Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Paul Willcocks

p. A19.

Children in crisis are left in the lurch by a fumbling government

VICTORIA — The new secure care bill was supposed to be one of the legislative accomplishments of the Dosanjh government, an overdue plan to save children in imminent danger from sexual exploitation or drug abuse.

But less than a year after the NDP celebrated passage of the bill, it's quietly unravelling under a storm of criticism from almost everyone involved in child protection.

And while no one is admitting it, the bill is effectively dead.

Secure care should be a lifesaver. Today in British Columbia parents, police and social workers are powerless to rescue children from the clutches of pimps or drug dealers. If your 14-year-old daughter drifts on to Vancouver's streets, starts using heroin and living with dangerous people, there is nothing you can do.

You can't force her to return home. You can't compel her to go into a treatment program. There's no legal way to save her from addiction, violence, the sex trade and string of other dangers.

The secure bill, rushed through in the last days of the legislative session, was supposed to provide a way to protect children and youth. The government was warned the bill was flawed, but pledged to fix the problems before the legislation was proclaimed this spring.

Now Children and Families Minister Ed John says the government won't be ready to proceed until the fall. That means — barring a political miracle — that the NDP will be out of office before any action is taken.

And while the Liberals are committed to secure care legislation, it will be far different from the extreme approach taken by the New Democrats.

Mr. John says he still thinks the bill can provide a basis for needed action. But he acknowledges substantial changes may be needed. "I want to make sure we get it right and we do it right."

In fact the bill is fundamentally flawed. The government ignored a 1998 task force report that offered a cautious approach to secure care. It proposed allowing 72-hour detention — long enough to rescue a youth from imminent danger and prepare some form of treatment plan, short enough to respect the rights of youths bring held against their will.

The NDP wouldn't act on that report, largely because of civil liberty concerns.

Then last year Premier Ujjal Dosanjh suddenly announced secure care legislation that would allow youths to be detained for up to 90 days for treatment. The bill shocked everyone, and appalled many who saw it as extreme and poorly planned.

That criticism hasn't abated. Mr. John said he's waiting for consultation to end later this spring before he reaches a decision on changes. But he's already heard plenty about the wide powers government would gain to detain youths who have committed no crime.

"That's certainly coming from the aboriginal groups, who are saying we better make sure it's not another residential school situation," he says. First Nations communities remember how children were scooped up and taken away to residential schools and the pain it caused, he said.

"I know what it feels like," said Mr. John. "I know because I was one of them."

Similar criticisms are coming from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks and almost every other group involved in child welfare.

The B.C. Association of Social Workers called the legislation "a hastily and poorly considered response." The association doesn't want changes; it wants the bill repealed.

And the organization representing children in the government's care raises a fundamental question in its brief to the ministry on the bill: "If our province is truly dedicated to helping youth in need of alcohol and drug services and sexually exploited youth, then why not actually provide the services?"

Mr. John said funding for the needed services — the rehab centres and the shelters — is still being discussed. But the reality is that the province doesn't have enough spaces for youths who want help, let alone the capacity to lock up more youths.

Liberal critic Linda Reid said her party won't proceed with the NDP bill. Secure care is needed to rescue children from immediate danger, she said. "The bill goes way beyond that and winds up incarcerating them for months."

This ill-conceived law deserves to die. But the government's failure has come at a terrible price. Two years ago Judge Thomas Gove said that he was seeing cases in court "on a daily basis" that indicated a need for mandatory treatment for children.

The NDP's foot-dragging and poor planning have left thousands of children unprotected from the most immediate, terrible dangers. And its shoddy legislation means those dangers will continue to claim young victims — including some who will be lost forever.


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Created: June 7, 2001
Last modified: June 7, 2001
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