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Inflexible policies and poor communication between government workers resulted in a child being put into foster care, where he received critical injuries that left him with cerebral palsy, British Columbia's child protection officer says in a new report.

A young woman and her partner, both natives, were healthy, loving parents who wanted to care for their baby but didn't have adequate housing in the eyes of government workers, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Tuesday.

Instead of helping the couple find suitable housing, government workers placed the two-month-old boy in foster care. He was in four foster homes before being returned to his parents in July, 2007, by which time he had been critically injured.

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"Nobody helped her [the mother]with what the issue is, from a common-sense perspective, which is emergency housing," said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, who became B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth in 2006.

"They are a young first nations family and they need help. And what do they get? They get a threat that their child will be removed, and a threat that is acted on."

Run-down, overcrowded housing is common on B.C. reserves and is likely a factor in the disproportionately high numbers of native children in government care, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said.

More than half of the nearly 9,000 children in government care in B.C. are natives.

"I think it's fair to say that this is a more general problem than just this one case. … I would suggest significant involvement of the child-welfare system in the lives of young aboriginal families is really related to their poverty," she said.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report on the child's case - Housing, Help and Hope: A Better Path for Struggling Families - included three recommendations: explicit policies for front-line workers in cases where children are at risk of being taken into government care over housing concerns, more native foster homes and an action plan to reduce child poverty by March, 2010.

British Columbia has the highest child-poverty rate in the country at 16 per cent, according to Statistics Canada figures for 2005-06. The national average is 11.3 per cent.

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B.C. is making progress on the issue, said Mary Polak, who was named Minister of Children and Family Development in June.

"Our child poverty rate in British Columbia has been dropping consistently over the last number of years," Ms. Polak said. "Right now, we have the lowest rate of child poverty in B.C. that we have seen in 20 years; we're at 13 per cent."

Rates have dropped more quickly in the past few years, she said, adding that the province still has room to improve.

The Children's Ministry will review Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report, including its observations that the Housing and Children's ministries don't communicate as well as they could, Ms. Polak said.

But she defended front-line workers, saying they make every effort to keep families together and often make complicated, difficult decisions. In the case outlined in Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report, for example, social workers were worried about the baby being in a home with family members who might endanger the child.

"I absolutely reject the notion that it's ever a default position to take children into care," Ms. Polak said. "The social workers are trying very hard to find alternatives to taking children into care."

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The ministry is conducting its own review of the family's case, but the findings of that review will not be made public until after related court actions have concluded, Ms. Polak said.

Criminal charges were laid against a foster parent in connection with the baby's injuries, but those charges were stayed. The parents have filed civil proceedings against the Children's Ministry and at least one of the foster parents who cared for the child.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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