Tuesday, May 25, 2010

You Wanted MCFD, Please Listen to Those Who are Trying to Help Fix It

Polak: 'I Wanted This Ministry'

Children and Family Minister Mary Polak says she's proud of her record and not looking to change posts any time soon.

By Katie Hyslop, May 25, 2010, TheTyee.ca

Mary Polak disputed that the Children and Family Development Ministry she heads is hard-pressed by budget cuts and slow to implement recommendations made by a four-year-old independent investigation into breakdowns in B.C.'s child welfare system.

Polak's wide-ranging defence of her ministry was delivered on May 13 after an article published in The Tyee quoted current and former frontline child protection social workers who said heavy workloads and strained resources made their jobs difficult to do adequately.

Polak also sought to clarify her government's dispute about sharing cabinet documents with Representative For Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. Her arguments (see sidebar) failed to sway the court, which, the day after Polak spoke with The Tyee, ruled against the BC Liberal government.

Numbers disputed

Polak said she wants frontline child protection workers to know she is fully supportive of their position in the "hardest job in government."

"It's important for me to be defending the work that our frontline people do everyday and make sure they understand that they do have a minister that supports them," she says.

Why then hasn't MCFD hired on more than 17 new frontline worker positions since 2001? And why isn't her ministry replacing workers who retire, quit, or go on leave? Because it's hard to do.

"This is not an easy job, and it takes a very special person to be able to do that job. So when we look at our rural and remote areas, we are doubly challenged because not only is the role challenging, but also it's challenging just to have people who've been to those areas," said Polak.

She added since the Liberals came to power, staffing levels in the North have gone from 55 per cent to 90 per cent -- despite being a rural area -- and the number of kids in care has dropped by 1,600 because of a focus on family mediation and conferences instead of taking children into care.

What about the high caseload of 35 active cases or more for child protection social workers? Polak says the average caseload is a constant 22.

That figure doesn't ring true to Tracey Young, who worked for the MCFD from 2000 to 2008 and was quoted in the previous Tyee article.

"Caseloads far exceed 22 in most areas of practice in MCFD. That might be some numbers for intake teams, which should be even lower as this is very high-crisis and high-need intervention work with families," Young told The Tyee in an email after hearing Polak's statements.

"It would have truly been a dream to have a caseload of 22 when I worked in MCFD, it was always around 30 cases, with emergency coverage of other workers caseloads as necessary."

Cuts or scratches?

While some reports, including the government's own Budget 2010 Fiscal Plan, say the MCFD budget is frozen until 2012/2013, Polak asserts this isn't so. In fact, the budget increased by $12 million last year, and by $9.5 million this year.

Some of the increases include an increased amount of money in contracts, grants, and payments to families, and Polak adds they avoided cuts to frontline services.

However, ministry operating costs, salaries and benefits have been cut since last year, and $5 million will also be cut from contract services -- which is only one per cent of their previous $825 million budget, but a budget that provides the bulk of outreach and prevention work in the ministry. Another $5 million will be redirected to aboriginal services from non-aboriginal services, as the majority of children in the system are First Nations.

Hands Tied: Child Protection Workers Talk About Working In, and Leaving, B.C.'s Child Welfare System, a report issued by Pivot Legal Society last year, counted 185 full-time equivalency positions cut by Polak's ministry in 2009. Polak said that number represents not frontline child protection workers, but administrative positions.

Yet those are the very positions that help ease a social worker's caseload, points out Young.

"When we had social work assistants, they were able to do particular aspects of the work that would take away some of the administrative burdens, such as doing referrals for things, setting up visits. But when you don't have that kind of support, then all of that is on you," said Young.

Recommendations completed?

Polak stands by her previous assertions that all 62 of the Hughes recommendations have been implemented -- with a few exceptions.

"Things that are no longer on the table [are], for example Aboriginal agencies, that we all know was something that fell apart because the First Nations were not willing to go forward with it," she says.

"Also there are other recommendations that are ongoing and will continue to be ongoing, such as quality assurance initiatives."

