People, Politics, and Child Welfare in British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Veronica Strong-Boag
This is the most important book now available on children and public policy in British Columbia. Its contributions by engaged and thoughtful scholar-advocates should be required reading for all Canadians interested in the welfare of children. The foreword by Deryck Thomson, a distinguished social worker and a founder of the Social Planning Council of British Columbia, sets the agenda with its reminder about the historical foundation of current dilemmas, the egregious treatment of Aboriginal children, the polarized politics of the province, and the centrality of poverty. Co-editor and author of the introduction, Brian Wharf, professor emeritus of Social Work at the University of Victoria, confirms his reputation as the province’s leading commentator on child welfare. Historians in particular will rejoice at his determination, evident throughout the book, to establish a clear chronology of the tragedy that leaves nearly a fifth of the province’s kids in poverty at the beginning of the twenty-first century. European colonialism has worked hand-in-hand with the dogma of “residualism” to hold individuals largely accountable for supposedly “private troubles.” Public remedies have been undermined by disputes as to whether family support or child protection should be prioritized, recurring administrative confusion, and the temptation of the media and others to scapegoat social workers rather than to confront injustice.
Chapter 1, “Rethinking Child Welfare Reform in British Columbia, 1900-60” by Marilyn Callahan and Christopher Walmsley, provides a critical and fair-minded assessment of British Columbia’s early volunteer and professional child-savers, many of whom were women. While much historical scholarship fails to distinguish this group from its adversaries, often in the majority, who resisted using state power to better the lot of the poor, these scholars mount a convincing defence of the courage of social work pioneers. They also conclude that recurring Eurocentrism meant that “child welfare for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children developed in two separate worlds informed by widely different values” (28), and Aboriginal communities became rightly suspicious and hostile. This call to acknowledge historic strengths and failures is followed by co-editor Leslie T. Foster’s extremely useful “Trends in Child Welfare: What Do the Data Show?” which painstakingly sets out key trends regarding childrenin- care (numbers, ages, Aboriginal-non- Aboriginal origins, protection orders, and regional distribution) from the midtwentieth century on and offers both demographic and non-demographic (often political and bureaucratic) explanations. In Chapter 3, Wharf returns to his longstanding concern with the NDP’s Community Resource Board experiment, “the most ambitious and comprehensive reform of the social services in Canada” (67) during the early 1970s. Its preference for community development over casework, with the latter’s investment in residualism, constitutes a great lost opportunity for British Columbia’s children.
Chapter 4 by Sandra Scarth and Richard Sullivan turns to a much less promising moment, the 1980s, “A Time of Turbulence and Change.” Whi le some advances occurred, notably interministerial cooperation and recognition of sexual abuse and of the value of Aboriginal communities’ controlling Aboriginal child welfare, the restraint program of the Social Credit government, with its preference for private remedies and deep cuts to wel fare rates, fur ther injured vulnerable youngsters. Chapter 5, “Witnessing Wild Woman: Resistance and Resilience in Aboriginal Child Welfare” by Maggie Kovachs, Robina Thomas, Monty Montgomery, Jacquie Green, and Leslie Brown, all of whom have ties to Aboriginal communities, offers familiar reminders of racism and the importance of honouring Aboriginal traditions. The particulars of effective indigenous solutions and the meaning of increasingly urban populations and diverse agendas among elite Aboriginal people receive less attention.
Riley Hern and John Cossom valuably chart unfamiliar terrain in Chapter 6’s consideration of the tenure of Joan Smallwood as NDP minister of social services in the 1990s. Ironically, a moral panic associated with the Gove Commission of Enquiry into the death of Matthew Vaudreuil (1995) compromised the promise of reports by community panels, Liberating Our Children: Liberating Our Nations (1992) and Making Changes: A Place to Start (1992). In Chapter 7, “Thomas Gove: A Commission of Inquiry Puts Children First and Proposes Community Governance and Integration of Services,” Andrew Armitage and Elaine Murray analyze the Gove commission’s report and conclude that good intentions and a legitimate concern with administrative problems did not compensate for lack of attention to Aboriginal girls and boys and failure to confront root causes. Their summary is followed by Marilyn Callahan and Karen Swift’s fascinating assessment of the 1980s and 1990s trend to “risk assessment,” with its privileging of “standardized approaches” over “discretionary practices” (180) and its disempowering of social workers, who, not surprisingly, are increasingly loath to accept child welfare positions. In Chapter 9, Leslie Foster adeptly takes on the challenge of fairly appraising the provincial Liberals from 2001 to 2006. Once again, devolution to regional and Aboriginal communities was undermined by budget cuts and a media frenzy over the death in care in 2002 of Sherry Charlie, who had been placed with Aboriginal kith and kin on Vancouver Island. The province with the “biggest single child welfare system in the country and one of the largest on the North American continent” (188) again floundered, although the commitment to Aboriginal governance appears to have survived. Gordon Hogg, the responsible minister during much of this time, like Karen Smallwood before him, emerges rather favourably, but, as the author understands, the road to British Columbia’s present predicament is paved with good intentions. In Chapter 10, the reflections on other jurisdictions by social work scholars from Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia provides an unusual and helpful comparison to British Columbia’s sad stories. Regular re structuring, neoconservative regimes, and moral panics everywhere confront poverty, Aboriginal resistance, and demoralized social workers. As Brian Wharf then observes in “The Case for a Comprehensive Vision for Child Welfare,” the media’s implication in con tinuing ignorance about the plight of children and the damage wrought by recurring bureaucratic, staff, and political changes have often reduced social workers to “social cops” (228). Poverty and economic disadvantage, always the major causes of children’s vul nerability, remain today, as in the past, largely unaddressed. In Chapter 12, Tony Morrison describes a similarly dispiriting situation in England. Brian Wharf ’s “Final Thoughts,” with their indictment of residualism and their endorsement of investment in community development and universal family support, tell us what needs to happen if the province is to be a good place for all its citizens. Three appendices – “Key Events in British Columbia Child Welfare, 1863 to May 2006,” “Key Government Decision Makers in British Columbia Child Welfare, 1947 to May 2006,” and “Delegated Aboriginal Child and Family Service Agencies’ Status, May 2006” – provide invaluable guides.