P.E.I. hires long-awaited child advocate

P.E.I. has announced it will create a child advocate position, becoming the last province in Canada to do so.

Green Party of P.E.I. calls appointment 'hugely disappointing'

Michele Dorsey has been a lawyer for the last 30 years and has also been deputy minister in two provincial government departments. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

P.E.I. has announced it will create a child advocate position.

The announcement was made Friday by Premier Wade MacLauchlan in Charlottetown.

Island children deserve an independent non-partisan advocate ... that is not what the premier is providing.— Peter Bevan-Baker

Michele Dorsey was named the children's commissioner and advocate, effective Jan. 1, 2019. She'll work through a new government entity, the Office for Children and Youth. 

"The new children's commissioner and advocate and the Office for Children and Youth is a significant cross-governmental undertaking to build a bright, healthy, prosperous future for young Islanders," said MacLauchlan in a written release.

The Office for Children and Youth will be responsible for championing the rights of children, ensuring the voice of children and youth are represented in policy and programs, supporting families navigating programs and services and more, the release said.

"A focused government-community approach to children's healthy development will support healthier and safer environments for Island families," said Family and Human Services Minister Tina Mundy. 

Recommended following inquest

The initial recommendation for P.E.I. to have a child advocate came from the jury at the inquest looking into the murder-suicide of four-year-old Nash Campbell and his mother Patricia Hennessey.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan made the announcement at Chances Family Centre in Charlottetown.

The two died in a vehicle fire near Tignish on June 21, 2013. Hennessey lost custody of her son the day before.

In his report stemming from that inquest, P.E.I.'s chief coroner of the day Dr. Desmond Colohan recommended the province "assess the need for such a position and consider the best way to meet the intent" of the jury's recommendation for a child advocate.

Government's initial position, defended time and again in the face of repeated criticism from opposition parties, was that the province could protect children without creating the position.

The province unveiled a new "hub model" to get various government agencies to work more closely and share information to better protect children at risk. It also created a position for a lawyer to represent children involved in contentious custody disputes.

Motion voted down in 2016

In April 2016 Liberal MLAs voted down a motion introduced by the PCs to create a child advocate.

"We've got the official guardian, the family law centre, we're considering the establishment of a children's lawyer, we have a hub model of four departments, the chief health officer is in place," Premier Wade MacLauchlan said at the time. "What is in place is in the fullest sense delivering the service that would be provided by a child advocate."

A year later, after his government tabled its first balanced budget, the premier said he might be willing to reconsider.

The P.E.I. government created a position for a child and youth services commissioner in 2010 but the position was quietly eliminated in 2015. At the time government said the position was dropped "as part of an effort to move as many resources as possible to the front line."

'Hugely disappointing'

Friday, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker called Dorsey's appointment "hugely disappointing, especially with respect to the authority and independence of the position, and the hiring process used to fill it," he said in a written release.

The position is not actually a child advocate as the term is understood in other jurisdictions, he argued in the release.

"Island children deserve an independent non-partisan advocate — an advocate whose authority is set out in legislation, who is hired through an open merit-based process, and who can act independently of government interference," Bevan-Baker said. "That is not what the premier is providing."

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With files from Kerry Campbell and Brittany Spencer