The Rehteah Parsons case has made us all far more aware of the contemporary spectre of cyberbullying and teen sexual assault. Coming on the heels of recent teen suicides and prescription drug tragedies, Rehteah’s death prompted a flurry of immediate — and delayed — responses from Nova Scotia’s education, child and youth services, hospital, police and judicial systems. Every Canadian province far too many Rehteah Parsons-like stories of lost teens who fell through the cracks in the system.
After all of this frenzied activity, Rehtaeh’s own province still has a a gaping hole in its child and youth service system. Simply reacting to the regular and ongoing “youth crisis” eruptions is not good enough. Nova Scotia desperately needs the visible and active presence of an empowered Child and Youth Advocate, independent of the Government and separate from the provincial Ombudsman’s Office.
The current provincial ombudsman, Dwight Bishop, has, to his credit, raised the alarm bells in late June and again in his latest annual report. Sadly, both of those sincere and impeccably diplomatic appeals fell mostly upon deaf ears.
Provincial bureaucrats like Bishop, unlike those heavyweight auditor generals, often appeal for bigger budgets to expand their reach, but – in this case – the cry for a more robust presence is not only justified, but long overdue.
The 2007 Nova Scotia Child and Youth Strategy established a better policy framework and the situation now cries out for real action. Many teen suicides are preventable, child poverty is growing, financially-pressed families are stressed out, domestic violence exists in too many children’s lives, and abuses still happen in child welfare and educational institutions.
The N.S. Ombudsman Office, founded in response to allegations of institutional abuse in the 1960s, labours on with a very limited mandate and an annual budget of only $1.7 million, a fraction of what is invested elsewhere. Last year, Nova Scotia spent only $400,000 investigating child and youth complaints, less than one-quarter of the amount expended in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The mandate of Nova Scotia’s ombudsman is far too narrow, limiting Bishop to investigating cases of abuse in provincial child and youth care facilities. His latest recommendation to establish a “child death review committee” was well intended, but is woefully inadequate because we cannot be satisfied with simply providing justice at the tail end of the process.
It’s time Nova Scotia joined Canada’s eight other provinces with Child and Youth Advocates in taking a more robust approach with a full mandate to investigate a wider range of individual cases, to recommend changes in child, youth and education service systems, and to take the lead in advocating changes in child and youth policy.
When Nova Scotia adopted the Child and Youth Strategy, the key initiatives were entrusted to the Community Services Department and, to a lesser extent, the Education Department. Some progress has been made in promoting juvenile justice reform, restorative justice practices and integrated service delivery, including the SchoolsPlus program aimed at supporting the 10 to 15 per cent of children and youth at highest risk.
The time is ripe for an independent agency to assess recent reforms and to attack child and youth problems at the source .It is not enough to simply focus on individual cases of abuse and death when an open, accessible complaints office and comprehensive reviews yield so much more for policy-makers. Such independent provincial reviews are also much more affordable for taxpayers.
An August 2009 review of Canadian provincial child and youth advocacy offices, conducted by Robin MacLean and R. Brian Howe at Cape Breton University, found that Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba had the most effective operations. Those jurisdictions were reportedly “more active and successful in advising government and influencing systemic reform,” leading to policy and legislative changes. Nova Scotia lagged behind other provinces, particularly in its scope of operations and public advocacy role.
The Saskatchewan Child and Youth advocacy system has proven itself capable of effecting positive change. Since 2007, that office has sparked the province-wide adoption of eight Child and Youth First Principles, based upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), establishing child rights and provisions for “the greater protection from harm.” That led to a prohibition of corporal punishment in public schools, youth detention centre detox programs, teen health information clinics, and bullying prevention policies.
Child poverty reduction now tops the agenda in BC and Saskatchewan where the provincial offices have issued Child Poverty Report Cards. More than one in eight Nova Scotia children live in poverty, the fourth highest percentage in Canada, after BC, Manitoba and Ontario. A provincial Child and Youth Advocate here would ensure that we look “upstream” at the root causes of child poverty, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and later criminal activity.
The N.S. ombudsman’s proposal for a “child death committee” falls far short of what Nova Scotia children, youth, and families need in a time of financial stress and high anxiety complete with new threats like serial sexting and cyber harassment. Taking action now may be just what saves us from a succession of Rehteah Parsons cases in the years ahead.
Who speaks up for Children and Youth who go off track at a critical point in their lives? Which Canadian province has the best record in Child and Youth advocacy? What will it take to convince governments to address the problems of troubled children and youth at the source rather than a the tail end?