The brick walls of her office are stripped down to the picture hangers, a decade of work is packed in cardboard boxes stacked by the door. The only remaining trace of personality is a collection of quotes from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, left for the next occupant.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the unparalleled thorn-in-the-side of the B.C. government, is headed out the door. Her last act is set for Monday when she appears before a legislative committee, where she will leave no doubt that there is still much work to be done by whoever replaces her to improve the safety net for British Columbia's most vulnerable children.
The province's first Representative for Children and Youth, Ms. Turpel-Lafond has defined the position, which is both an advocate for children at risk and a watchdog over the government ministry that provides services to those children who need care and protection. Legislators have been unable to agree upon a new appointee.
When she was appointed to the job in 2006, Ms. Turpel-Lafond believed the province was poised to reform its child-protection system after more than a decade defined by tragedy and the scandalous failures of an underfunded and incoherent system. Her own agenda was to reduce the disproportionate number of indigenous children in government care, and to turn back austerity measures that had stripped the social safety net to the bone.
Growing up amid poverty and abuse on a Manitoba reserve, Ms. Turpel-Lafond had established herself as tough and tenacious before she opened the representative's office: At the age of 44, she had already earned a string of degrees, including a PhD from Harvard, and was the first aboriginal woman appointed to Saskatchewan's provincial bench in 1998. She was also the mother of four young children.
But she quickly discovered the B.C. government did not embrace her role. She fought for funding, she was barred from visiting social workers in their offices, and at one point, she ended up in court fighting to obtain government documents. "I showed up on the job, they didn't want to give me a budget, they didn't want to let me talk to anyone and they didn't want to give me anything. So it was a formidable task to overcome that."
That set the tone for an almost unrelentingly fractious relationship. At times, the B.C. Liberal government treated her as if she was a member of the opposition rather than an independent officer of the legislature. She has issued 93 reports to government, and most of them can be described with variations of the word "damning." Almost three-quarters of her recommendations have been adopted as government policy, she says, but she maintains the province has skated around the toughest and most costly proposals for a better system.
She has frustrated those inside the Ministry for Children and Family Development but has prodded government into action. Even some of her allies will allow that her blistering criticism has sometimes been more aggressive than is constructive.
Her report on Paige, a 19-year-old aboriginal girl who died of a drug overdose in the Downtown Eastside in 2013, was a disturbing portrait that led to the creation of a Rapid Response Team aimed at improving services for the highest-risk youth in the Downtown Eastside. Ms. Turpel-Lafond concluded Paige had been a victim of professional indifference – putting social workers and agencies on the defensive.
Michelle Fortin is executive director of Watari Counselling & Support Services in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and knew both the girl and her mother. Ms. Fortin says Ms. Turpel-Lafond should be credited for a significant body of in-depth and impartial work to improve the lives of vulnerable children and youth, particularly those who are indigenous. But in the Paige report, she saw an effort to provoke a public reaction that painted Paige as a helpless victim rather than the resilient young woman she knew.
"One of my disappointments in the last few reports was that they were more about the message and pushing back to government and less about substantive recommendations," Ms. Fortin said.
On her last day in her now-empty office overlooking the Victoria harbour, Ms. Turpel-Lafond recounted where she has made progress, but also where change has eluded her efforts.
The number of children in care has dropped, from 11,000 to 7,000. That's an achievement, especially considering the growth in B.C.'s population. Adoption rates have climbed to the highest in a decade, and education outcomes for children in care improved at every level. With her lobbying, 12 of B.C.'s 23 postsecondary institutions now waive tuition fees for former children in care.
But the share of children in government care who are indigenous has climbed to 60 per cent from 50 per cent. And the province has hewed to austerity when it comes to social spending.
"There has been an obliteration of the civil service," she said. Even Premier Christy Clark's promise in 2014 to hire 200 new social workers to address the shortfall did not assuage Ms. Turpel-Lafond. "I said, 'There is a hole in your bucket. For every staff member you are putting in, you are losing one.' So the very same offices that were teetering when I came into the role are still in crisis because they never dealt with the fundamental compensation issues that are needed to recruit and retain."
