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Christy Clark ready to increase funds for British Columbia’s at-risk kids

It is an excellent bet that Premier Christy Clark will respond to a report this week on a child protection case gone wrong with a commitment to spend more money safeguarding the province's most at-risk children and youth.

Reporters from different media outlets lined up for their annual year-end interviews with the Premier last week, and Ms. Clark correctly anticipated questions about the string of horrific stories throughout 2015 in which the government failed to protect kids in care.

There is a lot to answer for.

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This is was the year we learned about Paige, an aboriginal teen who died of a drug overdose after growing up in violence and neglect with her alcoholic mother despite 30 child-protection reports – in fact, far fewer than there should have been.

Her story put a spotlight on the "persistent professional indifference" shown to aboriginal children and youth in B.C. by agencies that are supposed to protect them, according to watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

There was the death of Alex Gervais, an 18-year-old aboriginal youth who fell from a fourth-floor window of the budget hotel that served as his home – a miserable substitute for government foster care. Last week, the reason for his hotel stay was finally disclosed: The ministry had shut down 26 care homes, including the one he had been in, citing a lack of confidence in the service providers.

Nick Lang was just 15 when he died while in government care. The high-risk teen was supposed to be under intensive supervision, but had virtually no ministry contact for weeks while he waited for a bed in a supportive care facility.

Alex Malamalatabua was 17 when he died on the grounds of B.C. Children's Hospital. He had been housed there for five months because no suitable residential care bed was available where he could get the mental health support he needed.

And, there was the case of J.P. and her children. The mother, identified by only her initials to protect her family, won a lawsuit against the province after social workers enabled her estranged husband to molest their toddler in foster care.

All of these horrific stories have one constant theme: B.C. does not have a robust system of child protection.

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But it is the case of J.P. that has opened the door, finally, for the province to restore funding. The Liberals appointed retired deputy minister Bob Plecas to look at the ministry's handling of the case, and he is expected to file his report on Tuesday.

Ms. Clark said if Mr. Plecas calls for more funding, "we will respond to that with more resources if that is necessary."

Why now, why this case?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond, the Representative for Children and Youth, has made a career of pointing to the chronic underfunding that leaves children and youth in government care without proper protection. The union representing social workers has provided its own evidence to show the system of care is unsuitable, understaffed and not adequately financed. Aboriginal leaders and the opposition New Democrats have also pressed for urgent change. A lot of gaps must be filled, perhaps more than the government is prepared to take on.

Mr. Plecas has one unique skill – his intimate understanding of how this government works will help him craft a plan on a scale that Ms. Clark can take on. Also, his report comes at the right time: The Premier is eager to demonstrate that she is prepared to spend the dividends of a healthy economy.

"Three years ago, it would have been a struggle to find a way to make that commitment," Ms. Clark said in an interview last week. Happily, the province is expected to lead the country in growth next year. "It's a lot easier to be able to make commitments to find new money for services when we have a growing economy. We're in a better position than we ever have been to respond to whatever recommendations Mr. Plecas gives us."

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A long-overdue funding lift for kids at risk is being presented as the feel-good story of the year. Funny, it does not feel that way.

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