A review of British Columbia's child welfare system released this week fails to hold to account social workers who put children in harm's way, says the lawyer for a woman whose case triggered the review.
And the suggestion that social workers do their jobs with the constant fear of public criticism over any errors in judgment is "pure fiction" in light of what happened to the woman, known only as J.P., and her children in their dealings with child-protection workers, her lawyer said.
"The report seems to be a folksy narrative on how a ministry designed by [Bob] Plecas has gone wrong – because they veered from his initial path," lawyer Jack Hittrich said, referring to former deputy minister Bob Plecas, who wrote the report released on Monday. "The standards and practices set up are good. In the J.P. case, social workers deliberately did not follow them, with disastrous results."
Mr. Plecas's report called for more funding, additional staff and better training within the child-protection system, while also suggesting the ministry and its workers were too often the target of criticism from the media, Opposition politicians and the province's independent children's watchdog. The review was launched after details emerged about J.P.'s case. The woman's husband was allowed unsupervised visits with the couple's four children after social workers refused to believe or investigate her allegations that he was sexually abusing them, allegations the judge found were true.
The furor swirling around the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) has also included extensive media coverage of the deaths of several children in care over the past few years and several reports by the children's representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, that have cited gaps in ministry services for vulnerable children.
The details of the J.P. case came to light in July in a Supreme Court of B.C. ruling that found social workers on the case "engaged in a wholesale disregard of their statutory mandate and the requisite standard of care expected of them to protect the children from harm" and that the director of child welfare provided "false and misleading information" to the court to support J.P.'s children being taken from her and placed with their father.
The children are now in J.P's care. After the court ruling in July, the government announced it would conduct an independent review of the J.P. case, and named Mr. Plecas to conduct it.
In August, the province appealed the judgment, and Mr. Plecas's mandate was changed so he could provide an interim report on child welfare services while the case was still before the court.
That report, released on Monday, has only added to the controversy over the ministry. In his review, Mr. Plecas said the MCFD "by and large does an admirable job" in helping vulnerable kids and that B.C.'s rate of out-of-home care for children – 10.1 per 1,000 – is lower than 12.4 per 1,000 in comparable provinces.
Mr. Plecas also cited external factors that affect the ministry, saying that sometimes, particularly when it comes to the death of a child in care, an avalanche of criticism and calls for change can lead to "even greater instability and loss of confidence in the work of the ministry."
He also noted the hourly rates for child protection workers in B.C. were below the national average and that funding for the ministry has failed to keep up with inflation, resulting in cuts or hiring freezes.
Mr. Plecas also suggested the office of the Representative for Children and Youth – created in 2006 – be phased out, saying the volume of recommendations it makes has become "overwhelming" and that the ministry could move toward internal oversight.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said independent oversight of the child welfare system remains a necessity and that without it, stories of vulnerable children would never be told.