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Did B.C. burn down the house to kill a mouse?

The amount of paperwork the B.C. government handed over for an audit of a child welfare program would fill an office cubicle - 46 boxes of documents. It's hard to imagine there could be much left to hide, but the high drama in the past two weeks over the release of a few more pages points to something the government really doesn't want you to know.

The government's reaction to the request for those last details was - as a central player in this story put it this week - akin to burning down the house to kill a mouse.

Two years ago, the province's independent watchdog for children launched an audit of the Child in the Home of a Relative (CIHR) program after uncovering a disturbing pattern of children left in the care of extended family despite concerns for their safety.

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Knowing the audit was near completion, the provincial government launched a pre-emptive strike in February. It would scrap that program and create a new one that provided tougher screening and better support.

When Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the Representative for Children and Youth, asked for the briefing material that the cabinet used to craft its new position, the government refused. Although she was provided with similar material in a previous investigation, it was now essential that cabinet confidentiality be protected.

The government then introduced a law to curb her authority retroactively. She had to turn to the B.C. Supreme Court to extract the documents, and even then the government seemed intent on passing the law.

The latest extraordinary development this week has the government bowing its head and accepting mediation to handle future conflicts over access to cabinet documents. The proposed law is on hold pending those talks.

But as to the document itself, what was it that the government so fervently didn't want to allow her to reveal to the public?

If it ever sees the light of day - that is now up to Ms. Turpel-Lafond to decide - it could reveal how the government put together a controversial new program for children who, for a variety of reasons, had to leave shattered homes.

CIHR, with 4,500 children enrolled, is being phased out. The minister responsible for children and families, Mary Polak, conceded in an interview this week that there was inadequate screening; it was treated as an income assistance plan rather than a child protection service.

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"For the majority of these families, just having financial assistance isn't sufficient," she said.

The new program, launched in April, is called the Extended Family Program. It will provide more careful scrutiny of potential homes, and promises options for counselling and respite care.

But there is no new money for this program and, although it has been in place since April, social workers are still unclear on how it is supposed to work. Not a problem, said Ms. Polak: "We don't anticipate there's going to be a noticeable increase in the amount of services overall."

Those who are turned down for the new program can ask for income assistance, Ms. Polak suggested.

Which raises the disturbing prospect that there will be less oversight than even the CIHR program provided for thousands of vulnerable children.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond had to fight to include children in the CIHR program within her jurisdiction so that she could review concerns. Now it appears many of the children - who face similar health and education challenges as children in government care - could once again disappear in some welfare program.

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New Democratic Party MLA Nicholas Simons, a former social worker, sees the new program as a recipe for fresh disaster. It increases oversight and promises more support, but to be done properly, it would require additional funding that just isn't in the budget, he said. He can't imagine how overworked social workers are supposed to find the time to take on additional responsibilities.

"How can they promise more support with a new program with no more money?" he asked. "There will have to be fewer kids."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond is now writing the final chapter in her report on the program, expected to be published early next month. Based on her hard-won documents, it should provide an unflinching look at whether the new scheme was designed to reduce risks for vulnerable kids - or just reduce bad press for a vulnerable government.

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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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