My least favourite days are the days when I know that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, is issuing another report.
There are the regular reports of critical injuries and deaths of children in government care and the reviews and investigations that result from each incident. Ms. Turpel-Lafond’s office has issued 27 of them – with the most recent one arriving this week. They are a running tally of misery and tragedy that she’s been compiling since her first day on the job nearly 10 years ago.
Other reports delve deeply into the lives and untimely deaths of individual young people and describe in detail how the system that was put into place to ensure their safety and well-being failed them. You may remember Paige, a 19-year-old aboriginal girl who died of a drug overdose in the Downtown Eastside in 2013. In the report, Paige’s Story: Abuse, Indifference and a Young Life Discarded, she was identified as a victim of professional indifference.
Then there are those reports that take on larger issues – children in ministry care living in hotels, cyber bullying and the pressure felt by overburdened front-line social workers – just to name a few.
This week, as her second, five-year term nears its end, came what will likely be one of Ms. Turpel-Lafond’s last reports: Too Many Victims, Sexualized Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth in Care.
The report looks at a three-year period ending in 2014. It found 145 incidents of sexualized violence against 121 children and youth in government care. Of those victims, 61 per cent were aboriginal girls. The report says the true number of incidents is likely far higher because some victims are so traumatized they never report at all. More than 70 per cent of children had a diagnosed or suspected mental-health issue. Half had substance-abuse issues. The average number of moves a child was eight, with some kids being moved around as many as 30 times.
Following the report, B.C.’s Minister of Children and Family Development, Stephanie Cadieux, held a media conference call, offering what has become a familiar refrain following any report from Ms. Turpel-Lafond.
“It is completely unacceptable for any child to be harmed in any way in the homes where we place them and certainly when they’re in our care,” she said. “We’ve already put a number of changes in place, we’ve already strengthened our reporting system. We will continue to look at it, and we’ll look at what more we can do.”
Beyond that, the minister was unavailable for interviews, instead sending out her ministry’s Deputy Director of Child Welfare, Alex Scheiber.
When I asked Mr. Scheiber about the number of children victimized and how the ministry could allow such abuse to take place without intervening, his first reaction was to minimize the problem. “In 2015 we broadened our definition for critical injury including sexual assaults, and by broadening our definition we saw a significant increase in reporting sexual assaults and other critical injuries – not necessarily an increase in the number of sexual assaults,” he said.
This from a person speaking for the ministry that is essentially the legal parent of these children.
I can’t imagine any parent whose first reaction would be to minimize what had happened to their child based on a definition change.
Nor could NDP critic Melanie Mark. “It’s the failure of this government to act as a prudent parent,” she told me in an interview. “I have two daughters. If my daughters disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted I would take swift, immediate action, and I would push every envelope until justice was served,” she said.
Ms. Mark echoed what Ms. Turpel-Lafond has said so many times – that there is such pressure on front-line social workers that they struggle to manage caseloads.
In its last budget the provincial government promised an additional $66-million toward hiring 130 ministry staff, including 100 additional front-line social workers. It’s not clear how many of the new workers are on the job, or whether the number of workers has increased overall. But it’s clear the problem has not been solved.
For all the talk of prosperity and improving the lives of families in this province, you can only conclude the British Columbia government is failing its most vulnerable citizens.
I wouldn’t think much of any parent who bragged about earning a windfall in real-estate transactions, socked away millions in a prosperity fund and didn’t take care of their own kids.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.Report Typo/Error
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