British Columbia

B.C. children's representative 'took the foot off the gas,' predecessor worries

Former children’s watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says she worries her successor hasn’t taken an aggressive enough approach.

Bernard Richard defends record, says he's 'perplexed' by criticism from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond

Bernard Richard, left, began serving as B.C.'s representative for children and youth in November 2016. (Canadian Press/Chad Hipolito)

After news broke this week that half of B.C.'s contracted group homes haven't completed staff background checks, the former children's watchdog says she worries her successor hasn't taken an aggressive enough approach.

On Tuesday, children's representative Bernard Richard told CBC he was "shocked" to learn that just 46 of 96 youth residential agencies have screened their staff through the centralized hub that the province created last year.

Former representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Richard's comments suggest he has taken a step back from oversight of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

"I know that every person has a different style, but I think they took the foot off the gas," she said.

"In my experience of working with the ministry … you had to be in there. You had to be writing, insisting on meetings on a weekly basis — sometimes on a daily basis — and you need to keep the system accountable."

The province developed the screening hub in response to Richard's February 2017 report on the death of Alex Gervais, an 18-year-old who took his own life by jumping from a hotel window in Abbotsford. Gervais was moved into the hotel after his group home was closed down, in part because of the dubious backgrounds of workers in the house.

Richard's report recommended that the ministry review the background and qualifications of all staff in B.C. group homes, and the government screening hub was created in response in late 2017.

Richard strongly disputes Turpel-Lafond's allegation that he is taking more of a hands-off approach to his job, and says he believes he's actually more diligent than his predecessor in monitoring the ministry's progress.

But he acknowledged that, before last month, he had not checked in on the progress of screening group home staff through the provincial hub. He only learned of the low clearance rates in May after another facility was closed because of problems with caregivers who had not been properly vetted.

'Kids have rights'

Turpel-Lafond, who was known for her outspoken approach during 10 years in the role, argues that a crucial part of the children's representative's job is to follow up on reports and fiercely advocate for change. That can mean uncomfortable but necessary conversations with government officials, she said.

"Checks and balances need to be strong, not for political reasons, but because kids have rights and they need to be respected," she said.

"I'm concerned maybe we've eased off that accountability and we've coasted into a situation of comfort."

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond on Oct. 24, 2016, her final day as B.C.'s representative for children and youth. (CBC)

She's not alone in those concerns.

Grant Charles, a professor atUBC's School of Social Work and a former advisor to the representative's office, said he felt the same way.

"When the representative puts the report out, he is supposed to be monitoring the compliance to it," Charles told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"I'm surprised — I'm shocked in fact — that the representative hasn't monitored the monitoring."

'We've not dropped off'

Richard said he was "perplexed" by the criticism from Charles and Turpel-Lafond, and defended his record on monitoring the province's work on implementing his recommendations.

"I've been told very clearly that we've not dropped off, in fact that we've increased our monitoring functions — specifically on this issue. I think there's probably not an issue where we've been more diligent than the issue of contracted residential services," Richard told CBC.

He said he has monthly meetings with the ministry, and issues about residential services for children have been on the formal agenda for four of the last 10 meetings. His office has also created a joint working group with the ministry that focuses on the recommendations that came out of the Alex Gervais report.

Richard also reiterated that progress on staff background checks at group homes has not been satisfactory.

"As soon as we found out about the issues here, we were in weekly — probably more often than weekly — contact with the ministry, expressing concerns about what we had heard," he said.

Earlier this spring, Richard announced that he was ending his five-year term early and would be stepping down at the end of August, after just 21 months on the job.

The next representative has yet to be chosen but will be appointed by the legislature's select standing committee on children and youth.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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