Staffing shortages, inexperienced social workers and inadequate supervision continue to undermine the B.C. government's efforts to protect vulnerable children, its own internal reviews of several child deaths have found.
Nine of 12 reviews posted recently on the Ministry of Children and Family Development website detail significant gaps in services to children or youth before they died.
As well as staffing issues, the reports cite competing caseload demands, poor communication between agencies, superficial investigations and the lack of a coordinated approach to helping children and families.
Only three cases cite exemplary or strong social work.
The reviews, which were posted shortly before Christmas, examine the ministry's involvement with the children before they died. Six of the children died while in government care. The other six were "known to the ministry," meaning they were the subject of a child protection report or had received ministry services in the 12 months before their death.
The reviews do not identify the children or youth, nor do they indicate where, when or how they died.
But Christine Ash, spokeswoman for the ministry, said in an email to Postmedia News that it continues to face challenges recruiting and keeping staff in rural and remote areas. "This is not a budget issue, but a recruitment issue," she said.
The ministry is trying to address the problem by enhancing northern recruitment and allowing social workers to spend more time in their communities while training, she said.
"As well, part of this strategy will include conducting a large region-wide recruitment process, which could include over-hiring to keep up with the demand."
The ministry has also discussed plans to recruit third-and fourth-year social-work students at post-secondary institutions this spring.
Ash said only that the deaths occurred over the past three years. The documents, however, show that nine of the 12 who died were aboriginal.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s independent representative for children and youth, said the posted reports lack sufficient detail to provide a clear picture of what happened in each case.
But as "vague" as the reports are, they still raise significant concerns about whether the ministry is meeting its own standards, she said.
"They also point to the fact that this is a ministry which is continuing to struggle with some fundamental issues," she said. "I'm seeking more assurances that these issues are being addressed everywhere."
Turpel-Lafond, who expects to release her own report on a number of infant deaths in a few weeks, expressed concern about the lack of regular internal audits by the ministry.
"We have these reviews, which suggest some real deficiencies in practice -- whether the root cause is inadequate staffing, practice change itself or what have you -- and we need to have that comfort in each region that the practice is up to the standards that are in place," she said.
Some of the government's reviews are particularly scathing. One report documents a case in which a call to the ministry was assessed and closed before the identity of the family was known.
"The shortfall in practice and service included not clarifying caller information at the time of the child protection report, not properly documenting events, not communicating with the ministry program regarding services following the incident, and potentially leaving the youth's sibling at risk," the review stated.
In another case, the ministry failed to carry out a comprehensive assessment, in part because of the "social worker's inconsistent followup and competing casework responsibilities, staff shortages, and unavailability of supervisory consultation."
A third report cites "systemic barriers such as competing caseload demands, staff inexperience, and availability of supervisory consultation."