A former B.C. children’s representative says she repeatedly warned the province that government social workers were failing to visit vulnerable children — a problem underscored this week in a report about an Indigenous boy with autism who went years without ever meeting a ministry social worker despite numerous complaints.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who left the position she’d held for a decade two years ago and now teaches law at the University of British Columbia, authored three reports dating back to 2011 raising concerns that children who were the subject of child protection complaints were never seen by ministry social workers. All three related to children with complex needs, and two were Indigenous.
Those concerns surfaced again Tuesday when the current Children’s Representative released a report about a child referred to as Charlie, who was taken into care after being in a severe state of neglect. The 12-year-old was found alone in a filthy room naked, starved and screaming in 2016. The report revealed that despite nearly a decade of ministry involvement with the family and eight separate reports of child protection concerns, no social worker from the Ministry of Children and Family Development ever met Charlie or saw his room.
"Many of my reports have a common theme which is, when you check on a child, you can’t just meet the person at the door. You must see the child,” Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in an interview.
The province does not know how often social workers fail to meet children whose cases they are assigned to because the ministry does not track the data.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said there are three common reasons for social workers failing to lay eyes on the children whose well-being they are sent to assess. First, they are overburdened with untenable caseloads because offices are chronically understaffed. Second, inexperience and inadequate supervision result in front-line workers who can’t or don’t push to see the child. Third, not enough social workers have the training to respond in a culturally appropriate way to Indigenous children and families.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the review of Charlie’s case offers a disturbing reminder of some of the problems that plague the child-welfare system in B.C., particularly when it comes to responding to Indigenous children and children with complex special needs.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said that in addition to an inadequate investigation of child protection reports, there is a systemic problem of social workers being unable to keep track of families of children with special needs.
Further, there is no mechanism to ensure that parents such as Charlie’s mother are accessing the respite services and funding available to parents of autistic children and she said accessing these supports is unduly onerous. Charlie’s mother’s struggles appeared to be compounded by poverty and mental-health issues. Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the permanent separation of Charlie from his mother is the “second tragedy” in this case.
“I’m also just fundamentally saddened by this report because I really wonder about mom," she said. “When parents aren’t getting respite, when they’re not supported, when they don’t have a system that knows how to engage with them, when they don’t feel like they’re welcome and nobody eyeballs the child – really bad things happen.”
Katrine Conroy, the Minister of Children and Family Development, did not make herself available for an interview on Tuesday. A day earlier, she issued a statement that described the behaviour of the workers responsible for Charlie as “inexcusable.” Her ministry said that since 2016, the department has added 142 child protection social workers to their staff.
The office of the current Children’s Representative, Jennifer Charlesworth, said that when preparing the report, it requested data from the ministry about the number of cases in which a child who is the subject of an investigation is never seen, but the ministry couldn’t speak to the scope of the problem.
“The representative’s investigators asked MCFD for data on the number of times children are not seen in investigations. The ministry was not able to provide the information because it does not specifically track it,” spokesperson Jennifer Williams said.