Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Children in care
Feb. 23, 2006

Few things focus a government’s attention better than the death of a child in its care, so it’s not surprising that Finance Minister Carole Taylor this week described the coming year’s budget as being about “the little ones.” The tragic circumstances of two-year-old Sherry Charlie’s death have been almost as exhaustively chronicled as those of Matthew Vaudreuil, the little boy whose killing 14 years sparked similar angst in the government of the day
Taylor came bearing gifts for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Tuesday’s budget. More social workers, more money for supporting families. That’s along the lines of what the New Democrats promised back in 1995, not long after the unbearably sad inquiry into Matthew’s death, suffocated at age five by his abusive mother. Ten years earlier, the Socreds made similar promises after three-year-old Michael Jack was killed by his father.
All three children were deeply enmeshed in the child-welfare system at the time of their death. But in each case, good intentions went badly awry. The sequence of events in each of the deaths unfolds in eerily similar fashion, each disaster more or less a carbon copy of the previous one.
The media coverage starts out small: Another sad story of a child killed by a raging, mentally ill or otherwise dysfunctional caregiver. But then the official inquiry starts a year or two later, the horrific details of which always seem to come down to a lack of resources, uncertainty, and a fatal underestimation of the amount of danger a child is actually facing.
Months of public outcry and soul-searching follow as we cast around for an explanation - and someone to blame - for yet another dead child.
One death every 10 years or so is perhaps not such a bad record for government, but the death of a child in care always seems to have greater resonance. And that’s how it should be: We want a child-protection system where deaths are so rare that each one of them catches us by surprise.
But at the same time, we do need to recognize a pattern in these three deaths. Each death begets an inquiry, which in turn begets rueful promises by all involved to do better next time. Money flows freely for a guilty couple of years, and a few areas see considerable improvement. Governments and voters alike tend to lose interest within four or five years, though, and the layoffs and budget cuts follow. Next thing you know, there’s another dead baby, and we’re doing it all over again.
“People are overworked, under-resourced, and cannot comply to doing the quality work they are committed to doing,” former B.C. Government Employees and Services Union president John Shields said 11 years ago as Matthew Vaudreuil’s inquiry got underway.
Shields blamed the previous Socred government for deciding to lay off 600 social workers, which the four-year-old New Democrat government had not yet gotten around to replacing. That all changed after the Matthew Vaudreuil inquiry.
But time marched on, and another government with a different public mandate came to power. Layoffs and budget cuts ensued. And then this, Sherry Charlie - more sad evidence, right on schedule, that we have not yet got it right.
That this week’s budget is one for the “little ones” is good news, then, because the restoration of social services to B.C.’s children and families is desperately needed. Saving children’s lives isn’t all about more money, but more money would definitely go a long way toward addressing many of the problems. Social workers need to have small enough caseloads that they can get to know the families they’re working with, and the supports needed for families to raise their children to feel safe and loved. Hiring more social workers is an excellent move.
What’s equally vital, however, is consistency of vision. B.C.’s child-welfare policies should transcend the lines of party politics and be firmed up into a set of standards and practices that functions outside of the whims of elected government. Shifting political winds should not be able to influence the way we manage our child-protection functions. Certain things ought to be beyond politics.
We’ve established that in theory. No political ideology in the Western world would dare to argue that children should just be left to sink or swim no matter what might be going on within their family.
So now we just have to commit the resources that we know are needed for the task at hand, and go forward. If our child-welfare policies were guided by the realities of the work rather than wishful thinking, we might have settled on the answers two decades ago rather than still be stumbling into the same old problems time and again.
Mistakes happen. But the deaths of Michael, Matthew and Sherry were so much more than that. We can do better.

No comments: