B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan has put the treatment of children and teenagers in government care at the top of the Official Opposition's agenda.
In the first question period of the spring session of the legislature, Horgan repeatedly asked Premier Christy Clark about the death of foster child Alex Gervais.
Citing a recent report by the representative for children and youth, Horgan noted that Gervais jumped from a window from an Abbotsford hotel room where he had been living for 10 days.
According to the report, which was released earlier this month, the teenager's caregiver had a history of gun violence and gang activity. This contractor was being paid more than $8,000 per month by the government. The caregiver did not see Gervais in the 10 days leading up to his death.
"As with the death of Paige Gauchier, as with the death of Nick Lang, as with the death of Isabella Wiens, as with the death of Carly Fraser, the response from the government is uniform: 'We will do better.' Yet after each death, no action is taken," Horgan said. "Yesterday the government laid out their plan for the year ahead and made no reference, no reference whatsoever, to children in care. My question to the premier is: after all of these failures, year after year after year, why should anyone who is concerned about vulnerable children believe a word this government says?"
Clark replied that Gervais' death is a "tragedy", a "loss for everyone who loved him", and a "loss for all of us that care about vulnerable children".
"Everyone knows that looking after vulnerable people, especially vulnerable children, is the most important work that government can do, that families can do," the premier said. "It's also the most difficult work that families and government can do. We have a duty to do that work well. We have a duty to make sure that children are protected when they are vulnerable. That didn't happen in the case of Alex Gervais."
She said that the Ministry of Children and Family Development "has already taken immediate steps, and longer-term steps are also underway in response to what happened to Alex".
Gervais was Métis and had family members who were willing to take care of him. Horgan followed up by mentioning the deaths of several other kids in government care, calling them all "teachable moments".
"One would think that a government would harness all of its resources, everyone working together, to find solutions, not just to continue to deflect when another child dies in the care of this government," the NDP leader said. "They're there for the wealthy and the well connected; they're not there for the vulnerable.
"Just before Alex's death, he reached out," Horgan continued. "On five different occasions, he reached out to social workers, he reached out to caregivers, and he was told—in the report—that the ministry had given this young boy's life 'profound instability and neglect'. On five separate occasions, professionals called out to this government for mental health assistance for Alex Gervais, and they were denied. On five occasions, the government was asked to help this young boy, and they didn't. Can the premier tell the people of British Columbia when she will start to care about the vulnerable in the province and let the wealthy and the well connected take care of themselves?"
Clark repeated her earlier response that what happened was a "tragedy".
"Our responsibility and our duty to Alex, everyone who loved him, and all of the vulnerable children in British Columbia who are in government care and who aren't is to learn from it and to make sure that those lessons find their way into the practice of the incredibly hard-working social workers who are out there on the front lines every day doing the work of angels, the kind of work that most of us might not even have the courage to do," she added. "It's difficult work. It's hard work. But it is the most important work that we do."
The premier noted that the MInistry of Children and Family Development had a $72-million increase to its budget last year, which was "to make sure we have more front-line staff". She also stated that more money has gone into supporting adoptions and families "so that we can try and keep children out of care".
"In addition to that, the ministry has accepted all 700 recommendations from the representative and will be acting on all of those," Clark stated. "Some are specifically related to this case—for example: allocating $2.7 million to indigenous organizations to help them develop culturally specific plans, mandating 100 percent compliance with the requirement to have a plan of care for all children and youth in government care, implementing continuous monitoring—a list of actions that the ministry has undertaken in response to the report to take effect immediately."
Horgan replied that the government often says it accepts all the recommendations but doesn't take responsibility. "If this is the most important thing government can do, why not one mention in the speech from the throne prior to an election campaign?" he said. "Why was this again swept under the rug? More deflection, more distraction, zero accountability.
"In his last days, alone in a hotel room, Alex reached out by text to his former caregiver, his former social worker and the caregiver that was supposed to be with him appealing for help, and he went ignored," Horgan reminded the legislature. "I am fearful that the government will again deflect, again ignore and again pretend that they give a darn about the vulnerable children of British Columbia. To the premier, why in the world would anybody—after Paige, after Nick, after Isabella, after Carly and now after Alex Gervais—believe a word they say?"
Clark held her ground.
"The member will see in the coming budget that there will be more resources that go to the Ministry of Children and Families, more resources that we can invest in support programs, that we can invest in children who are leaving care and trying to find their way out of care on a stable footing, resources that we can invest in social workers, in life skills programs, in the various programs—all of which underpin our ability to be able to meet our responsibility to look after vulnerable young people," the premier said. "Alex Gervais's case is an example of one where many, many things went wrong. We need to learn from that. We are acting on the recommendations already. We are going to continue to implement new policies within the ministry, and we are going to continue to devote more resources from government to make sure that we support social workers in the work that they do in the programs and enriching the programs that young people depend on in our system so that we can learn from tragic events like the one that we saw with Alex Gervais."
The NDP critic for children and family development, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA Melanie Mark, said the representative's report "made it clear that Alex would have thrived had he been placed in the care of his extended family".
Mark wanted to know why the premier paid a contractor more than $8,000 a month to "ignore" the teen.
The premier acknowledged that Gervais was not supposed to be left alone and that the ministry is "taking on" the issue of contractor resources.
"This is a very difficult job," Clark said again. "It is a very important job, as I said, and it's one, when things go wrong—tragically wrong, as they did in the case of Alex Gervais—that we have a responsibility and an obligation to learn from. Those changes are being made."
Mark then noted that Gervais's stepmother wanted to care for him. Mark also pointed out that his aunt in Quebec had offered to become his guardian.
"Alex could have been with his family, where he would have experienced love and stability and access to his Métis culture," Mark stated. "That was his right, and it would have saved government thousands of dollars—thousands of dollars that could have been used to help other children in government care. Given that opportunity, why did this government refuse to place Alex with his family?"
Clark said that those decisions are made by front-line social workers, not the government.
"I have to say that civil servants in our province work incredibly hard across all ministries," she stated. "I don't think there are people in the employ of government who work harder and who have to make tougher decisions than the ones in the front line at the Ministry of Children and Families. We accept their guidance and their expertise. We make sure that they are following the guidelines that are set out by the ministry. In this case, clearly, guidelines need to be changed, clarified or improved. All of that work is underway in response to the tragic, tragic loss that all of us experienced when we learned of the death of Alex Gervais."
Earlier this month, the NDP noted that Gervais spent 11 years in government care and had 17 placements, and 23 different social workers and caregivers. The NDP also stated that Gervais was left without adequate supervision and food, and, prior to his placement in the hotel, had been sexually assaulted by a contractor.