The Campbell administration left vulnerable children in homes it judged unsafe, according to British Columbia's independent child protection watchdog, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
The newspaper 24 Hours Vancouver exclusively learned about the controversy in records obtained via a freedom of information request.
Turpel-Lafond says she's launched an unprecedented audit that will investigative this and related matters. But the Ministry of Children and Family Development says it's already responding to her concerns.
At issue: the government's Child in Home of a Relative program, which will service an estimated 4,767 kids in 2008.
Under that program -- which was transferred from the Ministry of Housing and Social Development to the Ministry of Children and Family Development last month -- parents who can't care for their children can place them in the home of a relative. And that relative will receive financial aide from the government if there's "no evidence of a level of risk to the child."
But Turpel-Lafond, whose job title is B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, advised the government on July 10, 2008 she's identified "serious child and youth safety concerns" related to the screening process introduced seven months before to assess that risk level.
Loaded shotgun, abusive residents
In a three-page letter sent to Lesley du Toit and Cairine MacDonald -- the top bureaucrats at the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Housing and Social Development -- Turpel-Lafond cited four cases where homes have been denied assistance because there was evidence of risk. But the government hadn't taken action to remove the children from those homes.
Among the cases:
- A grandmother was denied assistance because her son -- who was "found to have physically abused" the child and had a history of "sexually interfering with another child" -- lived in the same home. The grandmother's spouse had also been arrested for driving drunk while a child was in his car. But a social worker found those risks had been "mitigated" and that funding could be "supported." Turpel-Lafond states "it is not clear what the outcome of this application is" or whether the risk to the child "has been addressed." The representative also notes the grandmother was "apparently in receipt of CIHR assistance" for another grandchild "who is also in the home."
- A grandmother was denied assistance because she lived in the same building as the child's stepfather -- "who is being investigated for sexually abusing the child." Turpel-Lafond states the Ministry of Children and Family Development's local office "attempted to have that decision overturned, but was not successful in doing so." Since then "some efforts" have been made to support the grandmother. But "it does not appear that the issue of risk to the child is being addressed."
- A grandmother -- who had an extensive criminal history -- was denied assistance. Her son, who lived in the same home, also had a record. And the home had been the site of a number of violent crimes -- including a domestic assault case where an "unregistered and unsecured shotgun was apparently seized from the child's bedroom." Turpel-Lafond states the child's social worker unsuccessfully appealed the denial. And, at "last report," the child remains in the home -- despite the risk being "extreme."
- An aunt was denied assistance because her spouse had "several past charges for assault, including sexual assault, sexual interference with a person under 14, and he had been convicted of sexually molesting his daughter." The aunt had also been contacted by the government "with respect to instances of physical abuse." But the child "apparently remains in this home." And it doesn't appear she's being assisted by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Nor does it appear the risks posed to her are being addressed.
As a result, Turpel-Lafond stressed the need for government to develop a policy that "addresses the risk faced by children left in homes that have been judged unsafe for them." And it is "difficult to understand" why social workers attempted to "over-ride the results of a process intended to reduce risks to vulnerable children."
No 'adequate resolution' yet: Turpel-Lafond
The government's three-paragraph response to the representative came six days later. The letter stated "a review and evaluation of our experience to date" with the Child in Home of a Relative program is "planned for the end of August."
The government also promised the four cases Turpel-Lafond identified "will appropriately be reviewed and considered under the Child Family and Community Service Act and the results of those assessments and investigations will be shared with you."
But when asked yesterday about the present status of those cases, Turpel-Lafond told 24 Hours that she didn't have "adequate resolution."
The youth representative also said she hasn't heard anything further from the ministry regarding her concerns about children who have been left in unsafe homes.
But the representative says she has written to regional child welfare directors expressing her concern about funding being given to such homes.
"The social worker on the line was saying, 'Okay, we know there's a failed criminal record check. But we're satisfied it's safe. So let's place a child there under CIHR. So a criminal record check doesn't lead to an ineligibility. It's overridden and the child is placed."
Kids 'found to be safe': ministry
Asked for comment about the representative's concerns, Children and Family Development communications director Kelly Gleeson said in a written statement the four cases referenced by Turpel-Lafond have been investigated. And "in all of these cases the children or youth involved have been found to be safe."
Gleeson also stressed, "If over the course of the screening processes the ministry becomes aware of any protection concerns related to a family, the ministry will assess those child protection concerns, where necessary conduct an investigation and provide supports as necessary."
Gleeson added the ministry's review of those processes will be "conducted this fall" and examine "how staff have responded and the extent to which the screening checks have identified child welfare concerns in the homes of relatives applying for CIHR funding."
This isn't the first time concerns have been raised about the Child in Home of a Relative program.
In May 2008, the Victoria Times-Colonist's Lindsay Kines reported on the case of a four-year-old aboriginal girl who had been beaten by her grandmother, who was receiving funding from the program.
The grandmother, who "drank too much, suffered from panic attacks and worked the night shift," received three years probation after pleading guilty to assault causing bodily harm.
Then, in April, Turpel-Lafond issued a report stating there was an "inadequate assessment of the relative's ability to care" for the four-year-old, "incomplete child protection investigations" and "no reassessment of risk completed while the family was receiving ongoing protective services."
The representative says her office is now undertaking an audit of the Child in Home of a Relative program -- the first she's launched since taking office. That audit has been under design since June.
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