This week’s Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal series has raised a great deal of emotions for Albertans, MLAs, and the many Albertans who work to get the best results for children across our province each and every day. This was especially true with the stories about children who have died while in care. As with most Albertans, my heart aches for them. All MLAs in the Alberta legislature – regardless of political stripe – want the best for Alberta’s children. Throughout my public life, I have been committed to ensuring all Alberta’s children have the opportunity to grow and thrive so they can take part in the opportunities Alberta has to offer. The loss of any child’s life hurts all Albertans. While the stories of child deaths raise much sadness and anger, I am pleased the pieces were published because they are helping create a discussion on how best to resolve a pressing social issue. The more Albertans involved in that discussion the better.
While everyone in the system is working hard on getting results for children, we all know that we need to continue learning and making the system better. To ensure Alberta’s vulnerable children are protected from harm, whether that harm is physical, emotional, financial or educational. We can and must do a better job. That has been what my ministry and our community partners have been working on for the past few years. In great part, that is why Human Services was created.
When a child dies while in the care of the government, there is a propensity to want to point the finger of blame. The perception is that government should be held to a higher standard. I agree with that. I also believe that every day the staff of Human Services, our community partners, and particularly our foster parents, do achieve a higher standard of care. Do I believe the system is perfect? No I don’t. Do I believe the great majority of children we serve better off because of our involvement? Yes I do.
For those who work in child intervention, the death of a child leads to sadness and grief. They do what they do because they care and are willing to demonstrate that caring every day. It is not a job they can do without emotional involvement. Imagine you are the man or woman who must make a decision about what to do with a baby born with an addiction due to mom’s use of drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy, a child who is left alone for hours on end, who has not been fed in days, who is surrounded by drugs and drug users or family violence. What child intervention workers experience can only be endured through a hope they can actually make things better for the little ones with whom they come into contact. In the great majority of cases, they do exactly that.
Unfortunately, the emotions a child’s death provokes trump all attempts to respond to it in a rational manner. Explanations about how infant deaths happen with medically fragile children are seen as excuses. Talking about the number of infant deaths in the general population is seen as trying to rationalize away tragedies. Following the dictates of legislation about the release of private information is seen as trying to hide the truth. Removing children from their families is positioned as both arbitrary and unnecessary. Pointing to the overwhelming number of successes in our child welfare system is perceived as smoke and mirrors. Having foster parents talk about their demonstrated commitment to doing the best for children in their care is seen as nothing more than window dressing.
Though I understand the reason why the public often responds the way it does, it is not unbridled emotion that will change things for the better. Emotions are often the catalyst for change, but in the end they do not actually change anything.
Real and positive change requires two-way communications, research, analysis, evaluation and implementation. Those are not approaches that create banner headlines. But tragedies involving children do. However, after those headlines have moved off the front page, the challenge to meeting the needs of children in care continues. And those challenges are societal in nature and cannot be eliminated solely through government policy and process.
If we really want to prevent children in care from ever coming to harm, we must do everything we can to prevent them from needing to be taken into care in the first place. This will require to commitment of all of us to change the current social reality. Right now we have left the work that needs to be done by the many to be responded to by the few.
With the Social Policy Framework, Alberta undertook the most comprehensive public discussion of social policy in Alberta’s history. One of the areas of focus that surfaced during those discussions was the development and protection of children. That in turn led to the creation of the Children First Act and the commitment to develop a Children’s Charter that would ensure all legislation, policies and practices were consistent with the goals set out in the Social Policy Framework.
We also created another public discussion specifically focused on children. The Together We Raise Tomorrow engagement we recently concluded focused on poverty reduction and early childhood development as two ways of ensuring fewer children ended up in care or living on the margins of society.
Those that took part in the discussions clearly recognized that there was no one single factor that created vulnerable children and put them at risk of harm. It was evident to them that we needed to support families better to ensure that families in crises could be helped through that crisis without splitting them up. We are strengthening our approaches in that regard and seeing better results.
Government also recognized that the approach to child welfare was fragmented rather than focused. We have a number of cross-ministry initiatives that are designed to help us work better together.
Government also recognized that there needed to be better information sharing amongst government departments and that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act(FOIP) was perhaps having unintended consequences when it came to sharing information in order to protect children.
It is one of the reasons why there was a review of FOIP conducted earlier this year. One of the goals of that review was to make government more open so that the need to make FOIP requests was lessened. Another goal was to make it easier for public bodies to share information so that they can provide programs and services more effectively.
This week’s debate in the legislature is a strong reminder that we can all play an important role in that process. That’s why I have invited our opposition colleagues to join a roundtable of leading experts to discuss critical questions raised about the death of children in care. Like my opposition colleagues, I want to have confidence that we’re publicly reporting the right information about these deaths and following the right processes when they happen. My hope is that our ministerial roundtable will table a report in the legislature, for debate.
The issues raised in the Herald and Journal are important ones for all Albertans. When it comes to social policy our greatest challenge is to change our thinking from a focus on a “them’ to a focus on the “us” as Albertans. If we see the needs of children in care as our needs, we can change the reality of Alberta’s vulnerable children. Together we can ensure that not one of those little lives was lost in vain. We cannot bring any of those children back. But together, we can prevent others from joining their ranks. It is what all of us are willing to do that will create a better future for the children to come.
Dave Hancock, Minister of Human Services
[The above piece appears in the Saturday November 30, 2013 issue of the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald]
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