Opposition MLA ramps up calls for Horsman to resign over child-neglect case

Families Minister Stephen Horsman faced a renewed call for his resignation Friday after he was unable to provide a legislative committee with key information about child-protection services.

Families minister isn't able to provide key information on child-protection services at committee session

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman faced calls to resign Friday after being unable to provide answers to questions about child-protection services. (Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick)

Families Minister Stephen Horsman faced a renewed call for his resignation Friday after he was unable to provide a legislative committee session with key information about child-protection services.

Horsman couldn't cite any legal authority for ad hoc child-custody arrangements involving relatives, and he wasn't able to provide statistics on how often child-protection workers miss their monthly visits with children at risk.

He later told reporters that "we try to anticipate what the questions are, and we work hard to make sure we do have all information that we think they're going to be [asking for], but sometimes we don't."

But the lack of information prompted Opposition Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard to question Horsman's competence, and she demanded he quit.

"What I really wanted was for the minister to stand up and say, 'We have gaps,'" Shephard said.

"The gaps are there. … They're being identified unfortunately in a very public way. But he's not standing up to say that. He's not saying he's going to show leadership. 

"I'm sorely disappointed. I'm even at the point of getting angry, because we're talking about children's lives. … I know there isn't a social worker in this department that doesn't want to protect children, but this minister is not the one to do it."

Heated exchange  

Horsman was at the committee to debate his department's 2018-19 budget estimates. It was the first time he has faced opposition questions since his Feb. 8 news conference about a child-neglect case in Saint John.

It was also Shephard's first appearance at the legislature since she revealed on Dec. 5 that she was starting treatment for breast cancer. The Saint John-Lancaster MLA had surgery last month and starts chemotherapy next month.

Horsman heatedly responded to Shephard, saying he was proud of the work he's done as families minister, but no issue is "black and white."

Any solutions the government proposes are greeted by negative attacks from the opposition, he said.

"I work with, and I hope the member opposite is listening  — she rambled — I have worked with this department day in, day out, holidays, weekends, nights, days, to work hard for the people," said Horsman, the MLA for Fredericton North.

"Yes, there are things that happen and that's why we try to improve it every day. But every time we try to improve something, it's the members opposite who keep on complaining."

Sheriff's deputies acting on an eviction order at a Saint John home in May 2016 found 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 a sentencing hearing earlier this month, court was told provincial social workers were supposed to be visiting the family every month but it had not happened.

Horsman said at his Feb. 8 news conference that he learned of the case "in the last couple of days" from media reports.

He said his staff should have briefed him on it.

His department is now holding an internal review. Child and Youth Advocate Norm Bosse is also investigating the case.

Lack of answers 

In Friday's committee session, Shephard asked Horsman for statistics on how often child-protection social workers fail to meet the requirement of at least one monthly visit to the home of an at-risk child and the parents.

"We do not have that level of detail with us at this moment," he responded.

The last count was in a clinical audit in August 2017, he added.

"We can provide that. We'll get that to you as soon as possible. It probably won't be today."

He's not a minister who wants to understand what this department is doing.- Dorothy Shephard, PC critic for social development

​Shephard also asked why the Liberal government still hasn't proclaimed legislation passed in 2010 that would allow a child's relatives to become legal guardians after they are taken from their parents.

The department does that now, but Shephard says without the 2010 law in force, parents can take the child back at any time. Horsman said that's incorrect and the guardianship arrangements are still legally enforceable.

When she asked what section of the Family Services Act allows the informal custody for relatives, Horsman explained that he and his staff at the hearing didn't have a copy of the law.

"We don't have the paper act right here … so we're looking for that right now," he said.

Horsman said the 2010 legislation would be folded into other amendments on child protection, but he didn't give a clear timeline for that. The legislature is expected to adjourn for the summer next month and won't sit again before September's election.

'The minister is not leading'

The accumulation of non-answers is what prompted Shephard to call again for Horsman's resignation, something she first demanded the day he said he was unaware of the Saint John neglect case.

"We have a minister who is sticking to speaking points," she said. "He's not understanding where the gaps are. He doesn't want to understand where the gaps are because that's going to take real work. … This minister is not leading."

Earlier this month, Premier Brian Gallant defended Horsman, who is also deputy premier, as "one of the most thoughtful people I know."

But Shephard told reporters Friday that Horsman "is not a thoughtful minister."

"He's not a minister who wants to understand what this department is doing."

She said if the minister were as concerned as he claims to be, he'd have been better prepared for the committee session with more information at hand.

"I think that he is concerned. I think that his heart might be in the right place, but he doesn't seem to have the capacity to understand that if you don't ask the questions, you're not going to get the answers."

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