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British Columbia Watchdog has 'no confidence' in B.C. ministry's review of child sex-abuse case

Stephanie Cadieux Minister of Childern and Family Development seen here during a ceremony in Vancouver June 7, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's children's minister has promised a review after social workers violated a court order and allowed a father who had molested his kids unsupervised visits.

Stephanie Cadieux said Thursday her ministry will examine all the policy, practice and human resource concerns raised by a scathing B.C. Supreme Court ruling.

"This family, and the rest of British Columbia, deserve to know the child welfare system is responsive and accountable for the decisions it makes," Cadieux told the legislature as the Opposition New Democrats demanded she apologize.

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The province's children and youth representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said she has "no confidence" in the ministry's ability to investigate itself.

"This is a child welfare ministry that for some time has felt that it doesn't have to answer to independent oversight or to a court," she said in an interview.

"They're not capable of holding each other to account. They do not have the structures to do that."

Turpel-Lafond, who heads the independent body that oversees the child welfare system, said she wants to participate in the review or see a third party hired to do it.

The ministry said it was working with the Public Service Agency to determine what kind of staff conduct review would work best, and details would be announced later.

Justice Paul Walker said in a written decision released Tuesday that the ministry showed "reckless disregard" when it falsely accused a mother of being mentally ill and removed four children from her care in 2009.

Social workers failed to investigate the kids' claims that their father had sexually abused them and knowingly violated a court order banning unsupervised visits, the ruling said.

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Turpel-Lafond said the ministry needs to take immediate action against the workers named in the judgment and examine all other child welfare cases on which they worked.

She said the ministry's decision to eliminate the provincial director of child welfare between 2007 and 2011 created a system akin to the "Wild West" and that even now the director has no power over regional bosses.

Social workers employed by the government are not required to register in the B.C. College of Social Workers, meaning they are not regulated by a professional body, Turpel-Lafond said.

Children's Ministry spokesman Sheldon Johnson said all child protection workers must take specialized university courses and get on-the-job training including interviewing kids who may have been sexually abused. He said workers must have the skills required by the college although they don't need to register.

Johnson said the ministry cannot comment on the individuals named in the judgment due to privacy legislation.

The mother's lawyer, Jack Hittrich, has said that a team leader involved in her case, William Strickland, is still employed by the ministry.

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In the legislature, NDP Leader John Horgan questioned how many other court orders the ministry had ignored.

"How many other children are being put at risk because the government believes it's above the law?" he said.

Walker concluded in 2012 that the father physically and sexually abused the couple's three eldest children and gave the mother sole guardianship.

In his decision released Tuesday, Walker determined that the father had also molested his youngest child while the couple's kids were in ministry care.

The ministry has not said yet whether it plans to appeal the ruling.

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