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Retired judge speaks out on B.C.'s child protection system

Retired judge Ted Hughes broke his long silence about British Columbia's child protection system on Monday, saying the provincial government's clash with an independent watchdog has put Premier Gordon Campbell's pledge to make the safety of vulnerable children a top priority in jeopardy.

Mr. Hughes is the latest to weigh in on the government's attempts to restrict information requested by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth - a position created at the urging of Mr. Hughes in 2006.

In a letter to the Premier, Mr. Hughes said the government's intransigence has struck "a negative blow to the heart" of the child welfare reforms Mr. Campbell promised him four years ago.

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"In 2006 you saw the interests and safety of the children of our province, particularly those in care and those at risk, aboriginal and non-aboriginal children alike, as a paramount concern of your government," Mr. Hughes reminded the Premier. "That should be no less the case today than it was four years ago."

Mr. Hughes' warning follows a rebuke from the B.C. Supreme Court last week, finding that Mr. Campbell and his ministers failed in their legal duty to provide information to the children's watchdog to assist her in her work. The government has since produced a small sheath of disputed documents.

Mr. Hughes was asked by the Campbell government to conduct an inquiry into the death of a child in care, which had undermined public confidence in the province's child protection services.

Mr. Campbell had embraced Mr. Hughes's scathing report, promising to adopt all 62 recommendations for change and to ensure "that we live within both the spirit and intent of Mr. Hughes."

But there was no sign Monday that his government would back down on a proposed legal amendment that would allow it to restrict cabinet documents sought by the watchdog - despite the urging from Mr. Hughes to do so.

"Government's intent is to protect confidentiality of government documents," said Mary Polak, the minister for children and family development. "We are quite willing to provide access, [but]we believe that ought to be done under a protocol." Last week, the courts ruled that the government's attempt to attach strings to the release of cabinet documents was inappropriate.

Ms. Polak said she would review both Mr. Hughes's letter and the court judgment before deciding what government will do.

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In her reasons for judgment, Madam Justice Susan Griffin found that the Campbell government put concerns about cabinet confidentiality ahead of the rights of vulnerable children.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond went to court after months of wrangling to obtain documents related to her audit on a welfare program for children living in the home of a relative to determine if the program puts kids at risk. Before she could report out, the government announced it was changing the program but balked at her request to reveal the information it used to make that decision. "It's very specific to the lives of vulnerable children," she told reporters on Monday.

But the dispute sheds light on a larger problem - a poisonous relationship between her office and the provincial government, one that Mr. Hughes is now offering to mediate.

Mr. Hughes said in his letter that the "unfortunate and unacceptable relationship is standing in the way of the full repair of the child welfare system."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond agreed there is a problem. "On some very important issues, it's not working," she said. She welcomed mediation but only if the government first abandons its plans to amend the law to restrict her access to documents. "I don't think there is a lot of use for mediation if the amendment goes ahead."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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