Dr. Swann Debates Bill 18 – Child Protection and Accountability Act, 2017 (Second Reading) – 1 June 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Bill 18 – Child Protection and Accountability Act, 2017 (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I’m pleased to speak to Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act. I’ve been around for a few years and have been involved in both the 2014 child death review panel as well as, obviously, hearing and reading reports over the last decade on children in care who have died and have been reviewed by the Child and Youth Advocate. It was roughly, I think, seven or eight years ago, after considerable pressure from the public and from the opposition parties, that the PC government finally agreed to make the Child and Youth Advocate independent, not simply reporting to the minister and telling the minister what the minister wanted to hear and having the unfortunate perception, if not the reality, that reports were sanitized to not offend or embarrass the minister of the day. So I give credit that the PCs, after so many years of not being willing to face the music, created an independent office called the office of the Child and Youth Advocate. That was progress.

I think it’s fair to say that we all recognize that there is a particular population of people who are most vulnerable in this society, that are most disadvantaged, that come out of homes that are most broken and vulnerable. Violence, drugs, poverty, a host of issues create the conditions in which parents cannot cope or cannot deal responsibly with their responsibilities. Given that roughly 10,000 children are reviewed annually by child services, they somehow have to make assessments in each case on whether these children would be better in or out of their homes and, if out of their homes, where out of their homes, in kinship care, in foster families, guardians of the government initially. In some cases all of these alternatives prove to be unsatisfactory for various reasons. Either the child can’t cope with the particular situation, or the family can’t cope with the child, or some combination of social and environmental circumstances requires the child to be again disrupted and moved to different situations.

With that having been said and the dominance of First Nations folks in this population and our long history of betrayal and abuse in terms of services for First Nations and the intergenerational trauma that we’ve heard so much about, in part thanks to more and more awareness and a government today who has been courageous enough to highlight this important, long-standing trauma and the long-standing impacts of this trauma on the kids and the families, what we’ve come to today is the review panel, that I think has to acknowledge that critically important work, very sensitive work, traumatic work for those of us who hear stories either at the panel or in our everyday lives, in our offices about things that aren’t what they should be.

I guess that with the view that we are, in fact, just three months into this review and the government has already come forward with significant changes to the process and the focus of the child death review, I am mightily encouraged by having a bill before us already. I did not expect this until the fall. It’s not perfect, but it’s a big step forward in terms of clarifying a unified approach instead of three different organizations reviewing deaths, overlapping, creating some perception of gaps, conflicting in some ways, redundant in resource use.

All of this is to say that this is progress. We’re now going to have the office of the Child and Youth Advocate review all deaths, whether in care or within two years of leaving care. That’s progress. We’re going to see, for example, more timely reporting. He or she, whoever the advocate is, has to report within six months on the progress of every death that they’re reviewing. They are going to have to complete a report within one year instead of in some cases seeing these dragged out for years and years, with tremendous ongoing suffering within the family, who can’t resolve issues completely without closure and the help of the office and its report. We’re going to see cultural advisers for the first time required in every case of a death review. These are signs, to me, of a government that’s listening.

I think it’s important in the context of this whole complicated business of dealing with children to think about the various impacts on these children and families, whether it’s their biological family, their family of guardianship, the influences of their community, their school culture, Alberta Health Services and their involvement with that child and family, the social services system and its involvement, the police and their involvement with that family, not to mention the fact that these families grow in a cultural context, a social and economic context that is creating the conditions for significant risk, significant disadvantage. So to blame one system, I think, is really to miss the point, and to focus all of our attention on one system is to miss the point. Every aspect of government and community, not to mention the federal government, which has a huge role here, has to be working together to focus and hone their supports on families and individuals that are at risk.

It may be the case, as our hon. colleagues in the Wildrose and Conservative parties have said, that there isn’t enough transparency in these reportings either from the office of the Child and Youth Advocate or in terms of the panel work that we’re doing. It may be that there is a need for more recording of statements, perhaps, and more access to the panel discussions by the whole population of Alberta. But, frankly, Madam Speaker, we are a very effective panel, from my point of view. We’re hearing from everybody we can think of. We’ve had in camera sessions that enable people to speak their minds with confidence and confidentiality. Whether they’re past employees of child and family services, whether they’re DFNAs, designated First Nation agencies, whether they are police, whether they are adoptive families, guardians, we’ve had a wide range of people tell us the good, the bad, and the ugly about what they’ve experienced. Some of them are very ugly stories, and they have not minced words about what they see and what they try to do.

