Making visible BC’s most vulnerable children

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond leads the Way

by Janet Nicol

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond bravely enters a vortex where “crisis meets opportunity” as she advocates for 32,000 BC children in government care, half of whom are Aboriginal. She is already making a difference one year into her job as British Columbia’s first Representative for Children and Youth—if only by clearing our vision.

Turpel-Lafond brings to her role of protecting society’s most vulnerable, the experience of growing up on a Manitoba First Nations reserve, attaining four university degrees, and working and teaching in the legal world. She is also a wife and mother of four children.

So when Turpel-Lafond took a five-year leave from her duties as a judge in Saskatchewan last November, she didn’t lose any time getting started. In April, she instigated a “you have a voice” campaign directed toward children in government care, after opening offices in Victoria, Vancouver, and Prince George. Already, her team has received more than 700 responses. Clearly Turpel-Lafond is listening.

But teachers aren’t getting her ear when it comes to standardized testing.

“We need to know how students are doing,” Turpel-Lafond said in an interview following a recent talk to the University Women’s Club in Vancouver.

“Thirty percent of kids in care and 20% of all Aboriginal children are not being tested,” she said. “Testing is one part of looking at the system. My goal is to support efforts to nurture the learning spirit of children but also to know how they are doing.”

Turpel-Lafond acknowledges FSA testing of Grades 4 and 7 children may not be the most accurate measurement of certain skills.

“However, other instruments like the Early Development Instrument (EDI) are more robust,” she said. “When I looked at 32,000 children in care I noted increasing gaps from Kindergarten to Grade 12 for vulnerable children. The EDI was probably the most predictive of all instruments.”

“You need to measure,” she insisted in spite of educators’ opposing position. “When a large segment of kids with vulnerabilities are in the education system, I need to look closely to see what is happening to support them.”

Making visible, monitoring, and accountability are Turpel-Lafond’s key goals for children and youth as she talks to people around the province and examines the hard statistical data crossing her desk. And this was her repeated message to an audience of about 100 in Vancouver, many retired professional women.

“It is the best of times and the worst of times,” Turpel-Lafond told the gathering. “While the province’s economy is booming,” she said, “more children live in poverty here than in any other province in Canada.”

“It surprised me too,” she confessed in reaction to the audible gasps among audience members. But statistics show 15.2% of children in BC live below the poverty line.

The federal government’s recent $60 billion in tax cuts would be better spent on fighting child poverty, she added.

She observed the system tends to “serve adults’ needs but not children’s.” In her experience as a court judge, she said “you can mediate a child’s case without actually talking to the child.”

“The voice of the child has to be heard,” Turpel-Lafond said. “We are here to serve you.”

Her assumptions continue to be challenged when she talks with children and youth in BC.

Turpel-Lafond said her experience has shown many children come from environments that are “hectic and chaotic” and where they may have disabilities such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. A history of “benign neglect” by government, she says, has combined with successive generations of children impacted by poverty, scars from residential schools, and families that have broken down. The government must attend to these issues with “prudent parenting” she suggested and with “vigilance and care” to end the abuse and maltreatment of children and youth.

“It is hard to get people to be in this field,” she acknowledged. “It’s too traumatic. …But we have a great opportunity to improve children’s outcomes.”

Turpel-Lafond recently delivered a report on educational needs, listing nine recommendations.

One recommendation asked that government care of some youths continue into adulthood. “We have to change the lens,” she told the Vancouver audience. “Don’t shut off these people when they reach 19.” She warned of an “impact on the lives of their children” if we don’t continue assisting.

Turpel-Lafond also said it’s a “myth” that children in government care have an advocate in the educational system. Indeed, the independent officer’s to-do list seems endless.

So how are children in care doing at school?

Turpel-Lafond said of the 32,000 students in government care attending schools in 1997 to 2005, only 20% completed Grade 12 in contrast to 80% of the rest of the student population in BC.

“And only a few of the 20% who finished Grade 12 have academic requirements to continue their education,” Turpel-Lafond said.

She said the problems don’t surface in Grades 9 and 10 as some people think, but in the pre-school years.

“Fifty percent are not ready to learn when they enter Kindergarten,” Turpel-Lafond said. “From Kindergarten to Grade 4, the more vulnerable children are not meeting the standard.”

“There are accumulative deficits over this period of time.”

During the post-talk interview, Turpel-Lafond, reiterated the importance of the school’s role in assisting more students to graduate.

“The secretary, nurse, teacher, room parent–everyone plays a role. I have so much respect and admiration for people who work to improve the system. My husband was one of the first generation of First Nations teachers and in our professional lives we have worked closely with educators. BC has developed innovative programs and supports for children, which I am currently studying. However, the reality is that only 20% of kids in care graduate. So much more has to be done.”

As for overall graduation levels among First Nations students, Turpel-Lafond said, “I do wonder for the Aboriginal students in BC, who are on the whole, only graduating at 47%, how we can break that plateau? Students continually identify racism as a barrier and I am looking into that as well.”

Turpel-Lafond’s findings show more males than females are in government care and face more obstacles, such as special needs and high drop-out rates.

Why is this?

“That is something I too am asking,” she replied. “The modality of ‘treating’ their mental health and developmental delays with cerebral stimulants might be one explanation.”

And what do educators need to do to help?

“Support early childhood education programs for vulnerable children, inclusion in schools, know the children,” she answers. “In many respects keep doing what they’ve been doing but ramp-up efforts on the vulnerable kids so that we all ensure their education is a primary priority.”

If Turpel-Lafond could wave her magic wand to influence our educational system, she would have plenty of stardust to sprinkle.

“Collaborate across roles and with governments and communities to make it the best system. Keep excellence in mind and ensure every child is supported,” she advised educators.

“My personal goal is to see the lives of vulnerable children improved and a coherent plan for children in British Columbia that includes education. Much good work happens already but we need to redouble our efforts for vulnerable children and we need to close the gaps through what we know works at the level of the child. I’m not an expert in education but like many I’ve met in BC, I know that education is the key to a better future for vulnerable children—and even more importantly, a better future for their children.”

Janet Nicol is a Vancouver secondary teacher.

Reprinted from BC Teacher, 2007.

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