But Turpel-Lafond says that's not the case. The representative is currently in the process of producing a report on the status of the recommendations, which was due last year but delayed due to "similar issues" that led to the recent court order.

"I think I can just be very clear to say the work is not completed," says Turpel-Lafond.

Polak believes this disagreement is down to a difference of interpretation of implemented, and a lack of information on the representative's part.

"It's based on information that she was able to put together and we believe that she didn't consider much of the information we provided to her," says Polak.

Capped, not cancelled

Polak stressed that The Child in the Home of a Relative Program, which The Tyee reported had been scrapped, has only been capped. And she emphasized that the 4,400 children currently enrolled are not the responsibility of MCFD -- her ministry just pays for them.

"[They're under the ministry of] Housing and Social Development because it is an income assistance program, it's not a child welfare program," says Polak.

"We believe quite strongly, based on the evidence, that there are far greater needs represented in those cases than simply a financial need. So those folks have the opportunity if they wish to seek other supports from [MCFD] without jeopardizing their current status [with Housing]."

While families currently enrolled won't lose their place in the program, it's no longer available to new families, who will instead be enrolled in the new Extended Family Program.

Aboriginal plan late but coming

Polak acknowledged that her ministry is running late in framing a plan to better deal with child protection issues in Aboriginal communities. Though the Indigenous Child at the Centre Action Plan, slated to replace Aboriginal agencies, is a year behind schedule in finalizing the document, let alone implementation, Polak said she isn't worried.

She said she is more concerned with making changes that will stick, not ones that happen quickly -- an idea she takes from social workers she meets across the province.

And while Ministry turnover at the top level has been high, with three ministers since 2006, she said that stops with her.

"I know there's a reputation for ministers not wanting to be in this spot, but when the premier asked what I was interested in, I told him I wanted this ministry and I was very pleased when he decided to take me up on that," she said.

"[Former minister] Tom Christensen was a long serving minister, I hope I am."  [Tyee]

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Representative for Children & Youth Wins in Court: What's the Truth about CIHR & the Extended Family Program

As well she should have won. This is an interesting case, it gives us a window into how legal games are played, how tax payer funds are used in the pursuit of certain failure to protect the government at the expense and cost of the public interest.

I thank the Representative for her forthright pursuit of her mandate and the best interests of BC's children & youth and the public good. I hope that the other "Independent" officers take a page from this book.

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Premier Gordon Campbell not above the Law, Watchdog Lawyer argues over release of Cabinet Documents
Lindsay Kines,
May 14, 2010.Victoria Times Colonist.


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BC Children's Rep Wins Court Decision
CBC News. May 14 2010

Before initiating the lawsuit, the government had asked Turpel-Lafond to sign a protocol agreement that would have permitted her to view the documents, but gave the government control over their use.

The cabinet documents Turpel-Lafond sought were related to the government's Children in the Home of a Relative program.

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The Honourable Madam Justice S. Griffin's Legal Decision

In conclusion, I make the following orders:

1. A declaration that that the respondents the MCFD and Office of the Premier have failed to comply with their statutory duty under s. 10(3) of the RCYA to provide the petitioner with the Cabinet submission(s) associated with the CIHR program and its replacement by the Extended Family Program as announced by the MCFD on March 1, 2010 and as requested by the petitioner in her March 5, 2010 letter to the MCFD and in her April 22, 2010 letter to the Office of the Premier;

2. An order in the nature of mandamus compelling the personal respondents to direct the MCFD and the Office of the Premier to comply with the legal duty to provide to the petitioner the Cabinet submission(s) referred to in paragraph 1 forthwith.

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Documents must be turned over to childen's watchdog
Lindsay Kines, May 15, 2010. Victoria Times Colonist.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Open Letter: UBCIC Supports Representative for Children & Youth Petition to Access Cabinet Documents

Union of BC Indian Chiefs

May 11, 2010

Hon. Mary Polak
Ministry of Children and Family Development
PO Box 9057, STN PROV GOVT.
Victoria, BC, V8W 9E2

Dear Hon. Polak,

We are writing to express our shock, outrage, and complete opposition to proposed provincial legislation that would severely restrict the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth’s access to key cabinet documents, and thus restrict her ability to effectively advocate on behalf of extremely vulnerable children and youth.

