British Columbia

B.C. child protection system slammed for lack of accountability, leadership, funding

A report into the current state of child protection in B.C. is calling for an immediate overhaul of a system that lacks leadership, accountability and funding, according to the author.

Bob Plecas's report calls for a 4-year plan to be implemented immediately

A B.C. Supreme Court justice determined a child (who can't be identified) was sexually abused by his father while in ministry care, prompting the appointment of Bob Plecas to review the child protection system. (CBC)

A report into the current state of child protection in B.C. is calling for an immediate overhaul of a system that lacks leadership, accountability and funding, according to the author.

Former deputy minister Bob Plecas's report says that a four-year plan needs to be implemented immediately at the Ministry of Child and Family Development and should contain a funding commitment to turn the system around.

Plecas was tasked with the review following a B.C. Supreme Court judgment in July that ruled the province's child protection service abused its authority in a case involving the physical and sexual abuse of children, which ultimately allowed a father to molest his child while the toddler was in the ministry's care.

Subsequent to that finding, the ministry came under further scrutiny after the death of teenager Alex Gervais, who was living alone in a motel while in government care, and again in October, when B.C. Children's Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond released a report concluding the child protection service is unsafe and in crisis.

Series of mistakes

"Currently, the child welfare system does not have a rigorous performance appraisal system in place, and does not define what good practice and good performance are in terms of expectations for outputs or outcomes," the report says.

Alex Gervais was living alone and unsupervised when he fell to his death. (Dylan Pelley/Facebook)

"On the other hand, the reality of a case manager's public exposure and personal humiliation is a stronger penalty — although clearly not anywhere near the order of magnitude of the child who is impacted by the mistake.

"These cases are isolated but dramatic because it is most often not when one mistake is made, but a cascading phenomenon caused by a series of mistakes," the report says.

Challenges to be faced

Plecas lists the challenges currently facing Ministry of Child and Family Development:

  • A lack of effective training.
  • The gradual erosion of program dollars.
  • Challenges in recruiting and retaining appropriately trained front-line child protection staff.
  • A management model that does not include informing senior leadership about difficult cases until it is too late.
  • Lack of communication about decisions from different levels of court.
  • Inconsistency and lack of direction regarding advice and direction from outside legal counsel.
  • A quality assurance model that does not effectively translate the data it collects into clear direction for staff.

Plecas says that funding, and its appropriate use, have harmed the ministry's ability to operate effectively.

"I find it particularly concerning that, over the past four years, the proportion of [the ministry's] budget that is dedicated to child protection has actually decreased in real terms, leaving alone the impacts of inflation," he says.

The recruitment and retention of front-line staff, Plecas says, need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

"In the future, we must accept and act on a simple principle: child protection is one of the most difficult jobs in government and it should be recognized and rewarded with higher compensation."

Culture of blame

Plecas says both the media and the ministry need to get past the "culture of blame" that pervades child welfare issues.

He also cites oversight by the representative for children and youth as part of the ministry's problems.

"Sadly, the relationship between the representative and the ministry has become strained," Plecas writes.

"Persistent tension permeates everything that involves the two organizations that, at times, compromises their respective capacities to elevate the quality of service to which they are both committed."

Plecas claims Turpel-Lafond's dual role as both an advocate for children and a body of oversight for the ministry place her in a conflict. He notes that she has made 572 actionable recommendations, and the ministry has implemented about 70 per cent of them with no additional resources.

"The advocacy role sometimes means that the representative is focused on rallying against the very people whom she has just charged with implementing her recommendations," Plecas says.

Plecas says Turpel-Lafond's oversight function should be taken over by the "quality assurance functions" of the ministry itself, and the representative's role should be strictly one of advocacy.

He suggests a timeline for this transition of around 18 months to two years.

Greater scrutiny

Interest from the media in tragic outcomes also leads to greater scrutiny, Plecas says, creating the impression that such tragedies occur more frequently than is the case.

"There seems to be a great appetite for piling on and blaming both individual workers and the system at large for perceived and real failings."

Plecas says that this is understandable, given the issue is child protection, but reaction is at odds with how other sectors are regarded, and may "reflect the ministry's inability to reclaim some level of credibility that it is both a responsible and an accountable organization."

He concludes that though child abuse, deaths and "even murder" cannot be wholly prevented, "we can make our kids safe, safer than they are now."

"It will require a clear message and a long-term commitment from cabinet, indeed from both sides of the legislature."

Read the full report