The sad, short lives of 21 B.C. children who all died before their second birthday has the province's independent children's representative calling on the government to do more to fight child poverty.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond also demanded the 12 candidates vying to replace the leaders of the provincial Liberals and NDP develop strategies to reduce British Columbia's child poverty rate.
“Any person who is putting their hat forward to be a leader of any party in this province needs to have a well-formulated position on this issue because it's with us and it's not going away,” she said after releasing a report Thursday
The province has had the worst rate in Canada for several years in a row and poverty is directly related to poor outcomes for children, said the report.
Her 76-page document, Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems: Strengthening Supports for Vulnerable Infants, called on Premier Gordon Campbell's office to play a lead role in developing a child-poverty plan.
“Despite a drop in British Columbia's overall child poverty rate between 2007 and 2008, British Columbia continues to have the worst child poverty record in the country for the sixth year in a row based on after-tax measures,” said her report, quoting Statistics Canada.
“Provincially, the rate of child poverty is 10.4 per cent, higher than the national average of 9.1 per cent. The Canadian Pediatric Society rated British Columbia ‘poor' in addressing child poverty in their 2009 report,” said Turpel-Lafond's report.
Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories have provincial child poverty reduction plans. Nunavut announced a public process last fall that could lead to a child poverty strategy.
“British Columbia does not have a provincial plan to reduce poverty,” the report said.
B.C. Children's Minister Mary Polak said the government has cut child poverty rates by more than 40 per cent by introducing programs and initiatives that target child and family issues.
But Ms. Turpel-Lafond said at a news conference the government's trickle-down economic strategy does not reach children and their families who have been living in poverty for generations, with the 21 dead kids as a prime example of the failure.
“What we're doing isn't working,” she said. “If you're looking at some of the cases of these infants, you're talking about third-generation families on subsistence, with ongoing shocks, not only just living in deep poverty. What are we going to do to change that?”
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said 15 of the 21 dead children were aboriginal and nine of the 15 were from Vancouver Island.
She said the 21 children and their families faced tremendous challenges: 20 of the 21 had trauma in the families of their parents; 15 of the 21 families had documented histories of abuse or neglect on the mother's side of the family; 14 of the 21 families had domestic violence issues; 16 of the 21 families had substance abuse issues; and 12 of the 21 families had documented mental health issues such as depression, suicidal behaviour and anxiety.
The report outlined the tragic death of an infant who was left by child babysitters to sleep in a car seat that was placed on top of a soft mattress. The car seat turned over and the baby was asphyxiated.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the infant was left in the car seat because there was no crib in the home even though the child and family were known to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Prior to the infant's death, 14 child protection reports had been made to the ministry, primarily about alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
“Many children in B.C. do well,” Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. “Far, far too many do not. There's deep poverty and deep inequality in British Columbia.”
She called on the premier's office to deliver a progress report on its child poverty-reduction actions by April.
Ms. Polak acknowledged the tragedy of the 21 deaths, but said there are 84,000 children known to the ministry and more than 9,000 are in government care.
Ms. Polak also said the government is attempting to work with the federal government to improve the rates of poverty in aboriginal communities, where the issues are acute.
“We know that with the overall poverty rate that we are doing the right things and taking targeted investments continues to bring that number down,” she said.
“We also know that when it comes to aboriginal communities and particularly those on reserve, we need to do far more in terms of investing in prevention-type programs and community development programs.”
Opposition New Democrat children's critic Maurine Karagianis said she is perplexed about why the government continues to resist calls to fight child poverty.
But she said she is prepared to work with the government and new premier on child poverty.