Wanted: a government with the will to tackle child poverty

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/national/BC/Gary Mason
Published Friday, Jan. 28, 2011.   Gary Mason, Vancouver

For years now, child advocates in British Columbia have screamed about the unconscionably high poverty rates among the province’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. For the most part, it’s been a cry for action that has gone unheeded.

The province recorded the highest child poverty rate in the country for the sixth year in a row. In B.C. 10.4 per cent of children live in impoverished conditions, compared with the national average of 9.1 per cent. But the annual lament that more needs to be done to address the problem has largely been ignored by the B.C. Liberal government.

Where several other provinces have committed to poverty-reduction plans, B.C. has stood silent on the issue, to its shame. This despite reports that regularly chronicle instances of children dying as a result of problems associated with squalid, unhealthy living conditions.

The latest issued this week by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, representative for children and youth in the province, is another scathing condemnation of the B.C. government’s record in this regard. In it, Ms. Turpel-Lafond examined the cases of 21 children who died before the age of 2 between June, 2007, and May, 2009. Fifteen of the 21 children were aboriginal. In all instances, their bleak circumstances and dire outlook were a matter of record of the Ministry of Children and Family Development and yet little was done to improve their situations.

In an interview, Ms. Turpel-Lafond described the frustration of front-line social workers who have few tools at their disposal to improve the conditions of the families they visit, especially in aboriginal communities. The best hope they can offer for families living in wretched housing environments, for instance, is to put them on a waiting list for better accommodations, which can be 10 years long.

Arguably the most passionate, dedicated child advocate the province has ever known, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the provincial government does not have a plan to address the problems front-line workers are coming across.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond described the frustration of front-line social workers who have few tools at their disposal to improve the conditions of the families they visit, especially in aboriginal communities. The best hope they can offer for families living in wretched housing environments, for instance, is to put them on a waiting list for better accommodations, which can be 10 years long. Ms. Turpel-Lafond said.

“So they might go into a mouldy house, the woman is pregnant with her third child, her two other kids have pneumonia and upper respiratory infections. The new infant eventually arrives, comes home, his health is compromised and he dies.

“Meantime 15 [ministry] staff have visited that home and made a note. Well, the idea isn’t to have a professional friend. A service is not visiting people. A service is taking an active role and taking preventative measures to improve the child’s situation.”

Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from the government’s decision five years ago to refrain, whenever possible, from removing at-risk children from aboriginal communities. While a well-intentioned idea, and one that respects the wishes of the aboriginal community, it’s often led to tragic circumstances. This is an issue with which I will deal with more fully on Tuesday.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond’s report looking at the death of at-risk children is just the latest in a province that has sadly become known for them. In 1995, Mr. Justice Thomas Gove chronicled the deadly holes in the province’s child-protection system while investigating the horrendous death of Matthew Vaudreil. He was killed by his mother after suffering at her hands for years and despite the fact the boy’s deteriorating circumstances were known to government case workers.

A decade later, retired judge Ted Hughes authored another scathing indictment of the province’s child-protection services, making numerous recommendations, most of which the province has failed to act on.

Meantime, the deaths of at-risk children have been used for political purposes by both of the two main political parties in B.C. for years. The Ministry of Children and Family Development, meantime, continues to be one that no politician wants, the no-win file where ambitious careers go to die.

Over the past decade there has been at best a patchwork approach to problems in the ministry, which is perhaps no surprise when you consider that someone new comes in to head it almost every year. Until Friday, none of the Liberal candidates aiming to be the next premier had even mentioned child poverty. Their concerns have tilted toward tax cuts and ways to get the economy going.

George Abbott has now announced that if elected he plans to launch a “public engagement initiative,” on child poverty. Nice idea, but the time for more “public engagement” has long since passed. Ms. Turpel-Lafond and child advocates before her have compiled a long list of what needs to be done.

The province needs a government with the will and the commitment to start acting on them.

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