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.