Taking on a new ministerial role during a pandemic is never easy.
And even at the best of times, the Ministry of Children and Family Development is one of the most controversial and complicated portfolios in cabinet.
Luckily for new minister Mitzi Dean, she is no stranger to child and family services. Prior to her election to the B.C. legislature in 2017, Dean was executive director for the Pacific Centre Family Services Association, an agency contracted by the ministry to provide services to families and kids.
Dean moved to B.C. in 2005 from the U.K., where she worked for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children charity. Prior to that post she worked 20 years on the child welfare and social services frontlines.
But it’s one thing to be contracted by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and quite another to run it. The Tyee caught up with Dean last week to talk about the myriad issues she faces as minister and how she plans to tackle them.
Changing the framework
Thanks to a report released by the Representative for Children and Youth just a day before our interview, support services for children and youth with disabilities were top of mind.
The services and supports provided to tens of thousands of kids and youth with disabilities in B.C. are not in good shape. The representative found some funding rates for families have not increased in over 30 years.
“Kids are going without basic medical equipment and necessities at this point, and it’s just not OK in B.C.,” said Brenda Lenahan, a parent representative for the grassroots advocacy organization BC Parents of Complex Kids.
Instead, Lenahan says families must rely on charities like Variety Children’s Charity to afford necessary items like wheelchairs.
The Children’s Ministry brought in a $225 monthly pandemic top-up for families on the waiting list for respite care. But the representative’s report found only 28 per cent of surveyed parents of kids with disabilities received it.
The payments expired at the end of September. But the representative said they should be restored until the fall of 2021.
Dean told The Tyee some of the pandemic supports will continue, like increased flexibility over how respite money — intended to give parents a break from often demanding care — can be spent. The flexibility was appreciated — you could hire house cleaners or employ family to provide child care. But some parents reported they were never told of the change.
Dean said she would look into that.
But the $225 payment is not coming back.
“We’re in a different situation now than when that relief was issued, the landscape is different, because agencies have managed to create ways of delivering services differently in a pandemic,” she said, adding ministry staff have also changed how they operate during the pandemic.
And schools are open again, offering their own kind of respite for parents should they choose to send their kids back to class, she said.
Dean said her priority is putting in place a new framework for supporting child and youth with special needs — another recommendation from the representative’s report.
Instead of allotting per-child funding based solely on their diagnosis, currently the case in B.C., the new framework will also consider the individual’s circumstances and all the challenges and opportunities, she said.
“We want to zoom the focus in on the child and youth and their needs in that particular circumstance, what other supports they might have around them, and then make sure that a package is delivered to that child in that family and community that will meet those needs,” Dean said.
The change in approach is based on feedback from parents and the representative’s office, she added.
“We’re moving to a needs-led, child-centred approach so that we actually look at the child holistically: at what their needs are, what their opportunities are, what their other supports are and then respond to that in partnership with the family,” Dean said.
For example, Dean described a family where both children have disabilities. Only one child’s diagnosis results in provincial supports, yet it’s the child without funding who has the highest needs.
“They struggle with being able to support that child. So it needs to be very much led by the needs of the child rather than being led by a diagnosis,” she said.
The framework, which was delayed even before the pandemic, does not yet have an implementation date.
But Dean plans to tie its unveiling to the 2021 budget in part because her ministry needs more money to make the new framework work. The budget, usually delivered in mid-February, could be as late as April 30 due to the pandemic.
The ministry will base its budget request on the new framework, Dean said. But she wouldn’t speculate on how much more money would be needed.
“We haven’t reached that stage yet…. I’ve literally had a week in the job.”
Aging out revisited
Dean’s mandate letter includes a section about improving outcomes and supports for youth aging out of the provincial child welfare system on their 19th birthday and losing almost all supports.
Almost 60 per cent of homeless youth in Canada have experience in the child welfare system. Those who have aged out of care experience higher rates of incarceration, early death and dropping out of school than their peers who grew up with family.
