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Turpel-Lafond ends her term as children’s representative

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is slated to make her last official appearance today as B.C.’s representative for children and youth, ending a decade-long run as a powerful voice for vulnerable kids.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond
Over two five-year terms as the province’s first representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has battled ministers and premiers, sued for access to cabinet documents and issued multiple reports on the deaths and injuries of children in care. Photograph courtesy the office of the representative for children and youth.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is slated to make her last official appearance today as B.C.’s representative for children and youth, ending a decade-long run as a powerful voice for vulnerable kids.

She will speak to the legislature’s select standing committee on children and youth this morning before leaving office to spend more time with her family in Victoria.

Her term officially ends Nov. 27, but Turpel-Lafond is using up vacation time, leaving her deputy in charge.

Her replacement has yet to be announced, and Turpel-Lafond, who is on leave as a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan, has given no indication of where she is headed next.

Over two five-year terms as the province’s first representative, Turpel-Lafond has battled ministers and premiers, sued for access to cabinet documents and issued multiple reports on the deaths and injuries of children in care.

She also pushed to increase adoptions of foster kids and secured free tuition for them at several post-secondary schools in B.C.

“Unquestionably, she has proved the need for, and the worth of, the office of representative for children and youth,” said Ted Hughes, whose 2006 review of B.C.’s child-welfare system led to the creation of Turpel-Lafond’s office.

“She’s shone the spotlight on deficiencies in the system, many of which have been remedied by subsequent government action.”

Turpel-Lafond has been particularly effective at highlighting the interests of aboriginal children who are over-represented in the child-welfare system in B.C. and across the country, Hughes said.

If she has frequently been at odds with the government over the years, Hughes said that stems in part from the representative’s unusual responsibility to monitor the Ministry of Children and Family Development — something he recommended.

Hughes said there could come a time when that aspect of the job becomes unnecessary, as government becomes more adept at reporting on itself.

“At this point, we’re not there,” he said. “I would expect that when a replacement is named that the monitoring role will continue into the foreseeable future.”

Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff said Turpel-Lafond has demonstrated the importance of speaking “truth to power” since being appointed by the legislature in 2006.

“She personifies that notion that effective policy needs people who will speak the truth,” he said. “She’s certainly done that over the past decade.”

Ruff said the government erred, however, by too often treating Turpel-Lafond as an adversary and failing to work in partnership with her on improving public policy. As perhaps a indication of that strained relationship, Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux declined to comment last week on Turpel-Lafond’s imminent departure.

Ruff said the appointment of a new representative offers an opportunity to reset relations, but he said it would be a mistake for the all-party selection committee to try to find a more malleable representative.

“It would be more than a mistake, it would be a tragedy,” he said. “It would be a failure to really utilize the opportunities that the parliamentary officers bring to enhance public policy.”

Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James, who pushed to restore oversight of child welfare during her stint as leader of the NDP, said there is always a risk that government might try to insert a weaker watchdog. But she doubts anyone can undo Turpel-Lafond’s work to raise the profile of child-welfare issues.

“I think we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were,” she said. “It’s much more of a priority for the public and for agencies and for government, in fact.”

James said the public has come to expect a higher level of accountability from government as demanded by Turpel-Lafond.

“I really believe that that is not going to shift based on someone new coming into the office,” James said. “I think that’s now a public expectation because of the work that Mary Ellen has done.”

In terms of Turpel-Lafond’s lasting impact, James said the shift by colleges and universities to offer free tuition to former children in care has the potential to end generations of involvement in the child-welfare system.

“She’s now creating a lasting legacy where for many of those children, they’re breaking the cycle for their families,” James said.

lkines@timescolonist.com