The independent Representative for Children and Youth (RCY) position was created in 2006. A report on the brutal death of toddler Sherry Charlie prompted an internal review of the government, an inquest, and an inquiry. The work was headed by retired judge Ted Hughes, who recommended creation of the RCY position. Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond was appointed unanimously to the RCY position by all parties.

We understand that Turpel-Lafond’s petition will be heard before the Supreme Court Thursday, May 13th. You must prevent the proposed legislation that would censor the RCY’s access to critical cabinet documents. We urge you to work together with Turpel-Lafond in her position as RCY, rather than against her in, order to carry out your overlapping goals of caring for and protecting vulnerable children and youth.

We call on you to place the interests of vulnerable children first.

On behalf of the UNION OF BC INDIAN CHIEFS,

President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip
Vice-President Chief William Charlie
Secretary-Treasurer Chief Robert Chamberlin

Read the whole letter here.

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Government curtails child and youth rep's right to know

Andrew MacLeod. April 30, 2010. TheTyee.ca

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Information for the Uninformed
May 7, 2010, Public Eye Online.

On Wednesday, Children and Family Development Minister Mary Polak accused the BC Association of Social Workers of being "uninformed and inaccurate." This, in response to a social workers' news release criticizing the government for introducing legislation that will ensure the children and youth representative doesn't have an unrestricted right to cabinet documents. But association member Tracey Young couldn't find any evidence in Ms. Polak's letter supporting that accusation. In an email sent on her own behalf to the minister, Ms. Young also expressed hope the representative's recent legal effort to force the release of those documents, would lead to a "greater understanding of the challenges that are impacting the disclosure of information from the BC government regarding child welfare and other related matters." The following is a complete copy of that email.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What is MCFD Trying to Hide?

BC Association of Social Workers
For Immediate Release

May 1, 2010

WHAT IS MCFD TRYING TO HIDE?

“The BC Liberals have worked over the past eight years to make government more open and accountable, and take decisive action towards real democratic reform.” - BC Liberals

Through the introduction of Bill 24-2006 the BC government has introduced amendments to the Representative for Children and Youth Act that will restrict the Representative in accessing cabinet documents which are necessary to monitor and assess how the BC government is meeting its mandate toward the children and youth of BC.

The fact that these legislative changes are retroactive to the creation of the Representative’s office, and were hidden within the bill which contained 200 amendments to miscellaneous laws, speaks to the profound lack of transparency, openness and accountability with which the BC government is operating. The introduction of these amendments can only be seen as attempts to undermine and diminish the legislative authority and power of the Representative in holding the BC government accountable for its action and inaction that contribute to the continuing and rapid deterioration of the child welfare and social service systems of care in BC.

There is enough evidence to demonstrate that MCFD is often failing to meet even its most basic legislative mandate – to protect children and youth. The attrition of frontline social workers continues unabated. The government has failed to act on previous recommendations of the Representative.

How are the interests of children, youth and families being served by creating a veil of secrecy around accessing information about how the leadership of MCFD is operating and what changes they are planning?

Whose interests are being served by cutting the Representative off at the knees in fulfilling the mandate of her office – assessing and reporting on how MCFD and other Ministries are fulfilling their legislated mandates toward the children and youth of BC?

It’s time for the leadership of MCFD to be reminded that their first and most important commitment is to serving the interests and needs of BC’s children and youth in the most accountable, transparent and ethical way. There is still time for the BC government to meet its own goal of building the best system of support in Canada for children with special needs and those who are at risk. BC’s children and youth deserve the absolute best that we have to offer.

For further information, contact: Tracey Young, MSW RSW, tyoung@catalystbc.ca

______________________________________________________

Linda Korbin, MSW RSW
Executive Director

BC ASSOCIATION OF SOCIAL WORKERS
402 1755 West Broadway, Vancouver BC V6J 4S5
t 604 730 9111 / 800 665 4747 (BC only) f 604 730 9112
lkorbin@bcasw.org
www.bcasw.org