We’re failing our most vulnerable
NationalPost.com – fullcomment
Jul 2, 2011. Christie Blatchford
When I got the local papers here one day this week, and saw the front-page headlines -”Stunning neglect” on one, “Report slams B.C. policy-makers after disabled girl left alone with mom’s body” on the other -it was, as Yogi Berra, the king of malapropism, once said, déjà vu all over again.
The stories were about a developmentally disabled teenager who on Sept. 14 last year was discovered by frantic neighbours in the mobile home where she lived with her mother in a Chilliwack trailer park about 100 kilometers east of Vancouver.
The 15-year-old, who has a serious intellectual disability as well as physical problems (she needs hearing aids and glasses and has had the numerous surgeries Down’s syndrome youngsters must often endure) was spotted huddled against her mother’s decomposing body; the trailer was crawling with flies; empty boxes of macaroni and her mother’s medicine suggested that the girl likely had been trying to care for her inept, troubled, if fundamentally loving mom.
Kids almost never give up on their parents, and here was another example of it.
The neighbours phoned police, bundled up the girl, who was almost unrecognizably thin and covered with sores, and took her away from the frightful scene.
She kept repeating “mom sleeping” and “mom dead” and “dirty flies.” She may have been there for as long as a week.
This week, the province’s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, released the report of her investigation into what happened. Though she says that the object of her probe was “not to criticize the actions of individuals” and she names none in the report, it is a damning indictment of British Columbia’s child-protection system, particularly as it applies to disabled children.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond found that the system -there were two separate bureaucracies involved, B.C. Community Living and the Ministry of Children and Family Development -had neglected the child “over a very long period of time, for weeks and months” and that while the mother, sick and poor, was engaged in a desperate battle for her own survival, “others who should have had a singular focus on the well-being of the daughter were instead oblivious to the girl’s needs, focusing on the mother’s challenges instead.”
The situation was shocking; the findings were not.
Rather, they are familiar: Childwelfare agencies and social workers in this country keep making the same mistake again and again, deeming the troubled parent or family the client to the detriment of the vulnerable child who is their real charge.
In Ontario, there was, and this is an incomplete list drawn from memory: baby Sara Podniewicz (died 1997 at the hands of her crack-addled mother and vicious father, who had already served time for shaking another child into idiocy); Randal Dooley (died 1998 at the age of seven, killed by his stepmother and father), Jordan Heikamp (starved to death in downtown Toronto in 1997, five weeks old), and Jeffrey Baldwin (died 2002 at the age of five, thanks to his grandparents, both of whom had already been convicted, separately, of child abuse).
And in B.C., of course, there was Matthew Vaudreuil, a little boy of almost six who was killed in 1992 by his mommy dearest.
What the youngsters had in common was that various children’s aid agencies had been “involved” in their lives, to use that industry’s wretched language.
The children were being watched over by workers for these helping agencies who at some early point became consumed by the needs of the adults and grew deaf and blind to those of the kids they were legislatively and morally bound to protect.
Thus the title of Ms. Turpel-Lafond’s report -”Isolated and Invisible: Where Children with Special Needs are Seen but Not Seen”.
The girl in the current case didn’t die, but that was the by-product of nothing anyone in the social services did, but rather because people in the trailer park were so worried after not seeing either mother or daughter around for days they peeked in the window.
In fact, what is striking about this case is how clearly untrained ordinary people saw the girl’s plight -the neighbours and two grown halfbrothers who lived elsewhere but love the girl and kept tabs on her.
No difficulty for them in recognizing that the mother, a diabetic smoker and suspected alcoholic with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was sinking deeper into abject poverty and becoming more isolated, and that the girl was paying the price. No confusion for these people, whatever their sympathies for the mother, in figuring out whose needs came first.
And no angst for them, either, in taking action.
In fact, at least four times in the almost four years leading to the mother’s death, the ministry was called by people who were fearful for the girl. Four times, child protective investigations were opened. Four times, the files were closed.
There were some from the helping profession who actually helped, notably one worker who was so concerned that she actually bought groceries for the family and held a fundraiser in the office for them. But even that didn’t raise the alarm.
No one minimizes the difficulties faced by social workers. No one doubts theirs is an awful job, that they are overburdened. No one doubts their good intentions.
But they and the agencies they work for are bad at the job.
The ministry didn’t even bother to report the case to Ms. Turpel-Lafond because what happened to the girl in official eyes wasn’t considered “a critical injury.” Ms. Turpel-Lafond learned of the case only when it hit the press.
The deaths of all those kids I mentioned off the top span almost two decades. The people and agencies who failed the youngsters have learned bugger all. Why are they still charged with protecting children when the guy in the trailer or apartment next door is better at it?
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