VICTORIA — Battered by a series of teen deaths and damning reports that say British Columbia's government is failing at protecting vulnerable children, the minister in charge said Thursday confronting tragedy is part of her job description.
Stephanie Cadieux acknowledged there have been government failures connected to working with children and families hurt by violence, neglect and poverty, but those missteps and their real-life consequences are not a result of her ministry's indifference.
"The ministry will always have really unfortunate things that happen,'' she said. "Really sad, really tragic. Sometimes we learn from those situations that perhaps could have been prevented. Sometimes they couldn't.''
B.C.'s independent children's watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said in a report Thursday that children and youth in government care are not being properly protected because of ministry underfunding.
Her report, The Thin Front Line, concluded the ministry needs to increase its budget by $20 million in order to hire 250 more people, including 200 front-line social workers, just to make its social service duties functional.
"We need to add 250 positions immediately,'' she said at a news conference.
Turpel-Lafond said the government's position that it hired 110 new social workers in the past year doesn't add up because 91 social workers left government, leaving only 19 new people.
Cadieux maintained her ministry will meet its target of hiring 200 new social workers by January.
"I appreciate the representative would like to see a budget increase for this ministry of any size,'' said Cadieux. "The challenge is always to balance the demands of all the ministries and all of the real needs of the province with the dollars that are available. We would love to do more if we could.''
Turpel-Lafond's report was released on the same day the B.C. Government and Services Employees Union issued its own review criticizing government support of social workers in aboriginal child service agencies.
The union's report, Closing the Circle, said the aboriginal child welfare system is culturally unsuitable, underfunded and understaffed.
Aboriginal leaders also demanded Thursday an independent investigation into the death of an aboriginal teenager in government care.
The First Nations Leadership Council sent a letter to Premier Christy Clark urging an immediate independent inquiry into the death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais.
Gervais fell to his death from a fourth-floor window of an Abbotsford hotel on Sept. 18. Turpel-Lafond has said it's believed he killed himself.
The a case review of Gervais's care has been launched, but the ministry has resisted calls for a public inquiry.
Opposition NDP Leader John Horgan has called for Cadieux to resign, describing her job as minister as "pathetic.''
Horgan said the government appears unwilling to examine its failures, highlighting its refusal to review the circumstances of the death of 19-year-old Carly Fraser, who jumped to her death from the Lions Gate Bridge in December 2014.
Carly Fraser's mother, Lisa, said she received a letter from B.C.'s director of child welfare saying there would not be a review of the death because the teen was considered an adult. She died 20 hours after her 19th birthday.
Cadieux said in the legislature a review was underway to determine if proper policy was followed for the rejection, but she didn't say if a case review would be held into the teen's death.
Turpel-Lafond said $20 million was a "small pittance'' to pay to help children and families.
"If you invest it you can make a change,'' she said. "You have to get the kids supported.''
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