On the first day of the fall session of the B.C. Legislature, the Opposition NDP called for the resignation of Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux, after the latest death of a child in provincial care.
While B.C.’s lawmakers were on summer recess, I revealed in The Province that the RCMP is investigating health workers’ for being negligent in the death of Paige, the young 19-year-old woman who was the subject of a damning report about the failure of the child protection system. That very week I broke the story, an 18-year-old died at a Super 8 Hotel in Abbotsford.
So the stage was set for yet another Question Period performance by Cadieux, whose ministry is the most-challenging and least-glamourous in government. Excerpts from Cadieux’s Question Period talking points include the common themes of privacy and sympathy, but omit accountability.
NDP leader John Horgan: Last week we learned that Alex Gervais, a youth in government care, died alone in a hotel in Abbotsford. We hear from this friends that he had been there for at least two months. He was afraid, fearful for his future, uncertain and depressed. We know that he was concerned that he was going to be aging out of the ministry’s care, and instead of having programs in place, supports in place, he was left by himself and died by himself.
My question to the minister responsible for the most vulnerable children in British Columbia: why was Alex not given the care he deserved and the support that he needed to lead a full life here in British Columbia?
Hon. Stephanie. Cadieux: There has indeed been a tragedy. My heart is with the family and friends of the young man who lost his life. I have stated and will state again for the House that the ministry’s stated direction on practice is not to place children or youth in hotels but in fact to place children and youth in our care in approved foster homes or residential resources that match their unique needs and to minimize the possibility of future moves for those children.
Hotels are and only are to be used in extreme circumstances and only with approval of the designated director and notification to the provincial director of child welfare, who will monitor those situations. In light of the tragic circumstances in Abbotsford, a review is underway so that we can determine exactly what went wrong, what happened, and that we can put in place any necessary changes to prevent this from happening in the future.
Michelle Mungall: The minister earlier talked about stability. Well, a depressed teenager in ministry care dying in a hotel when he was not supposed to be there is not stability. What has been stable is these types of stories coming forward under this minister’s watch. Things are not getting better for kids. The stories that have been coming forward over recent years are gut wrenching, they are awful and they are beyond unacceptable. And no surprise, no surprise, that the public has lost faith in this minister.
So sadly, I have to ask: will she recognize that she hasn’t been able to deliver on her responsibilities, and will she resign?
Cadieux: Tragedies occur, and it’s never okay. It is never okay to me as minister.
I am deeply committed to the children and youth that we serve, to their families, to making the system better. And as such, we continue on a daily basis to do the work that is required to do that.
That’s why I referenced the fact that there are now I am deeply committed to the children and youth that we serve, to their families, to making the system better. As such, we continue, on a daily basis, to do the work that is required to do that.
That’s why I referenced the fact that there are now 110 more social workers on the front lines over the last year. That’s why because of that work and those improvements and that work that the social workers do with families that more children stay with their family or return home to that family and that we have fewer children in the care of the ministry than in the last 19 years.
The good work of the ministry will continue. We will continue to make improvements like we have for youth aging out of care. There will always be more to do in this ministry, and we are committed to doing it.
Carole James: The independent member for Delta South asked a question last week of the Attorney General that was taken on notice. This is a critically important issue, so I want to give the Attorney General another opportunity to respond.
The Representative for Children and Youth‘s latest report shows a disturbing trend where professionals failed in their duty to report child protection concerns to the ministry. Reporting is not an option. It’s the law. The report directs the Attorney General of British Columbia to review why this child protection law is not being enforced and to take steps to promote compliance.
My question is to the Attorney General. What steps has she taken to investigate, under her responsibility, why B.C.’s child protection law is not being enforced?
Cadieux: First of all, I want to say that the suicide of a young person is a tragedy, regardless of where it happens. Certainly, our hearts all go out to the family of the child about whom this report was focused.
We all have a role in keeping children safe. I am equally interested in determining how best to reinforce this information with the general public and those members of professions who have direct contact with children. That’s why the Ministry of Children and Families and the Ministry of Justice are currently in a discussion about that.
What I can tell you at this point is that the Child, Family and Community Service Act is in place. The duty to report is clear, and we will follow up on the representative’s recommendation.
The director of child welfare has contacted both colleges, of Physicians and Surgeons and Registered Nurses of B.C., and offered assistance and information in regard to the duty-to-report provisions. The Deputy Minister of Justice has also been in contact with the representative’s office and is continuing to discuss measures in connection with addressing the recommendation.
The ministry promotes compliance through protocols with professional associations, such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and documents targeted at service professionals and the general public.
Doug Donaldson: Last week in response to questions about why children were being kept in foster care despite close family being able and willing, the minister said it was complex. That’s not always the case. In a Supreme Court order, Justice Groves strongly criticized the ministry for failing to follow a court order, saying: “An order was made which binds the Ministry of Children and Family. They were represented. The court told them to do something. They have not appealed that order. They have not made application to reopen the matter. But still, they did not follow the order.”
Why did it take the minister 18 months to follow the court order to reunite a family?
Cadieux: As I’ve said before in this House, the safety and well-being of children is the ministry’s first priority. And as the member and all members of this House well know, due to privacy laws we cannot speak about specific cases in this House. Now, any time a judge would raise concerns about the conduct of our staff, the ministry would conduct a fulsome review, and any measures taken would be informed by that review. The provincial director of child welfare is conducting a review.
