Gallant backs 'thoughtful' cabinet minister who was unaware of child neglect case

Premier Brian Gallant says he won’t fire his families and children minister for not being aware of a horrific case of child neglect until this week.

Opposition calls on Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman to resign

Premier Brian Gallant fields questions from the news media Friday as embattled Minister of Families and Children Stephen Horsman looks on. (CBC )

Premier Brian Gallant says he won't fire his families and children minister for not being aware of a horrific case of child neglect until this week.

The premier said Friday morning that Stephen Horsman doesn't personally handle child protection, and the focus should be on how to avoid such shocking conditions happening again.

"Deputy premier Horsman has my full confidence," Gallant told reporters at a health-care announcement, with Horsman standing over his shoulder. The premier called the minister "one of the most thoughtful people I know."

"Every single one of us, including deputy premier Horsman, are going to do everything we possibly can to ensure something like this doesn't happen again," the premier said.

Case reported in media in 2016 

The parents of the five Saint John-area children pleaded guilty last year to five counts of failing to provide the children with the necessaries of life, committing child endangerment.

Sheriff's deputies acting on an eviction order in May 2016 found the five children, aged seven months to 10 years old, smeared with human feces, malnourished and with rotting teeth in a filthy house strewn with garbage.

At Wednesday's sentencing hearing, the court was told the Department of Social Development had been involved with the family since 2012 and issued a child protection order seven months before the eviction.

That was supposed to prompt monthly visits by a social worker, but the sentencing hearing was told the visits did not take place.

Horsman said Thursday he only learned of the case "in the last couple of days" from media reports on Wednesday's sentencing hearing.

'He's thrown his own department under the bus.' - Glen Savoie, Progressive Conservative MLA

He said it had not come up in his weekly briefings by his deputy minister, Eric Beaulieu.

One aspect of the internal review he was ordering would look at "why maybe I wasn't briefed properly, why I wasn't briefed soon enough," he said.

CBC News first reported on the eviction and the living conditions in the house in May 2016, and reported on criminal charges laid against the parents last November.

On Thursday, Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard called for Horsman's resignation.

"I have tried to give this minister the benefit of the doubt," she tweeted. "No more."

Not 'personally responsible'

Other PC MLAs and Green Party Leader David Coon joined that call Friday morning.

"He's thrown his own department under the bus," Saint John East PC MLA Glen Savoie said, calling for a new minister who is "truly connected" to the work of the department.

Gallant said Horsman was not personally responsible for whatever lapse happened in the case.

"As a minister, you're not the one who is doing the child protection yourself," he said. "These children were going through difficulties for years."

And he brushed off the opposition calls for Horsman to resign.

"This is — I can no longer count — probably the 10th time the opposition has asked for somebody to resign. I think it's unfortunate they're using a horrible situation to try to gain political points."

Gallant's description of the case shifted subtly during his 10-minute scrum with reporters.

Suggests there were mistakes

At first, his comments were conditional. He said an internal investigation in the Department of Social Development and a review by the provincial child and youth advocate would look at "if there was anything" the government could have done better.

But he became more definitive, saying the government would "fix the way this case was handled, and learn from the errors that were made. There's no doubt that errors were committed."

He also said Horsman had the right skills to lead that fix.

"He is a former community police officer," Gallant said. "This is somebody who, I think, is in a very good position to work very hard with his department to find out what happened and what can be done better.

"Frankly, he is one of the most thoughtful people that I know, and I know he takes his job very seriously."

Savoie responded by saying, "I have no confidence in Brian Gallant's ability to judge who's a good manager or not."

'Pattern of behaviour'  

This controversy is not the first time Horsman's pronouncements have raised eyebrows. Savoie called it "a pattern of behaviour" that is troubling.

In March 2016, Horsman, then the minister of justice and public safety, signalled his disagreement with the federal Liberals' legalization of recreational cannabis.

"I don't like to be around it and I don't like anything about it," he said.

He also said the minimum legal age to buy cannabis should be 21. The province later set the age at 19.

Two months later, Horsman faced calls for his resignation after he said he had been speaking to judges about his controversial amendments to the Judicature Act.

Those amendments took away Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice David Smith's power to unilaterally transfer judges and imposed a requirement that he get the minister's consent.

Horsman told the legislature he had "many judges call me and tell me personally" they supported the bill "because they did not want to be moved." The opposition called for him to quit over a potential breach of judicial independence.

Later the same day, Horsman contacted reporters to take back the statements.

"No one's actually personally calling me," he said. "I see people at functions, and they come up to me and state, 'Thanks for including judges in the whole process.'"

A month later Horsman was shuffled out of the justice and public safety portfolio. He became minister of families and children, responsible for many of the functions of the Department of Social Development.

Last year, responding to a CBC News series The Lost Children, focusing on children who had died while under government care, Horsman said New Brunswick was "probably leading the country in a lot of the policies that protect children."

"The public needs to know those aren't tragic deaths," he said of many of the cases raised in the series. "I'm probably not saying this right, but they were accidents, they were medical."

Also last year, New Brunswick Housing, which reports to Horsman's department, waited weeks to tell tenants master keys to more than 1,000 units had gone missing.

The keys were lost last February but Horsman wasn't told until March 22, and the internal investigation he ordered failed to explain why he, and the tenants, were not told more quickly.