The office of the watchdog was established at the recommendation of retired judge Ted Hughes, who had conducted an inquiry into the death of a child in care – a death that had undermined public confidence in the province's child-protection services. He was drawn into the conflict between Ms. Turpel-Lafond and the province, serving as a mediator when the two sides squared off over access to cabinet documents.
Mr. Hughes, in an interview, said Ms. Turpel-Lafond has succeeded in establishing the office as he had hoped, and he said her "somewhat aggressive" approach may have been necessary.
"The job was carried out in a confrontational manner sometimes. But could the job be done without that? It's an open question."
It is impossible to spend 10 years immersed in child-protection matters, with as many as 200 active files at any given time, and not be changed in some way.
"I do have a full head of white hair now; I think my heart has grown three or four sizes bigger," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. "My compassion grew and my unwavering belief in the importance of this job grew, so it is somewhat bittersweet that I am in an office that is packed up and there is nobody coming in."
She hopes the dust won't settle but the legislature will not appoint a replacement before February.
When she started the job, her four children were young. Now the oldest is 20, her twins are 14 and the youngest is 12 years old. That dual role, as parent and a public advocate, was never separate. "I'm a mother with four children of my own and on any given day for 10 years, I've had 50 to 200 cases. So that takes a toll. I'm mindful that what I'm doing for my kids, I want for all of these other kids," she said.
Sometimes, when a family holiday was interrupted with an urgent case, her kids would urge her to give it up.
"My kids would say, 'Mom this is too hard. Why don't they just get another representative? We only have one mom.' So although it has been a great privilege, I'm kind of looking forward to not having to answer that phone."
Pushing for support
Reports issued by the office of the Representative for Children and Youth became a must-read under the tenure of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who held back no punches as she sought better support for those most in need. Here are some of her dictums:
Last Resort: One family's tragic struggle to find help for their son
An investigation into the death of Nick, a Métis teenager, found that his parents weren't able to find culturally specific services to help address his substance-abuse problem. The report called for government to provide community-based and residential treatment services.
Too Many Victims: Sexualized Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth in Care
The report found that 121 children and youth were victims of sexualized violence while in government care between 2011 and 2014. Ms. Turpel-Lafond recommended the development of a network of Child and Youth Advocacy Centres in B.C.
Opportunities in Transition: An Economic Analysis of Investing in Youth Aging out of Foster Care
The report stated that there isn't adequate support for youth transitioning out of government care and it called for the expenditure of $57-million annually to help those between ages 19 and 24. Failing to provide sufficient support leads to "adverse outcomes" that cost the system $220-million, she concluded.
A Tragedy in Waiting: How B.C.'s mental health system failed one First Nations youth
The story of a 16-year-old aboriginal boy who killed himself underscores the lack of access to mental-health services. "What is it going to take to get government to listen and make the changes that are needed to the child and youth mental health system?" Ms. Turpel-Lafond asked.
Approach With Caution: Why the Story of One Vulnerable B.C. Youth Can't be Told
Fearing that a report on her investigation into critical injuries experienced by one youth in care might cause more harm, Ms. Turpel-Lafond decided not to release details. Instead she issued a confidential report to government officials "so that organizational learning is possible."
Paige's Story: Abuse, Indifference and a Young Life Discarded
An investigation concluded that a 19-year-old aboriginal girl who died of an overdose in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside was a victim of years of abuse and neglect. Ms. Turpel-Lafond cited "persistent inaction from front-line professionals and an indifferent social care system."
Who Cares? B.C. Children with Complex Medical, Psychological and Developmental Needs and Their Families Deserve Better
The report said government should be providing better care for youth who have developmental, psychological and medical needs. "These children and their families who need the most support are often the least well served," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said.
- Mark Hume