Safety, Well-Being Focus of Child Protection System

by Stanley B. Hagen
Minister of Children and Family Development

November 22, 2005

Right now, there are 9,000 children in the care of government. Every day, we are working to protect each and every one of those children, and give them an opportunity for a safe, quality life. And every day, we receive new reports of possible abuse or neglect that we investigate thoroughly.

The reality is that protecting children may be the most challenging work in government. Our obligation to protect children from abuse or neglect demands that we continually review what we do and how we do it, and that we continually strive to build the most effective child protection approach possible.

What happens when there is a report of child neglect or abuse? First, a Ministry child protection social worker - supported by experienced supervisors - assesses the report to determine the best course of action. Sometimes that means bringing in the police, physicians or other officials. Other times it involves working with a family and providing them with parenting education, home support, counselling, or respite care.

Over the last few years, we have made a deliberate attempt to keep more families together, if that is at all possible. We looked at the mounting evidence from across the globe that children do better when they're kept safe in their families and communities. Since 2001, we've moved from an intrusive and adversarial child protection philosophy - which was much more likely to result in the immediate apprehension of children from their family - to a less intrusive and more collaborative approach. Our goal: to take the least disruptive action that ensures the child's safety.

One of these possible actions is to enter into a "kith-and-kin" agreement where a child who needs to be removed from his or her home is placed with a relative or close family friend, instead of being placed in the home of a stranger. This approach is based on a very successful model long in place in New Zealand. Today, nearly all North American jurisdictions have or are working toward kinship care as a best practice. Early evidence indicates that overall it can be better for children than a foster placement.

If there is a disagreement between family members and a social worker on how to best meet a child's needs, the ministry may involve a trained, impartial mediator in working toward a mutually acceptable solution. This mediator works at no cost to the family.

The overall emphasis is on collaboration - involving extended family, community and others in planning and decision-making for children. For example, we have increased parental involvement in planning for their children through family group conferencing. This shift to collaboration and respect for the child's long-term interests has resulted in a 15 per cent decrease in the number of children in care, from about 10,500 in 2001 to about 9,000 today.

Rarely, and despite the best efforts of social workers and other professionals, a tragedy does occur and a child dies. It is important to point out that in the vast majority of cases, these deaths are accidental or result from ongoing complex medical issues. Every child death in B.C., no matter the cause, is now reviewed by the Coroner's Office; every sudden, unnatural or unexpected death is fully investigated. When a child dies while in care of the government, the ministry examines the circumstances and, if warranted, the Director of Child Protection conducts an internal inquiry to examine whether proper procedures were followed and to ensure lessons are learned. And the independent Child and Youth Officer has the power to investigate any child death, and provide observations and advice to government on child protection services.

We must also strive to be as open and transparent as possible. This past summer, I instructed staff to review how we can provide more public information while continuing to respect personal privacy. And I have committed to regularly posting child fatality statistics for children in care or children who have received child welfare services.

I'm proud of the work that's been done over the past five years to improve the system. But we can always do better. That's why the provincial government has appointed Ted Hughes to look at all the issues around child protection - including the system around how we review child deaths.

Child protection is among the most challenging work in government - but it can also be among the most rewarding. Every year, there are hundreds - even thousands - of success stories. Every day, there are children thriving because of the hard work put in by social workers, foster parents, families, and the many other dedicated individuals in the child protection system. And every day, we will keep working to make the system even better.