Surrey-Cloverdale MLA Stephanie Cadieux – who has also been Minister of Children and Family Development for the past three years – is well aware of recent criticism levelled at her ministry.
The death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, who jumped or fell from a hotel room window in Abbotsford; the suicide of 19-year-old Carly Fraser, who died the day after she was out of provincial care; and the death of 15-year-old Nick Lang, six days after he entered a government-funded drug rehab program, are among cases that have put the ministry under a microscope in recent months, with family members calling for public inquiries and an overhaul of policies.
Earlier this year, the mother who won a lawsuit against the provincial government after social workers released her daughter to her estranged husband – who had a record of sexual abuse and subsequently molested the child – called the government’s appeal of the ruling “inhumane.”
This week, the First Nations Leadership Council released an open letter to Cadieux and Premier Christy Clark calling for change to the system following a report on the 2013 death by overdose of a 19-year-old aboriginal woman who had “aged out” of care, after being placed in what the letter termed “a staggering number of foster homes” and what it characterized as a “chronic lack of adequate support from provincial workers.”
While Cadieux declined to discuss specific cases due to privacy issues, she told Peace Arch News last week that she understands reactions of anger and frustration when cases involving young people have tragic outcomes.
“I understand why people think that way when certain tragic circumstances come to light in the public,” she said. “These are emotional and tragic events, and people want to understand them and prevent (them) from happening again – and I feel the same way.”
But Cadieux said she doesn’t believe her ministry deserves a description of being ‘broken’ and in need of fixing – although she said she and staff are always looking for a better ways to address a continually moving target of multiple challenges.
Cadieux said she feels that media scrutiny of individual cases tends to obscure a bigger picture of what the ministry is doing and accomplishing.
“The ministry is functioning very well – we have thousands of people working every day with families in need, and doing our best to support those families,” she said. “The reality is that in many cases the circumstances are entirely complex…they may involve addictions, generational poverty and family disputes. It’s not simple work – staff are giving all they have to keep vulnerable kids safe.”
Cadieux said it is important for her to be supportive of some 2,500 ministry staff.
“People have said they are leaving the ministry in droves, but that is not true. I’ve handed out long-service awards to hundreds of front-line staff who have been with the ministry 20, 30, 40 years – they’ve dedicated their lives to working with these families.”
Cadieux did acknowledge that over the past year she’d been receiving “a lot of feedback” that staff were getting overwhelmed with caseloads. As a result of establishing a working group with the union, 110 more staff have been hired, she said, with a further 100 currently in the application process and likely to be hired by the end of the year.
“But the world changes and we have to change with it. While there are fewer children in care today than at any point in the last 19 years, the reality is that kids and families are working with far more complex medical and mental-health issues. We have to constantly adapt.”
Success in lowering the numbers of children in care generally has not been matched among aboriginal children she said, and the ministry is consulting with Grand Chief Ed John on ways to provide ‘permanency’ in adoptions for First Nations children through “cultural sensitivity and respect.”
“We all wish (solutions) were quicker and easier,” Cadieux said.
“Early on, as minister, one of the things that really bothered me was that we were putting all of our attention – or the majority of it – on managing crises.
“We do that very well – step in when there is an immediate need and put a child in care. But why weren’t we seeing better rates in adoption? …I’m not content to put out fires. We are the parent, and it’s our job to be planning with kids what their future will be, just like any parent. It’s a shift (in policy) because it hadn’t been a priority – and it’s a shift I’m very proud of.”
One area Cadieux said she’d like to see the ministry focus on more is ensuring that children don’t “grow out of care” – reaching the age of majority before their issues have been addressed.
She said the ministry is also working to engage more with children about their experiences and needs, and to get involved with outside agencies to set up mentorship programs on life skills.
“Constant improvement is necessary because there is constant change,” she said. “Unlike some other ministries of government where policies and programs are set, we are working with people – and they’re not cookie cutters. We can do the best we can, but we’re never going to be as flexible as a family is going to be because of the strictures and confines of legislation and bureaucracy.
“Healthy working families have that focus on supporting each other, but it’s difficult to replace that with government. Our goal is to do the best we can for families – but it is not a simple one.”