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Will Mitzi Dean Bring Change to Often Troubled Children’s Ministry?

New minister’s background in child welfare brings hope, but advocates will wait to see action on key issues.

Katie Hyslop 30 Nov 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Mitzi Dean is the 15th minister to helm the Ministry of Children and Family Development since it was created in 1996. But she’s the first to have an extensive background in child protection work.

Dean, who replaces former minister Katrine Conroy after 3.5 years in the position, spent 20 years working in child protection social work and community services in the U.K. before immigrating to Canada in 2005.

Dean was the executive director for Pacific Centre Family Services, a Victoria-based organization contracted by the ministry to provide youth counselling and other services, until she was elected in 2017.

Dean, MLA for Esquimalt-Metchosin, was parliamentary secretary for gender equity in the last government.

This extensive child welfare track record is leading people and organizations working with — and sometimes critical of — the ministry to express “cautious optimism” and “hope” about Dean’s appointment.

Susan Strega, a University of Victoria social work professor, said the appointment should hearten frontline workers.

“I think the people who will be feeling hopeful are some of the workers and team leaders on the ground who know Mitzi through her work with Pacific Centre Family Services and who know she’s got a child protection background,” she said. “They’ll be feeling hopeful that, having been a protection worker herself, that she will be concerned about what it’s like for child protection workers, and therefore, of course, for the families that they work with.”

“It’s a mystery to me that she wasn’t the minister of [the Children’s Ministry] before this.”

But shuffling out Conroy after less than four years in the post echoes the ministry’s prior problems with high turnover rates at the top. For example, between 1996 and 2010 the ministry went through 11 different ministers and nine deputy ministers.

Susan Russell-Csanyi, campaign organizer with Fostering Change, said the constant changes at the top reflect the overall instability in the ministry.

“It’s a stark reminder to [youth] that all workers, even staff and ministers, have a high turnover rate in relation to MCFD [Ministry of Children and Family Development] work,” said Russell-Csanyi. Fostering Change represents youth who have left or were pushed out of the child welfare system.

While ministers have changed, senior managers — like deputy minister Allison Bond, assistant deputy minister Cory Heavener and deputy director of child welfare Alex Scheiber — have remained in the ministry in recent years. All have worked for BC Liberal and NDP governments.

So who has more sway over how the ministry operates, staff or the minister?

“Technically it’s the minister, but one of the most powerful things about the civil service is their ability not to do something if they choose. So it doesn’t matter how good the minister is if there’s resistance at the civil service,” said Grant Charles, University of British Columbia associate professor of social work.* It’s an issue for all ministries, he added.

Every ministry should shake up its senior leadership, especially if they have been in the ministry for five years or more, Charles said.

The Children’s Ministry, he added, should hire more Indigenous people to those senior positions if they truly want to decrease the overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in care. Currently, two-thirds of children and youth in care are Indigenous.

Ministries should also reach out to hire people from outside the government ranks, he said. “[The Children’s Ministry] in particular, I haven’t noticed a lot of people come in from outside the civil service,” Charles said.

Dean’s mandate letter from Premier John Horgan includes many of the same items Conroy was already supposed to be working on, including returning jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare back to Indigenous communities, supporting youth as they transition out of the child welfare system and preventing families from having to get involved with child welfare in the first place.

Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth is confident Dean has the ability to achieve these goals. The two used to work together when Charlesworth was executive director of the Federation of Community Social Services of BC and Dean was at Pacific Centre Family Services.

But Charlesworth says positive changes won’t come if Dean doesn’t listen to Indigenous people and work to tear down silos with other ministries — which is also in Dean’s mandate letter.

“There’s always a risk for any ministry to become siloed, and [the Children’s Ministry] is only as successful as their ability to get good collaborative work with education, with mental health and addictions, with health authorities, with poverty reduction,” Charlesworth said.

Russell-Csanyi says the youth of Fostering Change are glad to see things like reconciliation and anti-racism included in the ministry mandate letter. But they’re not going to settle for words — they want to see action.

“We hope that her plans to decolonize [the ministry], that she has an action plan related to that, and that action plan supports culturally relevant wrap-around services and supports for not only children in care, but youth transitioning from care as well,” Russell-Csanyi said.

Fostering Change also wants the extra pandemic supports for youth from care to be permanent.

It will be a while before children, youth and families involved with the ministry see any impact from a new minister, says Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator for First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.

First Call has a long list of changes it wants — anti-racism, child development and trauma-informed practice training for all staff; more Indigenous social workers; mandatory BC College of Social Workers registration for all ministry social workers; and collecting more data on ministry practices, performance measures and the people they serve.

It’s up to Dean to make things happen.

“Every minister should have a passion for making sure that they can deliver on their mandate letter,” said Montani.

*Story updated on Nov. 30 at 11:15 a.m. to correct the name of the UBC associate professor of social work quoted in the story. It's Grant Charles, not Charles Grant.  [Tyee]

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