Province rejects Ombudsperson recommendation to look for other youth impacted
IN a report released on Wednesday, BC Ombudsperson Jay Chalke describes how the Ministry of Children and Family Development misinformed a former youth in care about the impact of a proposed custody transfer and has, to date, refused to compensate the youth for its mistake and to determine if other youth may be similarly impacted.
The report, Misinformed, tells the story of a young woman named Alexandra who was provided with incorrect information by the ministry that resulted in her believing she was entitled to government supports that, following a court order sought by the ministry, she was not in fact eligible for. The mistake had significant financial impacts on Alexandra. However, the ministry is rejecting the Ombudsperson’s recommendation to compensate her for the value of the benefits she was led to believe she would receive.
“The ministry is not accepting responsibility for misleading Alexandra, nor is it providing compensation to her,” said Chalke. “The situation is fundamental – you make a mistake, you fix it. I am troubled that the ministry is not stepping up to correct an error that financially disadvantaged a young person, likely to the extent of tens of thousands of dollars. To make matters worse, the ministry won’t even look to see if others may have been similarly impacted.”
The report outlines the history of Alexandra’s involvement with the ministry. She was removed from her unsafe family home five times by the ministry. When the ministry applied to the court for Alexandra to be transferred from its care to the custody of her aunt, Alexandra was told she should be eligible for a range of government-funded supports, including post-secondary supports.
Based on that understanding, Alexandra consented to the court order. When Alexandra later applied for post-secondary education funding from the ministry, to her surprise she was told she was not eligible because she was in her aunt’s custody when she turned 19.
In an email to the Minister of Children and Family Development contained in the report Alexandra wrote: “I have been told over and over again that I will be able to get assistance when I want to go to school, and if I had known at sixteen that I would not get financial help if I chose to live with family as opposed to a foster family, I would have chosen differently.”
The Ombudsperson is making five recommendations to government including that Alexandra be compensated for the full value of the supports she was led to believe she would receive which include tuition, cost of living, and health care expenses. As well as rejecting this recommendation, the ministry is also refusing the Ombudsperson’s recommendation to conduct an audit to determine if other youth were impacted. During the Ombudsperson’s investigation, ministry staff cited its own record-keeping as a potential barrier to conducting an audit.
“During the investigation the ministry’s explanation for refusing to look for others similarly impacted was that their own record-keeping cannot be relied on to be complete. Such an explanation should shake public confidence that the best interests of young people are being protected,” said Chalke.
The report also highlights how the ministry compounded its mistake when it did not provide Alexandra access to legal advice as required by law before the ministry applied for the court order. The report sets out that Alexandra and her aunt did not understand the ramifications of the order when filling out the consent section of the ministry’s court application. The Ombudsperson raises concerns in the report citing findings of an earlier report by the Representative for Children and Youth, that Indigenous youth may be disproportionately impacted by a lack of legal advice as many Indigenous youth are involved in similar custody orders to Alexandra.
“In Alexandra’s case, parts of the court application materials that are designed to ensure young people understand the proposed order’s impacts were left blank. That was extremely concerning to say the least,” said Chalke. “These are important legal safeguards that the ministry had a responsibility to ensure were properly applied. They didn’t do that.”
As a result of the findings of this investigation the Ombudsperson also recommended that an extra layer of oversight be added by having the Public Guardian and Trustee review court applications like Alexandra’s and for that office to provide advice to the court, independent from the ministry, as to whether the proposed transfer is in the child or youth’s best financial interest. The ministry has rejected this recommendation as well.
While rejecting three recommendations, the government has agreed to two of the Ombudsperson’s recommendations centred around developing strategies to ensure that staff are aware of the benefits and limitations of permanency plans and obligations for providing youth with legal advice.
“I am hopeful that the ministry will change its mind on the recommendations it has rejected to date. It’s not too late to do the right thing,” said Chalke.