10/20/2011 06:16 EDT | Updated 12/20/2011 05:12 EST

B.C. Children Award At Nearly $1 Million, More Lawsuits Likely


VANCOUVER - The case of six children awarded almost $1 million by a court because of the failure of child protection workers to rescue them from appalling squalor should be a clanging wake-up call for change in the system, says B.C.'s children's representative.

And the union representing B.C.'s social workers says more lawsuits are likely as the policy focus remains on a family-centred approach —and B.C.'s premier advocates a "families first" agenda — making child removal fraught with difficulty.

The children, only identified by their initials, claimed in a B.C. Supreme Court lawsuit they were subjected to inadequate housing and medical attention, lack of food and violence by their parents.

The government admitted liability in the case. The main question for the judge was the assessment of damages against the Crown.

Five of the six children involved in the court action have some form of fetal alcohol disorder and one child testified at the trial that her mother was "always drunk."

The children's school principle testified about making numerous calls to family services to report injuries — including a cigarette burn —and about seeing the children going through the garbage because they were hungry.

The court heard the children had long-standing and severe lice, untreated skin conditions, rotting teeth and numerous physical injuries.

Court heard that while the family came to the government's attention in 1988, the Ministry of Children and Families didn't permanently seized the children until 1999.

The government claimed the evidence didn't establish that the children were exposed to the extent of the abuse they claimed or that the neglect caused damage.

But Justice Barbara Fisher found the children endured serious neglect stemming from their parents' lifestyle of abusing alcohol, drugs and their apparent lack of capacity to parent.

In the judgment released Wednesday, the court awarded the children a total of $988,000 in damages for cost of future care, loss of future earning capacity and psychological treatment.

"The plaintiffs were not provided with basic, adequate housing, food and clothing, a normal family environment, any substantive care or nurturing and little, if any, opportunity to develop peer relationships outside of school," the judge wrote.

"By the time they were apprehended in May and June 1999, the plaintiffs had no sense of personal security, no understanding of boundaries and little, if any, ability to relate to other people in a healthy way.

"In varying degrees, they all acted out with angry and aggressive behaviours. That is all they knew."

The government wouldn't comment on the court decision other than to release a brief statement.

"It’s not appropriate for me to speculate on next steps while we consider the judge’s decision and our options," Children's Minister Mary McNeil said in the statement.

After seeing similar lawsuits in the United States, B.C. Children's Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said she warned the government court action was likely going to happen in Canada.

She said Thursday, the decision sends a loud and clear message that reform and improvement in the child welfare system in B.C. must be done.

"This type of decision should be a catalyst for that as well. Because we can have a million-dollar settlement, how many other cases will we have?"

"You can pay people for the harm that you do them, or you can improve systems. Sometimes you have to do both," she said.

Doug Kinna, of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, represents the province's social workers and said such a situation could certainly happen again.

He said the government has moved back to trying to keep children with families if at all possible.

"It's cheaper. They want to keep families together and there's value in that, but not at all costs."

The average social worker's case load in B.C. is 35 to 40 families and the Canadian average is about 25 families, he said.

Kinna said while social workers are trying to get the families help, government is cutting back on other community services meant to help parents.

"It seems to me like they're going broke trying to save money. Because I can see what happened here, in that report, happening again."

Turpel-Lafond said the government is making a mistake when it issues a broad statement such as it doesn't want to take children into care and wants to leave them with their family.

"We'll I'm sorry there's child abuse. You have to take some children into care," she said. "The idea that somehow you can just wish it away — a problem that exists."

She said the level of recurrence of maltreatment when children are returned to their parents in British Columbia is about 20 per cent.

Claire Trevena, the provincial New Democrat critic for the Children's Ministry, said the judgment proves the system needs scrutiny and the government must ensure social workers can do their jobs.

"I know that at the moment one of the big issues is social workers' case load," she said. "While we cut front line workers, we are always going to face the risk of problems."