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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Investigation in British Columbia may be asking the wrong questions

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced in B.C. what has been hailed as a groundbreaking investigation. They will look into the actions of care workers who were involved with a First Nations youth, Paige, who died as a young adult from a drug overdose. Paige's case was the subject of a scathing report by the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Paige as an infant, child and youth

In that report, social workers are noted to have failed to properly assess her needs; failed to communicate between regions as she moved around the province; didn't persist in trying to work with her as she became more challenging to engage; allowed her to live in some of the most dangerous, drug addicted areas of the province and often saw her without arranging further contact with child protection authorities. She died at the age of 19. She had many problems including Marfan syndrome which left her with very challenging eyesight, medication and cardiac health issues along with her addiction, trauma history and likely mental health issues.

As the CBC reported on September 18, 2015, "Paige as taken to hospital or detox at lest 17 times after being found unconscious or incoherent; she changed schools 16 times; and she featured in more than 40 police files, mostly for public intoxication." Yet, these incidents generally did not result in filing a report to child protection in accordance with provincial legislation. Like most Canadian provincial child welfare legislation, B.C. requires professionals to contact child protection whenever they suspect that a child is in need of protection.

It is the failure of authorities to make these reports that is the subject of the police investigation. But are they asking the right questions? It's tempting to be satisfied that the police may hold these workers accountable for their failures. That may make many professionals more aware although that might also lead to flooding the system with reports and more children coming into care. There can be a "fear chill" arising from such police efforts.

Despite the merits of a police investigation, it may be that the wrong questions are indeed getting asked. I find myself wondering (as I have with virtually all of the over 900 child welfare practice reviews I have read) what structural conditions lead to these kinds of failures.

  • What causes professionals to believe that a report should not be done?
  • What allows workers to believe that hard to reach youth are so challenging that you let them be in dangerous situations?
  • What circumstances lead workers to fail to gather data from others who have worked with a youth?
  • What did professionals believe would make a call to child welfare not worth doing?
  • What is that professionals did not understand about their duty to report or has past experience caused them to believe that such calls are not worth doing because they cannot see any changes occurring?
  • What kinds of supervision exists to support these decisions?
Yes, it is worth asking why these workers did not do what should be done but the questions are much broader. There has never been a prosecution under this section of the B.C. legislation. Turpel-Lafond hopes that this will be a turning point. I fear it may not be the one she wants. How many professionals will now decide that working with child protection cases should be avoided, for example.

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