The B.C. government has radically cut back on internal audits meant to ensure child protection work is being properly carried out.
The audits, designed to monitor how quickly and how thoroughly social workers investigate child welfare complaints, have declined this year to roughly 200 reviews on more than 30,000 calls.
That's an alarming decline, the province's watchdog for children and youth said.
"The number is so low as to be insignificant as any meaningful measure," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the Representative for Children and Youth.
In 2006, when Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office was created, the province conducted more than 1,100 audits. She said the public cannot have confidence that the province is serving vulnerable children well when those reviews are not taking place.
"They are the only reliable, valid, accepted tool to tell you how your system is doing," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in an interview.
The provincial government has set a pattern with the child protection audits, typically embracing the practice only when it is in the spotlight.
Audits were phased out in 1983, and then brought back 15 years ago, after Mr. Justice Thomas Gove delivered an indictment of the province's system of child protection. Judge Gove investigated the death of Mathew Vaudreuil, a horrendously abused and neglected little boy who was killed by his mother despite numerous contacts with social services.
The Gove inquiry demanded, among other things, that government reinstate its audits to monitor the quality of services delivered by child welfare workers.
A decade later, retired judge Ted Hughes was appointed to investigate another tragic failure of the child protection system, the death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie. His 2006 report found the system of audits had once again petered out. He stressed the need for effective audits to monitor the child welfare system to promote "continuous improvement of policy, standards and practice."
Mary Polak, the Minister for Children and Family Development, said the government has found other ways to achieve the same results.
"There is no lessening of oversight just because there is a reduction in the number of audits being conducted," she said in an interview. "The audit is only one mechanism for tracking and reviewing the way in which child welfare operates in British Columbia."
Asked why the government has cut back on its audits, she said: "It really comes down to professional judgment with respect to how cases ought best be dealt with."
She said the ministry is working to change to a broader reporting system, expected to be rolled out next spring. It is supposed to go beyond reviewing paper files by involving parents, youth and front-line workers.
She added that the ministry is also reporting to the watchdog, with monthly and quarterly meetings to share information on critical injuries and deaths.
"There is much closer collaboration between the two offices," she said.
But that collaboration has been questioned by Mr. Hughes himself, who has repeatedly offered mediation to improve what he describes as a dysfunctional relationship between the ministry and its watchdog.
Last week, Ms. Polak sat down with Mr. Hughes. She said the meeting was positive, but maintained that her ministry has a good day-to-day working rapport with the Representative for Children and Youth.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond, however, said she has been frustrated by the ministry's promise of "transformation" when she cannot see a concrete plan to replace the audit system with something better.
"When I review injuries and deaths, I see real frailties in the system," she said. If complaints are not investigated quickly, she said, risks to children can escalate.
"What's key for me is evidence-based reporting - actually demonstrating outcomes through regular, accurate information. It's the key to restoring public confidence in this field."