his massive disabilities. He has been making progress in their care since then, but is struggling with permanent, severe disabilities.
Next: What did we learn from this family’s tragedy?