Every year a report of some kind comes out telling us what a wonderful country we live in, how we enjoy one of the highest standards of living anywhere. And then Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond issues a narrative of a different kind, one that reminds us that not everyone is enjoying the good life most of us take for granted.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond is B.C.’s children’s advocate. It has been her job for the past seven years to expose holes in the province’s child-protection system – and she’s found plenty. It isn’t easy work. The stories she’s uncovered are inevitably depressing and heartbreaking, including the most recent one about a 14-year-old native girl who hanged herself in May, 2011.
Teen suicides aren’t uncommon. But in this case, the girl’s many pleas for help were ignored by adults who had a responsibility to assist her. The child-welfare system completely abandoned her, leaving a poor lost soul to fend for herself in an aboriginal community where physical and sexual abuse is rampant. Her mother was certifiably psychotic and yet this is with whom she was forced to live; a woman who confessed to hearing voices telling her to harm her daughter.
The girl was able to connect with the local RCMP a couple of times when she felt particularly vulnerable and afraid. A social worker was assigned to her case but mostly avoided checking up on her because she feared for her personal safety. People on the reserve had threatened to shoot her or attack her with a knife if she set foot there.
“[The ministry staff] essentially drove to the edge of the reserve, pulled a U-turn and left the child protection complaints without investigation,” Ms. Turpel-Lafond told me in an interview. “There was no follow up because the social worker understood she wasn’t wanted and understandably feared violence and retaliation if she showed up.”
There should never be a no-go zone when it comes to the safety of a child. And yet, Ms. Turpel-Lafond says that among the 203 First Nations communities in B.C., there are 23 of them; places where child-welfare staff simply won’t venture because of fears of being attacked.
There are others culpable in this story, including health-care professionals who treated the 14-year-old but failed to pass along reports to the Ministry of Children and Family Development as required by law. The girl was regularly beaten by her mother. Depressed, she took to cutting herself.
She was sexually abused by an older male in the community and then by another older teenager, who came from an influential family on the reserve. But her complaints about the abuse she was falling victim to went unheard. Finally, unable to take it any more, she hanged herself in her grandparents’ backyard.
Tragically, similar stories are playing out in lots of corners of the province as we speak. Not just in aboriginal communities, of course. It is no secret, however, that there is a higher preponderance of abuse and neglect on our reserves than there is elsewhere, and there are lots of reasons for that. That said, it is still our responsibility as a society to take care of the vulnerable, particularly children, and on that front we continue to fail.
About 10 years ago, the B.C. government began devolving responsibility for child protection to aboriginal communities. In a scathing report last November, Ms. Turpel-Lafond revealed what a disaster that has been, with tens of millions of dollars being sent to delegated aboriginal agencies with little to show for it. The province’s child-protection system is in disarray.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond hasn’t been able to find out how many open child-protection files there are in the province or even how many front-line staff there are – this, after seven years of asking. In some jurisdictions the number of cases per social worker is as low as 18. But in B.C., she’s learned, there are social workers with dozens and dozens of files.
Meantime, there are hundreds of children in B.C. who are being forsaken, some of whose lives, sadly, could end in the same tragic way this 14-year-old girl’s did. Beyond the obvious unjustness of this social condition, it is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which assures children the right to life, liberty and security of the person.
As a country, we must do better, much better, no matter who we offend in the process.
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