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Alex Malamalatabua died on the grounds of the BC Children’s Hospital, above, after his move to community care was delayed.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has acknowledged it needs to restore funding to child protection programs after an independent review said it is time to end two decades of chaos that produced a system that has failed kids in care.

Part of the solution, said Bob Plecas, the former deputy minister who undertook the review, is to phase out the office of the children's watchdog and have the Ministry for Children and Family Development resume its own oversight. The watchdog's office is in part responsible for unrelenting pressures that have created standards that are impossible to meet and reduced government policy to a series of reactions to bad news, he suggested.

Minister Stephanie Cadieux said on Monday after the report was released that she will need several months to figure out how to implement the report's proposal for a four-year plan to bring stability in both policy direction and funding to a ministry that has had it in neither area as it struggles to serve the most vulnerable in society. And she brushed aside the recommendation to reform the watchdog's mandate.

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"There is no argument that there is a need for more resources," Ms. Cadieux told reporters. "We are talking about systemic change, and change on this scale will take some firm commitments."

Premier Christy Clark's Liberal government has been under fire over the deaths of several children in care in the past few years – including one who had been placed in a hotel against government policy – and the services it provides to its young charges, some of whom have complex needs, and a disproportionate number of whom are aboriginal.

Plecas Review Report Part One

Mr. Plecas, who helped establish the ministry 20 years ago, was asked by government to review one case of ministry failure, and his work on that will continue until the spring. However, he released a broad-based interim report on Monday in an effort to force a $50-million budget increase in the coming fiscal year to launch changes.

In the four years since Ms. Clark came to power on a promise to put "families first," the ministry responsible for child protection has had no plan to improve the system of care, and its budget has been cut.

"I find it particularly concerning that, over the past four years, the proportion of MCFD's budget that is dedicated to child protection has actually decreased in real terms, leaving alone the impacts of inflation," Mr. Plecas wrote. "What is inescapable is that the system is short on both staff and program resources."

The four-year plan would give staff better training and higher wages, streamline policy and create a new management model that does not place the burden of decision-making almost solely on front-line workers, he said. And he wants both the governing B.C. Liberals and the opposition New Democratic Party to commit to the long-term plan, because a one-time injection of funds would not make a difference. "Let me be clear: Additional resources with phased-in budget increases are needed for the plan to work," he said in the report.

Mr. Plecas also called for an end to the "blame game" that makes social workers scapegoats when children are harmed: "I am convinced that we are not well served by a system where fear constantly underlies every worker's day."

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He said the system can be fixed, but nothing will eradicate child abuse and deaths. "We can make our kids safe, safer than they are now, but we will never be 100-per-cent successful."

That bleak conclusion was dismissed by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the independent Representative for Children and Youth who has served as the ministry's watchdog for the past nine years and frequently issued scathing criticism of the care given to children and youth.

"This dystopian view that the ministry cannot prevent deaths and injuries is troubling, there is a certain cynicism in that it will not restore confidence in the ministry," she said. And while she welcomed Mr. Plecas's call for increased funding, she rejected his suggestion the watchdog's role should be returned to being an internal government function.

Mr. Plecas said the role of the ministry's watchdog has contributed to some of the institutional whiplash: "Despite everyone's best intentions, the constant recommendations have become part of the bigger management problem," he wrote. He said he believes the representative's office could be transitioned to an advocacy role in the next two years – but only if the ministry proved it can manage oversight in transparent, trusted manner.

Ms. Cadieux was quick to play down any hint her government would do away with the independent oversight from Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office. "It's an interesting idea, but there is a lot of work that still needs to be done before that would ever be entertained."

Ernie Crey, chief councillor of the Fraser Valley's Cheam First Nation and a former social worker, had scathing comments on Mr. Plecas's report and defended Ms. Turpel-Lafond, calling her an "outstanding champion."

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"[The government has] done nothing to remedy the situation and now they've turned their guns on the representative for children and youth, you know, holding her accountable for all of their failures, a stupid move on their part, in my opinion," he said.

The First Nations Leadership Council, made up of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, issued an open letter to Ms. Clark, calling the report's recommendations "inappropriate."

"Let us be clear in stating that we fully support the important work of the Representative for Children and Youth." The letter urged the Premier to make immediate financial investments in the ministry.

"More importantly though, we urge you to work with us to ensure those investments actually help First Nations children and youth who are the mainstay of the children in need in B.C."

With a report from the Canadian Press

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