British Columbia·Analysis

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond leaves complicated legacy

Advocates say her work reforming the child welfare system has been unparalleled, while many children are still falling through the cracks.

The first Representative for Children and Youth officially ends her tenure on Nov. 27

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, is set to officially end her second and final 5-year term on Nov. 27. (CBC)

There isn't a day that passes when Peter Lang doesn't think of his son Nick. The 15 year-old died six days after he entered government-funded drug rehab.

Now most of Lang's free-time is spent reading reports on the B.C. Representative of Children and Youth's (RCY) website to learn about other children who were failed by the province's care system.

Nick Lang, 15, died in Campbell River while attending a drug treatment program. (Peter Lang)

What has stood out the most for the grieving father has been the impact the province's representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, has had.

"I didn't know much about Mary Ellen before my son's death," said Lang. "B.C. is going to miss her. Not just people who have children in care, it is going to be everyone in B.C. She just cuts to the chase, cuts to the issue. I think she is one of the brightest people this province has seen."

Inherent challenges of the job

There is no doubt in talking to people who have worked with and been affected by Turpel-Lafond that she is deeply respected for the work she has done over the last 10 year's as the province's first and so far only Representative for Children and Youth.

But what is harder to quantify is what has changed since she has been in office. 

The inherent challenge of the representative's job is that it can review cases, recommend changes that government should make but cannot implement those changes itself. The RCY office has handled 17,000 cases over the past 10 years.

The office is seen to be at times confrontational to government.- Former judge Ted Hughes

From those, Turpel-Lafond's office has made more than 200 recommendations and about 70 per cent have been put in place. One of the implementations often cited as a success was providing former foster children tuition-free education at some B.C. post-secondary institutions.

"One of the things that I have really appreciated is that she has not just made it about service through the Ministry of Children and Family Development but really taken a look at everything from education to the criminal justice system to Indigenous young people to substance youth and mental health supports and services," said Michelle Fortin, the Executive Director of Watari Counselling and Support Services Society in Vancouver. 

Gaps still exist

That holistic approach though has not fixed the system. Turpel-Lafond's office is still publishing reports looking into gaps that exist in provincial support for children and youth who need help, although its leader is set to leave within weeks.

Metis teen Alex Gervais died after he jumped from the open window of a hotel in Abbotsford while in xyolhemeylh's care. (Dylan Pelley/Facebook)

Last year she put pressure on the government to stop the practice of housing children in care in hotels after the suicide of teen Alex Gervais. But even after months of calling for change, a scathing report was released in January that showed more than 100 youth were temporarily housed that way over the course of a year. 

In 2010 Turpel-Lafond recommended that critical injuries and death of children in care be tracked four times a year.

In three months, from June 1, 2010 - Sep. 30, 2010, 34 critical injuries to, and 32 deaths of B.C. children and youth, who were in care or receiving reviewable services within the previous year, were reported.

Six years later things are no better, if not worse. From Feb. 1, 2016 to May 31, 2016, 247 critical injuries and 37 deaths were reported to the representative. 

Tension with government

The representative has rubbed many people the wrong way with her unrelenting criticisms of the way things are done by government.

Current Children and Families Minister Stephanie Cadieux has declined a number of meetings recently with Turpel-Lafond over recently released reports.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has released 92 reports during her 10 years as the province's advocate for children. (CBC)

Turpel-Lafond also drew the frustration of front line workers, especially in the landmark Paige Report, for criticising the work being done by support staff on the Downtown Eastside. 

"This position was put in place to be an advocate, not an adversary," said Fortin. "Maybe it's because of really being caught up in a system that doesn't move as fast as we in the sector would like, I think [we] have become a little more political."

Front line advocates also say that Turpel-Lafond has shed a light on so many problems that the government just can't handle fixing a system that is in disarray. 

"I can assure you this ministry is in a much larger mess than it was back then. The complete lack of accountability within the system, with the community, between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, it's a disaster," said Scott Clark, the executive director of Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement (ALIVE).

Not a 'perfect system'

Paige, 19, died of a drug overdose after a troubled life on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Turpel-Lafond's Paige report is considered one of her long lasting legacies. (B.C. Children's and Youth Representative)

The other way to measure success, is to go back to the office's original goals.

Former judge Ted Hughes was hired 11 years ago to spend a year examining the province's child welfare system and suggested the creation of the office.

Reflecting back, Hughes credits Turpel-Lafond for her "tenacity" but acknowledges balancing advocacy with getting government to want to put in place your suggestions is nearly impossible. 

Hon. Ted Hughes suggested the province create the Representative for Children and Youth office. (CBC)

"You don't often write reports offering praise and pointing out the good things that have been done and there have been a lot of good things being done," said Hughes.

"But because of the fact that she is there to improve the system by shining the spotlight on areas that need improvement the office is seen to be at times confrontational to government."

So as people reflect on what wasn't accomplished over the last 10 years to make the lives of the province's most vulnerable youth better, there is one person thinking about it harder than anyone else.

And that's Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond herself.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, has not publicly announced what she will be doing next in her career. (CBC)