British Columbia

Q&A: Former B.C. child protection worker opens up about 'understaffed' ministry

CBC's On the Coast host Stephen Quinn sits down with a former child protection worker to find out what challenges face the province's incoming children's representative.

'You have more work to do and no one is acknowledging that that's happening,' says Portia Larlee

The province of B.C. has selected a new children's representative. Bernard Richard will be just the second person to hold the position, after Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. (Office of the Representative of Children and Youth)

The second person to ever hold the position of B.C.'s representative for children and youth will officially begin his tenure in just under two weeks.

Bernard Richard was chosen unanimously by a special selection committee at the legislature, and comes with previous experience as New Brunswick's youth representative.

The person he's replacing, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, spent much of her time in the position criticizing the understaffing of front line child protection workers within the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

For an idea of the challenges Richard will face as he takes over, CBC's On the Coast host Stephen Quinn sat down with Portia Larlee, a former child protection worker, who left the job after only a year and a half with the ministry.

Stephen Quinn: What kind of expectations did you have going into the job?

Portia Larlee: I definitely expected most of my coworkers to be middle class white women, because that happens throughout the country. Sadly, I also expected the families we worked with to be overwhelmingly Indigenous, that also happens throughout the country, and that's what I saw.

I also, sadly, expected understaffing.

Was there any acknowledgement of how understaffed you were?

From various supervisors, yes. From the managers above them, no. And that really led me to feel quite powerless. Your job becomes so much bigger, you have more work to do, and no one is acknowledging that that's happening.

I think everyone can agree that building trust and relationships with families leads to good social work, and when there's understaffing, you have less of a chance to do that.

How did the understaffing impact you?

I felt like I didn't have time to build relationships with the families I worked with. Some of the things I wanted to do, like help a parent move, or provide transportation, I wasn't able to do those things. And I know some supervisors and higher-ups would say that that's outside my job description. I do think doing some of those things is important to build trust.

You wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Georgia Straight that at times you were torn between whether you were supposed to be policing families or supporting families, what did you mean by that?

I got into the work to see how much room there was to actually support families, and be a bit of a buffer between state intervention and families' lives, which for Indigenous families is quite... can be... is violent. I received some mixed messages. I had eight supervisors, some of them acted more like cops and some of them acted more like social workers, and that's hard for workers, to figure out what their job is.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond makes her final presentation as representative for children and youth to the select standing committee on children and youth on October 24, 2016. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Last year, retired civil servant Bob Plecas released a review of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), saying the constant scrutiny from the B.C. representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, and others has led to instability and a loss of confidence in the ministry. What do you make of that?

I can only speak to my own experience, and I felt validated and supported every time I read one of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's reports.

Plecas also said the MCFD was not in shambles, that the government isn't to blame for child welfare tragedies, and that it takes a village to raise a child, and no matter what, children will still be abused and die. Do you accept that?

After doing this for a very, very short time, it's my belief that child welfare should be handled by the community, and these systems should be built by and for the community. As a white woman, I never felt like I was able to represent the Indigenous families I worked with, and systemically, you're supposed to impose these Euro-centric values on Indigenous families, and it doesn't make sense.

You quit after a year and a half, what was the turning point for you?

I loved working with the families. I loved being in the community I was in. I didn't love working for the ministry. Again, that lack of communication ... was huge for me.

Bernard Richard takes over as B.C.'s representative for children and youth Nov. 28.

What are the things you're hoping the new representative, Bernard Richard, will push for?

I really hope he pushes to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care. I think it's 60 per cent of children in care are Indigenous, and they make up only 9 per cent of the population, and that's just unacceptable. I hope that's his main priority.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

With files from On The Coast