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Campbell blasted on child welfare

Ex-watchdogs say letter raising concerns about the system has gone unanswered for nearly a year

Times Colonist, Victoria, BC, Lindsay Kines and Jeff Rud Sound Off, March 9, 2005

Three former government watchdogs say they've been waiting nine months for Premier Gordon Campbell to answer their concerns about B.C.'s child-protection system.

The former ombudsman, children's advocate and children's commissioner couriered a letter to Campbell's office last June complaining that his government had undermined public oversight of child-protection issues.

"It ... looks like children do not matter to this government, a message inconsistent with that on your homepage, and that you are avoiding responsibility by refusing to be held to account through independent offices," states the June 16, 2004, letter.

Former children's commissioner Cindy Morton, former children's advocate Joyce Preston, and former B.C. ombudsman Dulcie McCallum asked for a confidential meeting with Campbell. But after waiting in vain for a response, they decided to release the letter to the media Tuesday.

Government house leader Graham Bruce told reporters the letter was never "logged" and it appears the premier's office didn't receive it.

But Morton provided the media with a courier's receipt of delivery, showing that somebody signed for the letter June 18, 2004. Morton also said that her secretary followed up with three telephone calls to the premier's office from July to October to inquire about a response.

"Not only were they provided (the letter), but they were given lots of opportunity to let us know if they couldn't find it," Morton said in an interview.

Morton said front-line workers had contacted them with concerns about the safety of kids in care, and the quality of that care. But she said the former watchdogs found there was no longer any place to get answers to their questions because the Liberals had eliminated the children's commission and the advocate's office. The child and youth team in the ombudsman's office was also a victim of budget cuts.

The children's commission, set up after the Gove inquiry into the death of five-year-old Matthew Vaudreuil a decade ago, conducted comprehensive reviews of the ministry's care plans for each child, Morton said.

"Nobody does that anyRead More ..tside the ministry," she said, adding that the children's ministry doesn't make its reviews public.

"The same is true of kids who are injured or die in care," Morton said. "We don't know how many. We don't know what the circumstances are. We don't know if there's issues of quality of care and protection."

Morton said the coroner's service was given that mandate, but hasn't released a public report in three years.

"How does anybody inform themselves about whether kids are safe in this province?" Morton asked.

Minister of Children and Family Development Stan Hagen denied a lack of accountability.

"We have a child and youth officer which we appointed because there was too much duplication with all of the other positions that were there," he said. "The child and youth officer is independent and actually has a legislated mandate to comment publicly on all issues affecting children and youth without any interference."

He said the Liberals have "actually reduced the number of children in care down to 9,000 currently in B.C., which is down 15 per cent. ... We're trying to keep families together and we'll continue to provide the supports.''

But Morton said it means nothing to say there are fewer children in care. "It means kids could be in unsafe homes. It means teenagers could be on the street rather than foster care. ... It tells me nothing about whether kids are safer."

Asked by reporters how the government knows the children are thriving if they're not in care, Hagen said: "Well, you know, we generally find out when people aren't happy.''

Hagen also stated that budget cutbacks haven't eroded government's ability to take care of vulnerable children.

Morton said the Liberals have replaced the previous watchdogs with a part-time child and youth officer, who lacks the power to independently review the ministry's decisions about the care of children.

Jane Morley, B.C.'s child and youth officer, said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., that she respects the three women's views, but is disappointed they didn't speak with her directly.

She argued that her office is independent, but has a different mandate than her predecessors. She does, however, agree that budget cutbacks are a "great concern."

Hagen, who was named children's minister after Christy Clark stepped down last fall, said he learned of the letter to the premier only on Tuesday, but would have met with all or any of the three women if they had asked him for a meeting.

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005