Two decades of failure on at-risk children, families

It’s now been 20 years of failure when it comes to the most vulnerable children in this province.

It’s now been 20 years of failure when it comes to the most vulnerable children in this province.

The Representative for Children and Youth released the latest report on the deaths of 21 infants whose families had been involved with the children’s ministry in the year before the children died.

These babies didn’t really stand much of a chance. Many people in “the system” – the ministry, health authorities – knew the risks for them were high. But the response was fragmented. The people who could have helped were overworked and unsupported.

None of these were easy cases. The children faced tough lives even with the best support in the world.

The families were dirt poor. They lived in dismal housing: Mould-ridden hovels, motel rooms, overcrowded houses. The families had issues with addictions, mental illness and domestic violence. Almost three-quarters of the children were aboriginal.

You should read the report, Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems, at Especially the case examples, which set out the circumstances of some of the families, and what was done – and not done – to keep the children safe.

The measures that could have helped aren’t all complicated or expensive.

The representative found there are provincewide rules or guidelines for child protection workers involved with a family expecting another child. (And where there are protocols, they weren’t followed.)

In three-quarters of the cases, the ministry had received reports that children already in the home might be at risk while the mothers were pregnant. Investigations were slow and in some cases inadequate.

In only three of the cases was there evidence of planning for the infant on discharge from hospital.

Perhaps as a result, there was little support for the families after the babies were taken home. They were left living in terrible conditions, with no effective help in finding adequate housing, for example.

Public-health nurse visits could have helped protect the children and support the often ill-equipped mothers. But the province hasn’t created a standard of nursing support for at-risk infants.

And, of course, B.C. still has no provincial plan to address its ranking as the worst province in Canada for childhood poverty.

Just before the 2001 election, I wrote about the New Democratic government’s cruel mismanagement of the children’s ministry.

The column quoted the final report of children’s advocate Joyce Preston, an independent legislative watchdog foolishly eliminated by the Campbell government.

She described a decade of failure on the part of the NDP.

“For the most part it has been a case of all talk and no action,” she said.

Under the NDP, the ministry was underfunded, short-staffed and mismanaged, I wrote then.

Gordon Campbell promised much better and I believed him.

But it was all empty talk.

The most obvious broke promise was the 2001 election campaign to stop the “endless restructuring” that wasted resources and created disorganization.

Campbell had also stood in the legislature and urged an end to partisan fighting over vulnerable children. All MLAs should figure out what the children and youth needed and find the money to support them, he said.

He repeated the promise in writing before the election. The children and families spending would be based on the need, not some arbitrary budget allowance, he pledged.

Campbell and the Liberals did the opposite.

Budgets were slashed, without any analysis or plan. The Liberals launched – and spent tens of millions – on a plan for regional authorities, and abandoned it. Almost 10 years after the Liberals were first elected, and the ministry is still “transforming.”

The Liberal government has defended its poor performance. It was tough to keep social workers. There were staff shortages. “We’re trying. Things will improve,” they said.

It was all exactly what the NDP government said a decade earlier.

Infants, children and youths who at risk, or in danger, deserve protection. Families need help.

And for 20 years, the provincial government has failed them.

Footnote: Liberal leadership candidate George Abbott has broken ranks with the party position and promised a plan to reduce child poverty; the other candidates either reject a plan or are silent.

All the NDP candidates have promised various forms of poverty reduction plans.