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British Columbia Can custodians of British Columbia’s children please stop their bickering?

Another day in the capital, another day of the New Democratic Party and the province's advocate for children teaming up to attack the government for not doing enough to protect the most vulnerable.

The latest grenade to be launched in the direction of Stephanie Cadieux, the beleaguered Minister of Children and Family Development, came courtesy of a new report from her nemesis, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province's Representative for Children and Youth. In her typical unsparing style, Ms. Turpel-Lafond let the government have it, again – this time over staffing levels in the ministry.

The report was especially timely. Ms. Cadieux has been under daily attack from the NDP over the death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, who recently jumped from a hotel he was staying in while in the care of a delegated aboriginal child and family services agency. But every child-in-care death becomes fodder for the political arena; every child-in-care death is the fault of government, and in particular the poor sod who is in charge of the ministry at the time.

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In the case of Mr. Gervais, the government's talking points have included the fact that a) the number of children in care is way down thanks to government policy; and b) the ministry has hired 110 more social workers in the past year to bolster the ranks of the overworked men and women on the front lines. It's a riposte the government has had on rewind any time criticism of the ministry has come up.

The hiring numbers were being disseminated at the same time as Ms. Turpel-Lafond was preparing to release her own investigation into how many social workers there actually are in B.C. And her numbers, contained in a report entitled The Thin Front Line, did not in any way mesh with the government's.

For instance, while Ms. Cadieux has been saying the government hired 110 social workers in the past year, the children's representative said 91 had left over that same period, for a net addition of just 19 workers.

The minister contested the representative's numbers and said there were 90 more social workers being hired over the next several months. In other words, a typical interaction between Ms. Turpel-Lafond and the government: accusation/counter-accusation.

It was yet another example of the utterly broken relationship between the province's children's advocate and the government she serves. In the basest of terms, the government believes that Ms. Turpel-Lafond is more interested in grandstanding on issues and embarrassing the ministry than she is in trying to forge a working relationship that might help achieve more than is being accomplished at the moment.

Many in the Liberals see Ms. Turpel-Lafond as an extension of the provincial NDP; as a member of the opposition. While it is certainly not true, if you are a partisan inside the government ranks I understand the sentiment. The representative does not appear to be a fan of quiet, back-channel negotiating to get results, likely because she doesn't believe it would accomplish anything. And she is likely right; sadly, governments often only react to stories they feel are damaging them in the eyes of the public.

Still, when one regards the current arrangement, you despair to think this is the only way such relationships can work – that they have to be adversarial by their very nature. I'm certainly not aware of a children's advocate anywhere in the country who is as passionate and outspoken and merciless in her critiques as Ms. Turpel-Lafond, and I doubt she has any plans to change her style before her term expires in 2016.

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Personally, I can appreciate the frustration on both sides of this divide. For instance, I can see why an incredibly smart, no-nonsense advocate such as Ms. Turpel-Lafond would grow tired with the often dawdling pace at which government moves and its preoccupation with balancing budgets at the expense of protecting vulnerable children.

At the same time, I can understand the Liberal government's weariness with a children's advocate who has bludgeoned it, at every opportunity, for nine years. There are many senior Liberals who believe her reports are as much about politics as anything else. Yes, they say, there are serious issues in this ministry that need to be addressed. But constantly trying to shame the government into action is the wrong approach, they argue in private.

Beyond that, what upsets many Liberals here is how little credit the children's advocate is prepared to offer for the things government is doing right; for the measures they have taken to address many of the hundreds and hundreds of recommendations she has made throughout her mandate.

Meantime, out in the field, social workers, many of whom have the hardest and loneliest jobs in the province, can only shake their heads at what they see transpiring. While calling urgently for help all they hear is the sound of adults bickering.

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