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An undated family handout photo of 14-month-old Sherry Charlie. (Globe and Mail file/Globe and Mail file)
An undated family handout photo of 14-month-old Sherry Charlie. (Globe and Mail file/Globe and Mail file)

New legislation will 'cripple' B.C.'s Children's Representative Add to ...

British Columbia's child watchdog says her efforts to reform a system that has often failed the most vulnerable citizens will be crippled by new legislation that would severely restrict her ability to access key cabinet documents.

Children's Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Friday that would prevent her from assessing how well the top levels of government are doing in handling children's issues.

She said the documents can show what recommendations were made to address certain child welfare issues and whether police resources, for example, were lacking to deal some cases.

"It's very important in my role to have a look at the system behind the curtain, if you like, and then very carefully report to the public to say, `Here's an issue, here's what happened, here are some reasonable suggestions for improvement in the future," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said.

"This legislation will remove from me the ability to see any of that material."

But Attorney General Mike de Jong said the government is concerned about Ms. Turpel-Lafond having full access to information that is protected by cabinet privilege.

"It is not a question of access," he said. "The representative could have access to cabinet-related material simply by agreeing to the same kind of protocol that an independent officer like the auditor general has agreed to."

He said the top bureaucrat has so far refused to sign the protocol, which would require her not to reveal confidential material publicly.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she has always had access to cabinet documents that she needs to do her job and that as someone who is on leave from her position as a judge, she would not publicize information that would violate any privacy issues.

But Mr. de Jong said Ms. Turpel-Lafond has not had full access to cabinet documents during her three years as children's representative.

"There have been, to my recollection, only one or two requests for access to cabinet-related information," he said, adding he's not sure she received the documents.

"I can't say that with certainty but the issue has crystalized with respect to a particular request," Mr. de Jong said.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond was appointed unanimously to her position by all parties after a hard-hitting 2006 report by retired judge Ted Hughes, who analyzed what went wrong in the case of toddler Sherry Charlie, who was beaten to death by her uncle.

The little girl's death led to an internal review by the government, an inquest and an inquiry headed by Mr. Hughes.

In his report, Mr. Hughes recommended an independent representative of the legislature speak on behalf of vulnerable children and those who are injured and killed in the province.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the legislation that was introduced Thursday would be retroactive to 2007, covering many documents she has already received for work that's now underway.

"I'm in a pickle," she said about what to do with information that she now supposedly shouldn't be accessing.

"I'm about to complete reports looking at very significant issues, like around aboriginal children, where I guess I have to pack the files up if this is passed and I won't be able to report," she said.

Past reports by Ms. Turpel-Lafond have criticized the provincial government's efforts to protect vulnerable children.

Maurine Karagianis, the NDP critic for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, said the introduction of legislation to strip Ms. Turpel-Lafond's powers speaks volumes about a government that has resisted many of her recommendations.

"I think that she has done a very effective job of fulfilling the mandate that she was hired under and now they're taking this really draconian step," Ms. Karagianis said.

The bill introducing the legislation affecting Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office came Thursday in a heap of miscellaneous legislation.

Ms. Karagianis said it was the government's way of burying what would undoubtedly be an unpopular move.

"It speaks to some nasty and stealthy work on their part," said Ms. Karagianis.

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