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March 17, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Will wonders never cease?  An article to which I unfortunately can’t link certainly raises the question. You can find it at the Calgary Herald. Simply by standing up and speaking, Alberta’s new human services minister has swept away a generations-long policy of secrecy by the province’s child welfare agency.

Sworn in as Alberta’s human services minister less than a month ago, Manmeet Bhullar has already done an astonishing thing.

On Wednesday, he ended a generation of official secrecy by releasing the count of all children who have died in Alberta government care, or after some contact with the child welfare system.

There were 741 of these unfortunates — a fearful total.

And yet, through all the years, including the recent months when the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal were aggressively investigating child deaths, officialdom didn’t crack. This information would not be public.

Bhullar became minister Dec. 13. On Jan 8 — light speed by government standards — he stood up at a news conference, his voice cracking at times, and read out the numbers.

The awful policy was gone in an instant. Like many encrusted systems, it was finally bowled over by the power of hope, painful memory and raw emotion.

It’s amazing what one person can accomplish with little more than the desire to do the right thing. Or should I say “two people?” Apparently Bhullar asked Alberta’s Premier if it was OK for him to let the citizens and taxpayers of the province in on what’s been going on behind closed doors.

Bhullar had Premier Alison Redford’s approval to release the death totals. He then explained his plan to cabinet’s agenda and priorities committee.

So Bhullar’s no rogue elephant. He took his cue from Redford who’s on record as vowing to fix the child welfare system. That of course is called ‘leadership.’ Redford’s using her authority to try to fix the system and, to her great credit, she realizes that secrecy is part of the problem.

Is it enough? Is Bhullar’s statement sufficient to let in the necessary sunlight to reform the agency? Far from it. He only released information in cases in which a child died. Those 741 cases Bhullar made public are, of course, just a small fraction of all the children and families who came into contact with child welfare authorities who are well known for, on one hand, overreacting to minor problems while, on the other, ignoring children in immediate peril.

And, like most such agencies, Alberta’s has real difficulty with the simplest of concepts. One of those is that kinship care is usually preferable to foster care by strangers. Now, you’d think it would be obvious that, when a child is at risk from its parents, the first place to look for better care would be grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Unlike foster parents, the child likely knows those people and is familiar with their homes, so the transition to them would therefore be much less traumatic.

But apparently that’s too tough a concept for Alberta’s child protectors to grasp.

[Bhullar] knew of a family that had a child taken away because “they couldn’t get their act together,” he’d said earlier to the Herald’s Darcy Henton.

The child called the family and asked, “Why do none of you care about me? Why do none of you care enough to get me out of a foster home?” said Bhullar.

The child had only been in care for a few hours, “but ... it was already a lifetime.

“Those moments, those experiences, make you understand how fragile a child is, and how fragile a family can be.” 

Bhullar says the family immediately pulled together to get the child back when the incident occurred.

Although the parents had issues, the relatives saw no reason the child shouldn’t be with other family members.

Relatives descended en masse on a social services office. They must have been convincing. About four days later, Bhullar says, the child was sent from the foster home to live with family.

That raises the question; why would a child be formally seized and placed, with little or no consideration of healthy family options? Why does it still happen now?

“Exactly!” Bhullar says. “I’ve made it abundantly clear (to his department) that this is priority No. 1.”

Finally. It seems Alberta has someone who understands at least one basic tenet of child protection – as a rule, kinship care is better than foster care by strangers.

He also seems to understand that, as a general rule, secrecy is the enemy of agency competence. Predictably, when he announced his intention to open the window a crack, agency personnel threw a fit.

There was a good deal of concern in government. No wonder. Secrecy has shielded this system from proper scrutiny for decades…

Bhullar decided to release everything, in an effort to force light and air through this system — partly, he says, to eradicate endemic fear.

“We have to do our best to eliminate this culture of fear,” he says. “People have to be able to work without fear — fear within agencies, within staff, within families.

Again, though, is it enough? It is not. Releasing information about the 741 children who died is all very well, but it barely scratches the surface. The people of Alberta, i.e. the ones whose hard-earned money pays Bhullar’s salary and those of everyone working for him deserve to know what their employees are doing. They deserve to know when they get it wrong and when they get it right.

To me, that’s just a rule by which every public agency should abide. Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But when it comes to children’s welfare, keeping children’s information private is simplicity itself. The news media obey the laws requiring anonymity for those alleging sexual assault, so why couldn’t they do the same for kids who’ve been abused or neglected? Parents who are suspected of abuse or neglect could be shielded too, at least until there’s some finding of guilt on their part.

But the notion that everything about every case of alleged or actual child abuse or neglect must forever be kept from the press and the people is absurd. Worse, it’s dangerous. It permits and encourages malfeasance within the agency and that is unacceptable. As the Herald article notes, “Secrecy has shielded this system from proper scrutiny for decades.” Exactly.

Plus, here’s another consideration. If all cases were open to the press and the public (with appropriate precautions taken for the privacy of those concerned) we would all come to understand just what child protective authorities are faced with. As I’ve said before, figuring out which child is truly at risk and needs to be removed from its home and which isn’t is fantastically difficult in many cases. That, plus the huge volume of complaints that come to every such agency make getting it right every time well-nigh impossible.

The point being that, the more people know what the job entails, the more they’ll come to sympathize with those trying to do it. In the long run, openness will help not only parents and children, it’ll help the agency too.

After all, as things stand, the only thing the press publishes are disaster stories. That’s because those are the only ones about which they’re allowed to have information. Then of course there’s the occasional independent review of agency conduct that invariably shocks the conscience of the people who then conclude just how dysfunctional and self-serving child protective agencies can be.

If the only reports about an agency are bad, it’s no surprise when the public comes to view the agency as dangerous and incompetent.

Secrecy is bad for everyone. It should be vastly curtailed. Bhullar’s announcement is a start, but only a start. Much, much more needs to be done.

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