Who Protected Him? How BC’s Child Welfare System Failed One of Its Most Vulnerable Children

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The Executive Summary of the report by BC’s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, submitted to the Legislative Assembly of BC on February 7, 2013, reads as follows: At its essence, a child welfare system should protect society’s most vulnerable children from abuse and neglect and fill the role of “prudent parent” for the children it takes into care.

This report details how British Columbia’s child welfare system failed on both counts to fulfill these basic roles and it outlines the devastating effects that failure has had on the life of one Aboriginal child .

The report finds that the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) did not follow basic child welfare practice standards, leaving this child for more than two years in his parental home, where he suffered abuse and neglect.

After the ministry took the child into care, it failed to adequately fulfill the role of prudent parent. Basic child welfare practice standards that would have protected the child from further abuse and neglect were ignored and the child’s special needs, education, health and cultural identity have all suffered from a lack of oversight and action by the ministry.

After removing him from his parental family, the ministry placed the child in a foster home where he lived for three years. In this home, he was subject to further physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

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Not long afterward, the child went to live with a foster parent who made extraordinary efforts to address his special needs. He was doing very well in this home, but the foster parent needed support in order to continue in the role. The ministry did not provide those supports, resulting in another move for the child.

Inexplicably, the child was returned to his natural mother despite a clear lack of evidence that her parenting skills had improved sufficiently to justify this move. This return lasted less than a year and has been followed by nine more placements for the child to this date.

The ministry also failed to fully explore a promising adoption opportunity with an Aboriginal family that might have given the child a chance for a richer life.

As a prudent parent, the ministry is responsible for nurturing this child and all others in its care. Despite this, MCFD has clearly not yet found a lasting match that could be considered even adequate for this child’s complex special needs and behavioural issues. As a result, during his time under the ministry’s care, this child has been subject to a parade of ever-changing caregivers, living in 15 different foster or residential placements, not including hospitalizations, since 2001.

There is no doubt that the child who is the subject of this report presents behavioural issues that are extremely challenging for caregivers. But this does not excuse the ministry from its duty to provide care and nurturing for this child and others like him. The ministry’s core business is to care for B .C.’s most vulnerable children. Its responsibility is to find ways to do so that further the child’s development and protect him from harm.

Instead, the Representative has found through this investigation that all the residential placements the child has lived in since he was eight-years-old have featured a “safe room” – a place where the child has been isolated for his safety and that of the staff working with him when his behaviours became aggressive.

The facilities in which the ministry has placed this child have used this tactic despite the fact there is no policy or legislation in B .C. that permits use of isolation outside of mental health facilities. The Representative finds it inconceivable that the ministry could allow use of such a room given the fact the child was reportedly traumatized by earlier confinement in both his natural home and one foster home. The Representative believes that these rooms have also been used as a punitive measure in a futile attempt to control the child’s behaviours.

The failure to find a proper match for this child’s special needs and behaviours illustrates the dire need for the ministry to develop a continuum of residential services for children and youth in B .C. with complex needs that cannot be met in traditional foster home or group home settings. Too often in this child’s case, professionals involved felt they had to work outside the rules in order to actually help him.

Too often, workers involved with this child felt the need to call police in order to manage his behaviours. Police were called to assist caregivers on April 7, 2011, in an incident that resulted in the child being Tasered by an officer – the critical injury incident that led to the Representative preparing this report.

The key recommendation of this report is that the ministry immediately develop a robust plan to address this critical deficiency in matching children in care who have complex needs with a suitable residential placement that is properly staffed and equipped to help them rather than simply house them.

The Representative also recommends that MCFD immediately discontinue use of isolation and restraint as behaviour management strategies for children in residential care. Instances in which restraint is unavoidable during a crisis in order to protect the safety of the child or others should be reported to the Representative as critical injuries and followed up by a review of the child’s plan of care.

As well as stressing the obvious need to meet basic child protection standards – something that was too often ignored in this child’s case – the Representative recommends that the Office of the Provincial Director develop policy and standards to ensure that active senior management oversight is in place over the planning and delivery of services to and guardianship of children with complex special needs. This should include a system by which warning signs such as number of residential moves, lack of educational instruction, and use of police to manage behaviour are flagged. The Representative also recommends that the ministry develop an internal clinical unit to support residential care staff, social workers and policy makers who deal with children with these needs.

The story of this child is one that, in a compassionate society with a strong child welfare system, should never have to be told.

The Representative is aware that there are other children with similar complex needs in B.C. By telling the story of this child, pointing out where the system failed him, and recommending ways to improve that system, the Representative’s aim is to help other children such as him avoid a similar fate.

Click here to access the full report.

Our StoriesMonica Gault