Poverty, frac­tured sys­tems puts B. C. kids at risk: ad­vo­cate

Child watchdog con­cludes some chil­dren would be alive to­day if their fam­i­lies had re­ceived more help


VIC­TO­RIA — B. C.’ s high poverty rate and frac­tured sys­tem of sup­ports for vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies con­tinue to put chil­dren — par­tic­u­larly abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren — at risk of an early death, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port from the prov­ince’s child watchdog.

A re­view of 21 in­fant deaths by Mary Ellen Turpel-La­fond, B. C.’ s in­de­pen­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tive for chil­dren and youth, con­cludes that some of the chil­dren likely would be alive to­day if their fam­i­lies had re­ceived more help.

Many of the par­ents strug­gled with poverty, in­ad­e­quate hous­ing, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sub­stance abuse and mental health is­sues. But, too of­ten, the prov­ince’s pub­lic health, med­i­cal and child wel­fare sys­tems ei­ther ig­nored the warn­ing signs or did lit­tle to as­sist, the re­port says.

“ We must not be­come numb to these des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions,” Turpel-La­fond writes in the re­port, Frag­ile Lives, Frag­mented Sys­tems.

“ As a so­ci­ety, we must not ac­cept that a crowded ho­tel room or a mouldy apart­ment is an ad­e­quate sub­sti­tute for a real fam­ily home just be­cause it pro­vides a roof over their heads and is one step above sleep­ing on the streets.”

The 82-page re­view ex­am­ines the lives of 21 chil­dren who died be­tween June 1, 2007 to May 1, 2009. All of the in­fants in the re­view were in­volved with the Min­istry of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Devel­op­ment and all died un­ex­pect­edly and in un­safe sleep ar­range­ments be­fore they were two years old.

“ The rep­re­sen­ta­tive can­not defini­tively de­ter­mine whether or not the deaths of these 21 in­fants were pre­ventable,” the re­port says. “ How­ever, we do know that re­duc­ing the kinds of risks and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties de­scribed in this re­view can lead to fewer sud­den in­fant deaths, par­tic­u­larly given the mul­ti­ple com­mon risks these in­fants faced.”

The re­port notes that an “ alarm­ing num­ber” of the in­fants — 15 of the 21 — were abo­rig­i­nal and nine of those were from Van­cou­ver Is­land.

“ The high pro­por­tion of abo­rig­i­nal deaths and the to­tal num­ber that oc­curred on Van­cou­ver Is­land ( 13) are both ar­eas of con­cern,” she writes.

Turpel-La­fond calls for the chil­dren’s min­istry to es­tab­lish clear poli­cies and strate­gies to sup­port fam­i­lies in which the mother is preg­nant.

She also rec­om­mends provincewi­de stan­dards for pub­lic-health nurses when work­ing with high-risk in­fants in vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies. At present, pro­grams vary from one health author­ity to the next, and some are un­avail­able in parts of the prov­ince.

Turpel-La­fond also re­newed her long-stand­ing call for a child-poverty plan led by the premier.

“ Above all,” she writes, “ we must de­mand that our govern­ment work at all lev­els, in bold and re­spon­sive ways, to ad­dress the deep, per­sis­tent poverty and life cir­cum­stances that in­evitably play a con­stant role in so many of these tragedies.”

The re­port ful­fils a key rec­om­men­da­tion by for­mer judge Ted Hughes in his 2006 re­view of the child-wel­fare sys­tem. Hughes said the pri­mary method of re­view­ing child in­juries and deaths should be to ex­am­ine groups of cases to “ iden­tify and an­a­lyze trends” and sug­gest im­prove­ments.

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