Law

The minister for kids

B.C. takes steps to protect children at risk

SCOTT STEELE October 7 1996
Law

The minister for kids

B.C. takes steps to protect children at risk

SCOTT STEELE October 7 1996

The minister for kids

B.C. takes steps to protect children at risk

Law

Matthew Vaudreuil lived a short and tragic life. Surrounded by unimaginable filth and squalor for most of his five years, the B.C. boy was subjected to prolonged neglect, abuse and torture. But it was not until an inquiry well after his mentally and emotionally scarred mother, Verna, smothered him to death to stop his yelling on July 8, 1992, in Vancouver, that the true nature of his plight became apparent. Weighing only 36 lb. when he died,

Matthew had bruises covering his face, arms, legs, back and buttocks. He had a fractured arm, 11 broken ribs and what appeared to be rope burns on his shoulders and wrists. Last week, in response to a damning investigator’s report and continuing public outrage over that and similar cases, Premier Glen Clark outlined a damage-control campaign. Unveiling a sweeping reorganization of the province’s child-protection system, he announced the establishment of a new ministry for children and families and the creation of a special children’s commissioner to review all future child deaths. “It became clear to me several weeks ago our efforts to address this problem were in danger of being too little, too late,” Clark said. “B.C.’s children can’t wait.”

The shocking details of Matthew Vaudreuil’s miserable life and death became public last November following an independent 18-month inquiry headed by provincial court Judge Thomas Gove. Equally disturbing, however, was the Gove commission’s revelation that the provincial ministry of social services had failed to intervene to save his life despite receiving at least 60 reports about Matthew’s safety and well-being. Finding “strikingly similar” patterns in the files of several other children, Gove concluded that the province’s child-protection system was “fun-

damentally flawed”—and required massive restructuring.

Since the release of the Gove report, another 64 children in the care of or “known to” British Columbia’s social services ministry have died. And not surprisingly, the emotionally charged issue has become a thorn in the side of Clark’s NDP government. In the legislature, the Opposition Liberals repeatedly accused rookie NDP Social Services Minister Dennis Streifel of mishandling the crisis and of dragging his heels in implementing Gove’s recommendations. Politically motivated or not, Clark’s action was certainly decisive.

It radically downsized Streifel’s social services ministry, leaving him only responsible for welfare benefits. Over the next six months, all provincial child services—now spread among five portfolios—will be unified under the new children’s ministry, which will have a budget of $1 billion and a

staff of 4,700. Heading the new portfolio is respected former labor and small business minister Penny Priddy, 52, just back on the job from undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Priddy, a trained nurse, insists she is up to the task—and that she means business. “I feel terrific,” she said, emphasizing that she had a clean bill of health from her oncologist. Priddy said she will “begin with the assumption that every single person who works here is concerned about children,” before adding sternly,

“People will be expected to get on board.”

British Columbia is not alone in looking for new ways to protect children at risk. Among other initiatives,

New Brunswick’s department of health and community services introduced a set of guidelines last spring to help social workers decide when a child should be taken into care. The minister of state for family and children, physician Marilyn Trenholme, also launched several related programs last year, including help for communities to find ways to spot abuse. Those changes followed the 1994 starving death of three-year-old John Ryan Turner, whose parents were convicted of manslaughter last spring in Miramichi. And in Ontario, where a provincial task force is

An outcry over child abuse leads to reform

looking into the deaths of 49 children under the supervision of children’s aid societies in the past five years, there was considerable interest in the B.C. initiative. “The idea of a single ministry that will focus on children is a wonderful one and it is badly overdue,” said child psychiatrist Paul Steinhauer of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

In Victoria, Clark acknowledged that bureaucratic in-fighting had slowed reforms.

‘The ministries weren’t getting the message that certain things had to change and had to change fast,” he conceded. “It’s turf problems, to put it bluntly.” But Clark sent a strong signal to those in the civil service who might resist change: he appointed Bob Plecas, 51, a former high-ranking civil servant from the Social Credit era, as the new deputy minister for children and families. No shrinking violet, Plecas is best known for masterminding an unpopular fiscal restraint program in the early 1980s and for drafting tough labor legislation that resulted in provincewide strikes and demonstrations. Dismissed when the NDP came to power in 1991, his reincarnation seemed both a bipartisan gesture and a clear sign that Clark will brook no resistance to his plan.

Also playing a key role in the new system will be former deputy education minister Cynthia Morton, 40, who takes over as child commissioner. Earlier this year, she was appointed to head a transition team overseeing the implementation of Gove’s recommendations over the next three years. But now the process has been significantly fast-tracked, with Morton given the power to investigate every child death in the province—not only those under ministry care. Her office will examine all suspicious or unusual cases and report its findings within 60 days. Morton will then recommend appropriate responses to government ministries and agencies— which must comply within 30 days—and release her findings to the public.

Clark’s reorganization was almost universally applauded. “Finally, children and youth are at the cabinet table,” proclaimed provincial Ombudsman Dulcie McCallum, a vocal critic of government shortcomings in childdeath investigations. Even Opposition Liberal critic Bonnie McKinnon welcomed the initiative—although she argued with some of the details.

But most notable among the initiative’s supporters was Gove himself. Said the judge: “Perhaps now Matthew’s legacy will be realized.”

SCOTT STEELE

PATRICIA CHISHOLM