A newly released report by the BC Ombudsperson says the B.C. government is refusing to compensate a former youth in care for its own mistakes and determine if other youth have been similarly affected.
The report by Jay Chalke, BC’s ombudsperson, is titled Misinformed, and tells the story of a B.C. woman named Alexandra who Chalke says was provided with incorrect information by the ministry. The misinformation resulted in Alexandra believing she was entitled to government supports that a court order from the ministry found she she was not in fact eligible for.
“The ministry is not accepting responsibility for misleading Alexandra, nor is it providing compensation to her,” says Ombudsperson Jay Chalke in the report.
“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.”
As a youth, Alexandra was removed from unsafe conditions in her family home five times by the ministry. When the ministry later applied to the court for Alexandra to be transferred to the custody of her aunt, Alexandra agreed based on that understanding she should be eligible for a range of government-funded supports, including post-secondary supports. Chalke says in his report that the ministry told Alexandra she would be eligible for the supports at the time.
When Alexandra later applied for funding towards her post-secondary education from the ministry, she was surprised to she was not eligible as she was in her aunt’s custody when she turned 19.
“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,” she previously wrote in an email to the ministry contained in the report.
Chalke makes five recommendations to government in his report, including that Alexandra be compensated for the full value of the supports she was led to believe she would receive including tuition, cost of living, and health care expenses. The ombudsperson says along with the rejection of the compensation, the ministry is also refusing his recommendation to conduct an audit to determine if other youth were impacted.
“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,” notes Chalke. “Such an explanation should shake public confidence that the best interests of young people are being protected.”
Chalke says the ministry compounded its mistake by not providing Alexandra access to legal advice, which is required by law before the ministry applies for a court order. The report also notes 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 says that Indigenous youth may be disproportionately impacted by such a lack of legal advice, as many Indigenous youth are involved in similar custody orders.
“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,” says Chalke. “These are important legal safeguards that the ministry had a responsibility to ensure were properly applied. They didn’t do that.”
Another recommendation in the report offers that an extra layer of oversight be added by allowing the public guardian and trustee review court applications similar to 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. Chalke says the ministry rejected this recommendation also.
Despite the number of rejections, Chalke says two 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 were accepted.
“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,” Chalke explains.
Read the full report at www.bcombudsperson.ca.