Donaldson: Isabella Wiens died while in care at 21 months of age on March 16, 2013. The postmortem revealed multiple bruises, healing fractures and swelling of the brain. At the time, the Ministry of Children and Family Development, through the provincial director of child welfare, decided a case review of the circumstances leading to Isabella’s death wasn’t necessary. The minister recently wrote to me saying that now, more than two years later, her ministry will conduct a review after all.
What could be so wrong in her ministry that it’s taken 26 months to get a full case review of the tragic, unexplained death of a child in care?
Cadieux: Any time a child dies it’s a tragedy. I cannot express how deep my sympathy is for the family and for all of the people who cared for and loved this child.
The member has been raising this tragic case in the House for four weeks now, despite knowing or perhaps just ignoring the fact that I cannot, by law, talk about the details of cases in this House. The member has also yet to request a meeting with me in regards to the case, a practice that a number of his colleagues and mine have seen fit to use to support the constituents they speak for.
That said, what I can reiterate for the member and for the other members of this House, as I did during estimates last week, is that the director of child welfare can decide to conduct a case review whenever new information is presented, whether that is through an investigative agency, a family member, the media or another source.
That is entirely appropriate, and it is, by design, in the legislation to ensure that child welfare decisions are made by those trained in the areas of social work and not influenced by external factors such as political or media pressure. That decision is not something that myself or my deputy minister participate in.
Donaldson: Paige was a young First Nations girl who died at 19 of a drug overdose in a communal washroom near Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver. She was intimately connected with the Ministry of Children and Family Development her entire life.
In that young life she was subject to 30 child protection reports from Kamloops, Fort St. James, as well as in Vancouver. As a 16-to-18-year-old, she moved 50 times between foster homes, safe houses, homeless shelters, detox centres and decrepit hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Yet when Paige turned 19 this government severed her ties with the ministry. She aged out of care, and 11 months later she was dead. How could this government allow that to happen?
Cadieux: Like anyone who has read the report on this tragic circumstance will know, it is a horrible story. It is a tragic story. Anyone who reads it will be deeply, deeply saddened to know that this happened in British Columbia. There is no tougher challenge for social workers dealing with these issues. There is no easy solution when we are faced with issues of intergenerational poverty, violence and addiction.
Despite the dedicated and well-intentioned efforts of MCFD staff and service providers, both in government and outside of government, the reality is that the system ultimately failed to keep this young woman from harm. That result is unacceptable. Our job now is to learn from what has happened and from this young woman’s interactions with the ministry over a period of 20 years to see what we can do better to ensure that vulnerable people in our province, especially vulnerable children, do not see a similar thing happen to them.
Horgan: Well, I’m absolutely aware that the minister knows of the case I’m speaking of. The ruling came down yesterday. This is about a custody case and the involvement of the ministry in determining which parent was competent. One parent made allegations of sexual abuse; the other denied those allegations. It turned out that those allegations were well founded.
This is what the court had to say about the conduct of ministry staff: “Wanton and reckless and, at a minimum, grossly negligent.” “Recklessly indifferent.” “Intentional misconduct, bad faith, reckless disregard for their obligation to protect children.” Those are harsh words from a judge who had seen a previous ruling overruled by the ministry. The judge also found that the ministry had also neglected the standards of care set out by the Child, Family and Community Service Act.
My question to the minister is this: why is it that her government continues to disregard court orders and put children in jeopardy?
Cadieux: Any time there’s a finding that a child has been harmed, it is very concerning. It is especially concerning when that child or family has been in contact or had a relationship with the ministry. I want to assure members that we treat all of these situations very seriously.
While this case has been in progress for some time, the decision was only rendered yesterday. The court makes very serious findings, as the member notes, and it is a very lengthy decision that will be considered very seriously and thoroughly.
I am advised that not all legal matters have concluded in this regard. Further proceedings are anticipated. But once our counsel have completed their review of this very thorough, very lengthy decision, we will identify next steps. Until that time, I am not in a position to respond further.
Horgan: The minister’s first priority is to protect the children of British Columbia. If children come into the care of the ministry, her first priority is to protect them, not to defend decisions that were made on her watch, not to defend what is clearly the indefensible.
This is what the judge said in the most recent judgment. He was very clear. It says the ministry “steadfastly acted to advance the interests of the father as opposed to those of the children.” They put the abuser ahead of the children.
It’s a horrific case. Everyone in this House agrees with that. But in light of the fact that the minister in her first week on the job would have been briefed on this file and allowed three years to go by. For a second, more scathing judgment to emerge. Clearly, that’s evidence enough to the people of British Columbia that an internal review is not acceptable.
My question to the minister is: based on what you have done over the past three years, why should the people of B.C. have confidence that you and your ministry can do an appropriate job investigating the most grievous case I’ve ever heard in my entire life?
Cadieux: As I stated last week, and I continue to wholeheartedly believe, the safety of children, vulnerable children, is and always will be the first priority of this ministry.
British Columbians all deserve to understand, to know, that their child welfare system is responsive, guided by the best interests of children and accountable for the decisions it makes. This case and the judgment rendered last week speak to challenges with that.
There is no question. There are extremely strongly worded recommendations or findings by the judge. They are being reviewed thoroughly. I have committed that there will be a review. The shape of what that review will look like I have not committed to, but I commit to this House to make the details of that known by the end of this week.