P.E.I.'s child advocate to gain independence, new office as PCs look to fulfil election pledge
Legislation to be tabled this fall would end years-long political debate over position
The P.E.I. government is looking for an office for a new child and youth advocate, and one line in the official tender document sums up a significant change in government policy that occurred as a result of the April 23 provincial election.
"The new office space must be independent and therefore cannot be located on the same floor as any other provincial government department, service or agency," the tender states.
It's been more than four years since the inquest into the tragic death of four-year-old Nash Campbell touched off a political debate over whether P.E.I. should appoint an independent child advocate to serve as a watchdog over the rights and interests of Island children.
After years of deferrals, the Liberal government of Wade MacLauchlan took a partial step in that direction, appointing a new children's commissioner and advocate in January 2019.
But rather than an independent officer of the legislature, whose job it is to scrutinize government, that position is part of government, answering to the premier.
Children and youth do have rights, and they have rights that are distinct from adults.— Michael Zimmerman, office for children and youth
The office of the current commissioner is on the fifth floor of the Shaw Building, where you'll also find the premier's office and cabinet chambers.
Both the PCs and the Greens campaigned during the spring election on promises to make the position independent, and this fall in the legislature the PC government of Dennis King will table legislation to do just that.
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"It's really important that that person be outside government systems and able to comment freely and to really identify where there's room for improvement," said Jane Ledwell, executive director of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
The advisory council has been pushing for an independent child advocate for the better part of a decade, and was one of the groups that responded to public consultations over the summer and fall looking at a draft of the new legislation.
As an example of what a child advocate outside government could take on, Ledwell pointed to recent cases where school staff were convicted of sexual misconduct against students.
"What are the policy things that could have prevented this? What are the systemic ways of addressing these behaviours that could have prevented the harm that has come to children in our community as a result of these abuses?" said Ledwell.
"An independent child advocate can look at things at that level and we really hope that that will be one of the priorities when the child advocate becomes independent — to be able to look at some of those recent situations and say, 'OK, where did the system go wrong?'"
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Power to investigate, compel witnesses
According to the draft legislation, the child advocate would have the power to investigate the provision of a wide range of government services and how they impact children.
That includes child protection, adoption, social assistance, education, health, mental health and addictions, and programs and services administered through the Department of Justice.
The child advocate would also have the power to compel testimony, order the disclosure of documents and investigate deaths and serious injuries involving children if the provision of a government service was somehow involved.
Michael Zimmerman, legal and policy advisor for P.E.I.'s existing office for children and youth, said making the child advocate independent from government represents best practices "throughout Canada as well as worldwide" as a way to "protect and promote the rights of children."
Zimmerman said the biggest potential impact to come from the change could be to impress upon the public "that children and youth do have rights, and they have rights that are distinct from adults, and they also have the right and opportunity to have their voices and opinions heard and considered by decision makers."
Zimmerman said the three staff currently with the office for children and youth — himself included — will transfer over to the new independent office if and when the legislation comes into effect.
Michele Dorsey, the current child commissioner appointed by the Liberals, would be eligible to be appointed to the new child advocate position, but that decision would rest with the legislative assembly, on the recommendation of the legislative management committee.
As for the change of location referenced in the government tender document, Zimmerman said given that the child advocate position is about to become independent, the office has to move.
Zimmerman said families who might want to come forward to the child advocate with concerns about child protection services or the education system need to know the person they're approaching is not part of government.
"We need to ensure ... that people have a safe place to come and talk to us," Zimmerman said, adding that an office in a government building "might impact the ability of people to feel like they're welcome and able to share their thoughts and opinions."