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gary mason

Of all of the damning reports that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has issued in her seven years as B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, none has been as troubling as the assessment she offered this week of the province's aboriginal child welfare system.

What Ms. Turpel-Lafond discovered is frightening and really one of the great B.C. government disgraces of recent times. As it turns out, tens of millions of dollars have been poured down a big black hole while the thousands of aboriginal children that the money was aimed to protect remain as vulnerable as ever.

One's head spins at some of the findings in the representative's seminal piece of work: $66-million spent over 12 years on initiatives that failed to serve a single child – including nearly $35-million that went to consultants, meeting facilitators and the like; an additional $90-million handed out annually to 23 delegated aboriginal child welfare agencies, some of which received millions without handling a single case.

She also found that there isn't nearly enough oversight of the $57-million the federal government spends on child welfare in B.C., a good chunk of which also goes to aboriginal communities.

As the representative observes: In excess of a $100-million is being spent annually on aboriginal child welfare, a significant chunk of which goes to governance and other initiatives that don't actually help any of those in need. If that isn't a scandal, nothing is.

Consider some of her observations.

"There could not be a more confused, unstable and bizarre area of public policy that that which guides aboriginal child and family services in B.C.," wrote Ms. Turpel-Lafond, in a report that took more than two years to conclude. "This area is rife with perverse performance measures, the absence of any real incentives for change and no end-state goals on how services to aboriginal children and youth will be improved."

And this.

"Senior bureaucrats and others in government must return to a model of public service and accountability that permits good collaboration but doesn't abdicate control or send a massive chunk of the budget out to a sector that will provide no service but appears to make everyone feel good or provides an illusion of progress where there is none."

We could go on. There are few passages in the report that are complimentary of anyone, particularly the provincial government. But neither are aboriginal leaders spared, for demanding control over child welfare matters without giving any serious thought to how it would be properly administered. But, of course, that was the government's fault too, so anxious was it to hand off responsibility for this difficult area of public policy that it did so with little regard to whether it could actually work.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond is a tireless advocate on behalf of the province's children, especially those in need. There is no one who has a better handle on the problems – the deepening chasms in the systems into which children are falling – and how they are most effectively solved.

She has concluded that in the interests of helpless children in aboriginal communities, the provincial government is best-suited to protect them. As she puts it, Victoria needs to "end the dream of having someone else do the job for them." It isn't working, despite what all the consultants and service providers who are being well fed from the millions being dumped into the system might say.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look as if the government plans on changing course. Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux says a lot of the work that the representative criticized was well-meaning. She says she's directed future action to focus more strictly on delivering actual services. What a novel concept.

I'm sorry, but I'm with the representative on this one. The province is handing millions over to people who aren't equipped to deal with the myriad challenges that child welfare poses – and never will be. They do, however, like those cheques that keep coming. Tough luck.

It's time to end this failed experiment before we lose an entire generation of kids who deserved better.