One-on-one with BC’s children’s watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond: legacy and unfinished business

WATCH (above): An extended interview with Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond about her legacy and what still needs to be done.

If there’s one word to describe Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s time in office as B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, it’s — unrelenting.

Although Turpel-Lafond does not necessarily believe in the concept of legacy, she says there is one thing she hopes British Columbians will remember her for.

“I hope they will say she held people’s feet to the fire and she went to where the kids were,” Turpel-Lafond told Global News in a one-on-one interview last week.

She says when she started as the Representative for Children and Youth, her hair was brown. Now, it is almost entirely grey. Turpel-Lafond says it’s reflective of how challenging and demanding her job can be.

“In this role, you’ve got to be emotionally available to children, youth and their families because you are going to be working with them at some of the hardest things they have ever faced. So the emotional toll is definitely a toll, but it deepens you as a person and it’s a good thing. It’s been something I have been very privileged to do.”

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It’s a job Turpel-Lafond has been doing for a decade. In that time, she went from being shunned from government offices to becoming a strong voice for some the most troubled kids in the province and a force to reckon with for the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

With her mandate coming to its end on Nov. 17, her replacement has not yet been announced.

But Turpel-Lafond hopes someone will step up and take on her job soon.

“My office is packed up and the dust is starting to collect,” she said. “This is not an office where there can be a gap, because there are about 50 to 200 cases on any given day that require pretty immediate attention.”

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In her ten years in office, Turpel-Lafond has dealt with some 17,000 cases of in-crisis children and youth. No small task considering that at the beginning of her first term, it was a major struggle to get any information on those cases. She says she was not allowed into government offices and was not allowed to talk to ministry staff.

“I had to sue them to get records,” Turpel-Lafond said.

She could also barely get a budget to do her job.

“Coming in, I would say, we were certainly at a ‘D’ on my first day. There were no illusions, no grace period. There was a ‘welcome aboard and good luck.’ At the end of the term, I think we are in a position, where we are at a ‘C.’ They have moved up.”

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She says it has taken ten years and it’s been tough, but she is proud of one major accomplishment.

“I think we have changed the culture: British Columbians know more about how the system really works and they expect to know the details. People have become accustomed to knowing what’s actually happening in the lives of these kids and it’s not about government communiques, it has to be about real evidence.”

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During her time in office, Turpel-Lafond has been through four different ministers, five deputies, two premiers and an acting premier.

But even though she has received a lot of pushback from the government, she says it hasn’t always been doom and gloom for her office.

There were 18 months in her ten-year tenure, when Mary McNeil was in charge of the ministry, where, as Turpel-Lafond puts it, “the sun shone every single day.”

“Mary was a remarkable minister,” said Turpel-Lafond.

“She was a mother of four and a grandmother. She was not afraid to go back to the Cabinet and approve things,” she said. “She put the ministry back together in 18 months. Every single day was a delight: to come to work and work collaboratively. The dynamic changed and we got a lot done.”

Turpel-Lafond says things slowed down after McNeil left and was replaced with current minister Stephanie Cadieux.

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Turpel-Lafond and Cadieux have had a tenuous relationship in the last couple of years, but Turpel-Lafond says Cadieux has been good to work with on issues that they see eye-to-eye on, like adoption.

“However, government often feels quite allergic to oversight and they do want to treat an independent officer as a member of the opposition at times.”

READ MORE: Sexual violence in care ‘disturbing’: B.C. advocate

Turpel-Lafond says two reports stand out for her the most in her 10-year tenure as the Representative for Children and Youth.

One is about the plight of a young person, the other is about a more systematic problem within the ministry.

The report on the life and death of a young Aboriginal woman, only ever identified as Paige, was a sobering wake-up call for many in B.C.

Paige died of an overdose at the age of 19 near Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, less than a year after aging out of government’s care.

Turpel-Lafond’s 2015 report, strongly titled “Abuse, indifference and a young life discarded,” detailed how Paige survived and coped on her own on the Downtown Eastside for years.

“I outlined in detail, with the support of her family, what her life was like and how we can juxtapose the life of this young person to some 200 kids like her who live in Vancouver and have been basically abandoned by the child welfare system,” said Turpel-Lafond. “This was a very hard report to do.”

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READ MORE: Paige’s story: In search of a name

On a larger scale, she says her report on the systemic issues around staffing at the Ministry of Children and Family Development is, in many ways, a highlight of her time in office.

The report titled “The Thin Front Line” showed the province’s child protection services were understaffed and pushed to the limit. It also called on the Ministry of Children and Family Development to bring in more front-line workers to meet child safety standards.

“[We outlined] the very serious problems around staffing [in that report],” said Turpel-Lafond. “The government not having an approach, where it can renew, recruit and retain public servants.”

The report showed frontline workers reported chronic levels of stress, impossibly high workloads, too much organizational change within the ministry without proper support, and the new computer system launched in 2012 that added more complexity and instability to the system.

But, Turpel-Lafond says, there is a lot more work to be done.

“I have pushed very hard on the issue of kids leaving care at 19 and being sent to the curb,” she said. “The government has announced an investment of $1 million to improve the situation, but the Vancouver Foundation said they need at least $57 million to make it happen. So we are not there yet.”

She says a short survey of young adults in Victoria’s much-maligned homeless tent city found that almost half of the young adults there have gone through child welfare system. Most of them were between the ages of 19 and 30.

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“I see that we are taking kids through the child welfare system and sending them into lifelong poverty and crime,” Turpel-Lafond said.

She hopes the issue will remain the top of mind for whoever steps in to fill her shoes.

READ MORE: B.C. children’s watchdog: government spends resources on useless initiatives

Asked if she is confident things will continue to improve, Turpel-Lafond sounds unsure.

But she also knows how much work and time it takes to change the system.

“When I walked in the door, there were over 10,000 kids in care,” she said. “Now there are 7,000. I know how hard it was to take it down by 3,000. My estimate is we should be down to only about 3,000 kids in care. So there are another 4,000 [left]. That’s going to take a lot of work, good oversight and a budget.”

And that, according to Turpel-Lafond, will take cooperation between British Columbians continuing to insist that kids matter, media maintaining the interest in their stories and a strong, independent office that will continue to report neutrally.

As to what’s next for her, Turpel-Lafond says she will be taking a much needed break to focus on being a mom for her four kids.

“They have often asked me, ‘Mom, do you have to do this work? We are on holidays, do you have to take the phone call? Can’t they get another representative? We only have one mom.’ So I am really going to bask in that and say, ‘Guess what, kids, I don’t have to answer the phone 24-7. [I am] 100 per cent here.’ They will probably say, ‘Mom, please, go do something else.'”

That does not mean her public service career is over, however.

“The worst thing I can see is someone who is an independent officer and at the end of their career, they sign up for a big government job. Something has gone very wrong if that’s the case.”

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But she is leaving her post as the Representative for Children and Youth for good.

“It’s really important that you get out of the way and let the people of British Columbia get another representative and let the politicians and others figure out what kind of person they want [to do this job],” said Turpel-Lafond. “I will be watching like everyone else, but I will be out of the way.”