Dean’s predecessor, Katrine Conroy, made some changes to improve supports for youths aging out, expanding the tuition waiver for youth from care to all B.C. public post-secondary institutions, and increasing the Agreements With Young Adults program payments to $1,250 per month from $1,000 for youth enrolled in post-secondary, life skills training or treatment.
In April, the ministry brought in temporary pandemic supports for youth turning 19, including extending payments to foster families so young people did not have to move out.
Advocates for youth leaving care want to see the pandemic supports become permanent.
Dean wouldn’t commit to acting on the requests.
“It’s something that we’re giving priority to, we’re looking at in terms of the budget as we move forward,” she said. “Supporting and responding to youth aging [out of] care is a cross-government responsibility as well. So it’s something that I will be discussing with colleagues.”
Another hurdle to overcome is the gross overrepresentation of Indigenous kids and youth in government care.
The overall number of children in care may be, as Dean claims, the lowest in the last 30 years, with the fewest Indigenous kids in care in 20 years.
Yet 67 per cent of the 5,588 kids in care in B.C. today are Indigenous, despite being approximately 10 per cent of the province’s children.
Dean has some ideas about reducing those numbers, including complying with federal law transferring the jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare back to Indigenous communities and engaging with Indigenous communities and leadership.
Dean said she’s had “the pleasure and honour” of working with the Minister’s Advisory Council for Indigenous Women, which advises government.
“And I’m going to add that group, hopefully to the stakeholders in our ministry,” Dean said, adding she still needs to ask the council and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin if this is possible.
New minister, new ministry?
Dean is the 15th minister to hold this portfolio since the ministry was created in 1996. And in those 24 years it’s seen much upheaval.
But Dean says the changes she hopes to make are not rash, and she wants to assure workers, families and communities that they will not fall through the cracks during this time.
“We absolutely need to be mindful, because frontline workers are already working extremely hard. And it’s already a very demanding role. Plus, we’ve now had nine months of a pandemic and the emotional labour of that is really demanding and challenging. So we’re fortunate now that I have a four-year mandate,” she said.
“People are carrying a caseload and, all the time, kids and youth need help and support and they need support for their future and support to be safe and support to be able to return home,” she said. “So we need to make sure that the service delivery isn’t interrupted whilst we make those changes.”
Dean worked with the children’s minister through her former job for nearly 12 years under BC Liberal governments.
“I didn’t see improvements, it wasn’t possible to get reliable data, it wasn’t possible to access services for people in my community,” she said.
However, some of the ministry’s senior managers, including deputy minister Allison Bond, assistant deputy minister Cory Heavener and deputy director of child welfare Alex Scheiber, have either been in the ministry longer than the NDP have been in power or served in other ministries under the BC Liberals.
That’s led some critics to question whether change is truly possible. Dean believes it is.
“I’ve already seen changes under the leadership of [former] minister Conroy. We made significant changes, for example, expanding the payment so that kids could be placed with family members and they would get the money to cover the costs,” she said. The ministry has also made important investments in the mental health of children and youth, she added.
“I have conversations with my executive team, and we’re clear about the expectations and the way that we need to proceed that’s in the best interest of children and youth.”
Where there has been high turnover is among frontline child protection workers. Dean’s message to them is to say thank you, and hold on.
“In these times of the pandemic, I know everybody has worked really hard to be able to pivot, to be able to serve the families and children and youth… who they’re really committed to and who they’re very passionate about,” she said.
“I hope that staff will see in my leadership that I have that understanding of what it’s like to be on the frontline,” she said. “And [that] we want to make a shift from the knee-jerk child protection reaction to investing in prevention, investing in support, investing in keeping families together… so that kids can actually stay in family, and extended family, in community.”
Dean has a message, as well, for families, young people and children who are in crisis during a pandemic that has seen some disruption in ministry services and increasing isolation for everyone.
If you need help, Dean said, reach out to the ministry.
“Please don’t feel that you’re alone. And don’t feel that the only way to get services is to put your child in government care,” she said.
“We really want to keep families together, and we want to work with families to make sure that we can provide the supports that keeps families together and keeps them safely together.”