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An independent review of child protection services in British Columbia confirms what many families, social workers and critics have been saying for four years: The system is plagued by instability and confusion.

In a searing condemnation of the Liberal government, former conflict of interest commissioner Ted Hughes, 78, identifies the source of problems within the province's child-welfare system and offers 62 recommendations for immediate change.

He says he found the child protection system had been undermined by significant government cutbacks, a revolving door in senior leadership, major shifts in practices and poorly managed efforts to decentralize responsibilities for children at risk.

"The strongest impression I have gleaned from this inquiry is one of a child-welfare system that has been buffeted by an unmanageable degree of change," Mr. Hughes says in a 172-page report.

He does not mince words in directing attention to the role of the provincial government.

"I do not think there can be any doubt," he told reporters, referring to a government program of cutbacks. The government "took the knife too far . . . . I just think they were wrong in what occurred, and that is why there was the instability of the last four or five years."

Premier Gordon Campbell has said the budget cuts were not responsible. "He was wrong," Mr. Hughes said.

"The impact of the budget constraints reverberated throughout the child-welfare system from 2002 until recently," he states in his report. "Those responsible for the transition were under pressure to meet deep spending cuts across the board."

Mr. Hughes urged the government to increase funding for services and programs, appoint an independent representative to advocate for children and to hold the Ministry of Children and Families more accountable. The representative would also look for trends in injuries and deaths in the system so that practices can be improved.

Mr. Hughes also made a special plea for the ministry to work more closely with the aboriginal community to ensure child protection workers have training and resources to care for their children. About half of the children in government care come from aboriginal communities.

"The needs are simple but acute," he said, adding that Internet access to track cases, office skills and access to training are essential.

Children and Family Development Minister Stan Hagen offered preliminary support for Mr. Hughes's recommendations, which he said are consistent with the direction in which the ministry is moving. The ministry has already implemented about 25 per cent of the changes, he told reporters.

He endorsed the proposal for an independent children's representative as a constructive way to "resurrect" public confidence in the province's child-protection system.

He also reaffirmed the ministry's commitment to shift child-protection responsibilities to the aboriginal communities, although he said that, by mutual agreement, the process has been slowed.

Mr. Hagen said he had to consult with the cabinet before making firm commitments on the recommendations.

NDP Leader Carole James called the report a vindication of concerns raised over the past four years by families, social workers, opposition members and others.

The government has been told for years that their cuts went too deep and the ministry was in chaos, she said yesterday. "This report is a damning report of the Liberal government and Gordon Campbell himself," she said.

She also said the NDP is ready to support legislation to implement all the recommendations.

Mr. Hughes was appointed to review the province's child protection system in November of 2005, in the midst of controversy over the death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie.

The child was killed by a relative weeks after a native agency placed her in his home under B.C.'s kith-and-kin program. Previous reviews revealed that child protection workers were not properly trained and the government did not fund the program adequately.

Mr. Hughes's report notes that the ministry in the past 10 years has had nine ministers, eight deputy ministers and seven directors with lead responsibility in child protection: "This turnover has taken a toll in terms of staff morale and the ministry's ability to set directions, frame goals and make progress. The revolving door has got to stop."

Blueprint for change

Top recommendations made for B.C.'s child-protection system:

Appoint a representative for children and youth as an independent officer of the legislature.

Appoint two deputies to the representative, one for advocacy and one for monitoring the child-welfare system.

Ensure that at least one of the deputies is an aboriginal person and that aboriginal staff are actively recruited.

Take immediate measures to strengthen aboriginal child-welfare agencies and collaborate with aboriginal people to develop common vision for a child-welfare system.

Create a new standing committee on children and youth in the legislature.

Robert Matas

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