09 February 2011

Abuse and power

Last fall when the provincial government debated a resolution to appoint the current child advocate, the minister then responsible for the department of child, youth and family services - Joan Burke  - reminded everyone that the advocate’s position came from a recommendation by some very thoughtful members of the House of Assembly.

They comprised a Select Committee on Children’s Interests created by the House of Assembly in 1994.  Their report, issued in 1996 after two years of study and consultation recommended a number of actions designed to change fundamentally the way the provincial government approached children's’ issues

Those thoughtful members, interestingly enough, specifically rejected the very idea Burke embodied as minister, namely the creation of a separate department to deal with children, youth and family issues within government. They were concerned that such an approach was unnecessarily costly, may serve to marginalize family issues with government and would not encourage the fundamental change in attitudes to children and family issues they felt families and children in the province needed:

It seems contrary to Committee members, therefore, to isolate the needs of children and youth into a single ministry. It is the fear of the Committee that issues affecting children and youth would be "marginalized" into a junior ministry. The goal of government, however, should be to educate and involve all departments and levels of government in designing and implementing appropriate social programs and policy.

The purpose of the child advocate was to speak for the interests of specific children and children generally.  The select committee recommended and Roger Grimes’ administration established the position as an officer of the House of Assembly, separate from the government. In that way, the advocate’s office was supposed to speak for children and families to those with power.

This is a crucial point.  It’s hard to imagine anyone in our society with less power than children. Families are often not much better off, especially when dealing with government.  Just as children are the least powerful of our society, it is equally hard to imagine anyone more powerful than the provincial government armed with all the legal means to accomplish whatever purposes it wants.  The advocate was supposed to provide some balance, largely by making much louder the weakened voice of the child.

All that background is what makes the child advocate’s intervention in most recent story of child protection in the province troubling in the extreme.

Carol Chafe is responding, in largest part, to a complaint brought by a minister of the Crown against the news media and the parents of two children taken into custody by officials of the minister’s department. The parents complained to the news media and the news media dutifully reported the story.

The minister, for her own reasons, decided to try and use the child advocate’s office to a purpose for which it was clearly never intended:  namely as an agent acting on behalf of the most powerful authority in the province. 

Note that Chafe did not make any public comment – as she should have – when the story first broke.  Neither she nor any of her officials appear to have made any efforts to intervene in the case, to deal with the media or the family.

Not until now, that is. 

After Charlene Johnson lodged her complaint.

In a very poorly written statement, Chafe acknowledges that people have a right to know certain things and that the media ought to report.  Then comes the “but” and it is a big one:

However, when children are the central part of the story their right to confidentiality, privacy and safety must trump all other interests.

Asked by CBC’s Ted Blades in an interview on Tuesday to balance the need to discuss a significant issue with the trump card, Chafe couldn’t do it. That isn’t really surprising.  This story carried on for a week.  if Chafe genuinely understood her role and was convinced that the children’s interests “trumped all other interests” she’d have been on this before Charlene Johnson called her in.

Chafe didn’t need anyone’s approval to get in on the case. She has a wide scope of action under the act that governs her office.

Well, the correct phrase is actually had a wide range of powers.

Under changes made to the child advocate’s act in 2008, an entirely new clause (15.2) inserted in 2008 gives a cabinet minister the right to order the advocate to cease an investigation based on the very vague claim that an investigation is not in the public interest. There is no requirement for proof nor does the advocate have any right to appeal the decision to a third party. One letter from the minister and the investigation stops.


On the face of it, what the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are seeing here is yet another example of how the current administration has steadily reduced, muzzled or eliminated any means by which someone may question its decisions.  The process, as Carol Chafe likes to talk about, has been one of erosion. 

Piece by piece.


Almost imperceptibly.

But once they emerge into the light, as with Carol Chafe’s intervention a handful of months into her new job, there can be no mistake about the result.

Power, once appropriately constrained, has its hands free.

- srbp -