Friday, June 18, 2010

Polak stumbles on issue of children at risk

It's tough to figure out what Children's Minister Mary Polak was thinking.
The Representative for Children and Youth had just released a detailed audit of a government child support program that found many problems.
The most significant was that ineffective - or non-existent - screening meant some of the 4,500 children had been placed in homes that posed risks. The audit found children had ended up in homes with past records of child protection issues or where caregivers had troubling criminal records.
The report included a number of recommendations - the first identifying an "urgent need" to rescreen all the homes. More than 1,000 children could be at risk.
No, said Polak. I disagree.
Polak did not dispute the report's findings of incomplete or missing home assessments. She didn't say why she believed there weren't risks. She just disagreed.
It was an inadequate response to a report involving children's safety.
Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond had audited the Children in the Home of a Relative program. The concept is excellent. If parents can't care for a child and a relative is willing to take on the responsibility, the program provides a small amount of financial support - $250 to $450 a month.
It's much better for children, as a rule, to stay with relatives than to go into government care. Their lives are more and stable and they remain connected with family. The financial support makes that possible - and saves government a great deal compared with the costs of care.
But there are still risks. The government belatedly realized that; in 2008, it started a screening process to make sure homes were safe and suitable and the relatives could actually cope. Once we're involved, as a society, in a child's life there shared obligations. The government has acknowledged that.
Front-line agencies have warned about problems with the program for years. The audit found they had grounds for concern.
"These children do, in most cases, become invisible to government and are unable to have their voices or concerns heard," Turpel-Lafond said.
Screening was inadequate and even when risks were identified, there was no action to protect the children's safety.
Polak's talking points in responding to the report were bizarre.
In rejecting rescreening, she said wanted to reassure relatives that they don't "have to be living in fear of us coming and knocking on their door."
It's a bad way for a minister to characterize front-line staff - as people families should fear.
A reporter asked if that meant relatives whose criminal records - perhaps for sexual assault - hadn't been identified before a child entered the home also wouldn't have to fear a knock on the door.
Ridiculous, Polak said.
But she didn't say why it's ridiculous, since the audit found children could be living in such homes.
The minister also suggested rescreening wasn't needed because no new children were being taken into the program.
The average stay is three years, she said, so the 4,500 children would move out of the program over the next several years.
That hardly reduces the risks.
Polak didn't have to accept all the recommendations. But when children's safety is involved, she did have to offer a credible response.
The Children in the Home of a Relative program was cancelled after the representative started the audit. It's been replaced by the Extended Family Program.
The report expressed concerns about that program as well.
Eligibility has been tightened, so fewer children and families will be helped. Some of the changes make little sense. Relatives who have legal guardianship won't be eligible; even though they were encouraged to seek guardianship under the previous program.
And while there are improvements in the plans, funding appears inadequate.
These relatives are making a great contribution and show the way families can stick together. Many are grandmothers raising grandchildren. Many are poor - 20 per cent are on income assistance themselves.
They deserve our thanks and support. And the children also deserve the basic efforts to ensure they are in a safe and secure home.
Footnote: The representative reports through the legislature committee on children and youth, which currently has no meetings scheduled. Given the ministry's response, chair Joan McIntyre, a Liberal MLA, should be calling a meeting as soon as possible.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Liberal MLAs could have saved Campbell

One of the scariest and saddest revelations in the wake of the Blair Lekstrom resignation is that Liberal MLAs were told the HST was coming two days before the public.
They weren't asked their opinions. The decision was already made.
They were told the new harmonized sales tax was coming, it was the right thing to do and their job was to defend it.
OK, the Liberal MLAs could have spoken up. But they were told about the new tax last July 21, barely two months after the election. And 18 of the 46 MLAs had just been elected a few months earlier and were still feeling their way.
Gordon Campbell told caucus it was a done deal and would the new tax would be announced two days later. Resistance would seem both futile and likely to bring reprisals.
It's insulting. For voters, and for the Liberal MLAs. These are elected representatives from all around the province. They have diverse backgrounds and a lot of experience and achievements. The voters respect them. The theory is that they represent the views of their constituents as the government sets policy.
And as well as being insulting, it's dumb.
James Surowiecki writes a column on business and finance for The New Yorker. He also wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, a fascinating book with the central thesis that the best decisions are reached when people with diverse backgrounds, skills and perspectives are brought together to solve a problem.
Surowiecki cites examples. A lot of very bright NASA people, he notes, were monitoring the space shuttle Columbia after it was damaged on takeoff in 2003. They decided it could return safely; it burned up on re-entry, killing seven people.
But while they were smart, they were also all engineers with similar perspectives and experience. There was no one to bring a different perspective.
Surowiecki also looks at the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Contestants had to answer questions to win money. They had the chance, if they were uncertain, to call an expert - the most knowledgeable person they knew.
And they could poll the audience, a random group of American game-show fans, and go with their choice of the right answer.
Who was the best bet - the smartest person the contestants knew or a bunch of TV fans?
You can guess the answer. The expert offered the right answer in 65 per cent of questions. The studio audience picked the right answer 91 per cent of the time.
Many people together, with different skills and insights and perspectives, reach the best decisions. (If the process allows them to express those views and encourages discussion and debate.)
That's how our government is supposed to work. Elected representatives - MLAs or MPs - debate policy and make the decisions. Historically, they decide who should be premier or prime minister.
But the HST disaster shows how far we have moved from that traditional model of representative democracy.
The decision was made by a handful of people, who were as much, or more, alike as the NASA engineers.
They deferred to the premier. He had spent nine years surrounded by people telling him how smart he was, which does not encourage critical thinking
The result was disastrous. The tax, which shifts $1.9 billion in taxes from business to families and individuals, might make economic sense. But it has enraged the public.
If Liberal MLAs had been given a real, meaningful chance to talk about the tax, instead of being treated like sheep, the Liberals wouldn't be in such a mess.
The bigger question is why this happens. The people in ridings send their representatives off to Victoria or Ottawa with great hopes.
And they fall silent in the face of party discipline.
We all lose when our representatives are reduced to irrelevancy.
Footnote: The B.C. Rail corruption trial is providing interesting perspective on all this. It appears Campbell sent memos to ensure ministers mentioned his "strong leadership" when they made speeches. Orders to laud the boss don't encourage full and frank debate of his ideas.