I think, all things considered, that in my 12 years here I see significant progress. I don’t see a perfect bill. I see a tremendous amount to be grateful for in terms of a ministry that is putting tremendous resources into and a willingness to be open and transparent with anything that we request. I guess I would argue that we’re in a process. It’s a complex process. It’s focused on one tiny aspect of what we’ve considered to be important in terms of child and family services, and we’re making that better, and we will continue to hone that. There may be some good amendments that we will put forward in the next stage of the bill in terms of greater transparency, more accountability for people at the top of the ministry, but this to me is significant progress. Based on second reading and the principles of what we’re trying to do here, I have significant satisfaction.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any members wishing to speak under 29(2)(a)? The hon. Minister of Indigenous Relations.

Mr. Feehan: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I’m very interested in what the member has been speaking about. He made reference to the fact that there had been difficulties over the years with the reports from the children’s advocate. They haven’t always been listened to. At least this is a step forward and progress in the future. I’d be interested in hearing a little bit more about his experience with why it didn’t work with the previous children’s advocates. I know that reports came out from John Mould and John Lafrance indicating significant difficulties in the past. Many of the things that are being moved forward right now are reflections of things that have been asked for for many years, and I know that the member has experience with those previous children’s advocates and has some depth of knowledge. We’d like to hear a little bit more about that.

Before I sit down, I also want to add that he has made reference to some of structural issues, noting that this one ministry cannot solve the problem and that there is a much larger and greater demand out there to change real circumstances in the lives particularly of indigenous people, as I’m concerned about, in order to reduce the number of children coming into care. So I’d be interested as well about some of the other larger structural changes that the member might like to see as we move forward in trying to build on the work of this particular act and to do so much more than what we’re doing in this one instance.

Thank you.

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. minister. The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Speaker, and thank you to the minister for those insightful comments and questions. I have been working in prevention services for 25 years, and it’s very clear to me that we as a society have not embraced prevention. We have not looked deeply at the origins of illness, disability, premature death, injury in a serious way that tries to get at root causes. We deal with symptoms. We deal with crisis very well. I guess it’s been frustrating for me and for many in this culture to say, “Yes, prevention is where we should be going,” and then seeing the budgets go 95 per cent towards crisis and intervention after the fact. The opiate crisis affecting First Nations in a big way is a symptom, another symptom that we’re going after in a big way well after the problem has shown itself.

I want to say with respect to the previous child and youth advocates that they did their best under the circumstances that they were given, given the political realities of reporting to a minister, of being paid for by the minister’s budget, being overseen by the minister’s staff, being subject to the political whims and sensitivities that were there. Was the Child and Youth Advocate doing their full scope and role? No. They couldn’t. I would argue the same thing is happening with other advocates in our province: the Health Advocate, the mental health advocate, the Seniors Advocate, and now the disability advocate. If we’re serious about wanting to advocate for special groups and vulnerable groups, they have to be independent.

I’ve seen tremendous progress since this Child and Youth Advocate became independent in terms of the depth and the clarity and the hard-hitting nature of the reports that force government, like this particular panel has been forced, to review things and look for change and find out why changes aren’t being made when the Auditor General himself has made recommendation after recommendation after recommendation. All this to say that the process of I guess I would call it administrative change, political change has to come about through a progressive increase in pressures and the political will that comes not only out of the office of the minister but comes out of the public and all the bodies that are adding to the pressure to do the right thing.

With respect to some of the many challenges that we’re now moving into, phase 2 on the panel, looking at the more systemic issues that relate to child and family services in the province and how we could improve those and reduce the failure rate of those taken into care, prevent those in some cases from getting into care, supporting families in their own locations, supporting First Nations people in kinship care and following up with these families after the death of a child, I mean, that’s another area where we are simply ignoring . . .

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. member.