VICTORIA - British Columbia's independent children's representative says threats of violence that include pointing guns and knives at social workers should not deter them from fulfilling their legal duties to protect vulnerable children from abuse.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said B.C.'s child protection system suffered a virtual collapse in the tragic life of a 14-year-old aboriginal girl who hanged herself in her grandparents' yard on a rural First Nations reserve.
In releasing her report into the May 2011 incident, Turpel-Lafond said Thursday social workers chose to stay away from the girl's home and reserve because they feared threats of violence.
She said social workers are legally bound to protect children even if that means employing a police escort to check on a young person's well-being.
"The Ministry for Children and Family Development should never have accepted the situation," Turpel-Lafond told a news conference.
"They needed to step up and enforce the Child, Family and Community Service Act. They effectively drove to the edge of the reserve, pulled a U-turn and left the child-protection complaints without investigation or followup because they were not wanted and they feared retaliation or violence."
Turpel-Lafond said social workers told her investigators they had been threatened with hunting knives and guns in the past. But that should not have stopped them, she said.
"They should have gone to the highest office in the province and child safety should have prevailed. You can never have a no-go zone with child welfare. You still don't get to turn around and say, 'Not today.' You have to do the job."
She said she estimates there are about 25 of B.C.'s 203 First Nations who have so-called no-go zones on their reserves in attempts to prevent visits from social workers.
Her report, "Lost in the Shadows: How a Lack of Help Meant a Loss of Hope for One First Nations Girl," concluded the girl was largely invisible to people who could have helped her.
"This girl's life was one of turmoil, and, in the case of no service, she made a choice that no child should make — she chose to end her life. Her desperation was ignored and she was left with her basic rights to safety and support unmet."
Neither the girl nor the community where she lived are named in the report. But it does say her family and her community agreed to share the painful details of her life.
She was beaten frequently by her mentally ill mother, who heard voices telling her to hit her child, and the teen's own mental health issues caused her to act out at school and harm herself. The report said social workers did not conduct an adequate investigation and health-care professionals, including doctors, failed in their duty to report or recognize the risk the girl faced from her mother.
An aboriginal leader who attended the news conference said there are always complex circumstances surrounding decisions by aboriginal communities to restrict such visits, but most revolve around concerns that social workers primarily show up on reserves to apprehend children rather than offer services.
Doug Kelly, chairman of the First Nations Health Council, said Turpel-Lafond's report will be widely circulated among aboriginals and aboriginal politicians. He said the girl's family and the First Nations leaders on her reserve consented to make her story public.
"I suspect this is going to draw the attention of chiefs and many councils, if they have no-go zones, to revisit that policy," Kelly said. "Chiefs love their children. Chiefs love their grandchildren. There is a lot of work to do."
Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux said her ministry accepts the recommendations of Turpel-Lafond's report and she intends to stress that ministry workers enforce child protection laws even if it means calling in the police.
"My deputy spoke with the deputy solicitor general to ensure police are available to our staff in circumstances where they require them," she said. "We do expect that to be the case and our social workers will respond."
Opposition New Democrat children's critic Carole James said the report echoes previous work by the children's watchdog that found the ministry failed to keep vulnerable children safe.
Last year, Turpel-Lafond reported the children's ministry handed over a 3.5-year-old child to a drug-addicted, abusive grandfather with more than 70 criminal convictions. Turpel-Lafond said the grandfather was given money to purchase plane tickets to take him and the child back to Saskatchewan, but he used the cash to buy drugs and she never found out how the pair made it back to the Prairies.
"I call on the government to make children a priority in this province," said James.
She said the children's ministry must develop protocols with First Nations to ensure social workers can visit reserves without resistance.
"No one has the right to say, you can't check up on children," James said.
Turpel-Lafond said the legal duty to report child abuse concerns goes beyond social workers and includes all British Columbians. She said her report concludes health professionals, including doctors, repeatedly failed in their duty to report child protection concerns in the teen's case.
"There's no excuse, you must report," she said. "Failure to report is an offence. An offence, I note, that has never been prosecuted in British Columbia."
Among Turpel-Lafond's six recommendations is a call for the Ministry of Attorney General to review "the reasons for a lack of enforcement of the Child, Family and Community Service Act."
She also recommends the Children's Ministry collaborate with the federal government, aboriginal agencies and First Nations leaders to develop plans to identity and remove the barriers that prevent child welfare services to children and families in First Nations communities.
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