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Calls for change to B.C.'s child protection system after disturbing case of neglect

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Is B.C.'s child protection system outdated, and in need of a major overhaul?

The answer, says the province's representative for children and youth, is "yes."

“We gotta build a new model here,” Jennifer Charlesworth said.

CTV News interviewed Charlesworth following an investigation into a troubling story of neglect involving three young Indigenous children who lived in both Fort St. John and B.C.’s Interior.

“I’ve actually never felt so angry in all my life,” said their foster mom, who is also a relative and can’t legally be identified.

In B.C., officials indicate there are about 48,000 child protection reports made each year.

So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that sometimes mistakes can be made.

And one of them, it appears, involved these three young Indigenous children.

As CTV News reported this week, the children’s foster family said the siblings were found living in filthy conditions, where they were severely neglected, isolated and locked in their rooms. Relatives said the children almost never left the house and rarely saw the outdoors to play.

When they were finally removed and taken to a hotel, the foster mom said, “They ripped that room apart so fast, biting, scratching, rocking, stimming for hours…They literally were feral.”

The foster family turned to the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth for help.

“We have advocates that will walk alongside the family to make sure they know what their rights and the children’s rights are,” Charlesworth said.

Charlesworth would not speak to the specific case, but said situations like theirs are not isolated.

“The system is very stretched and we’re not providing those family supports that are necessary,” she explained.

She said concerns raised about children are investigated on a case-by-case basis, but when an individual call doesn’t meet the threshold for child protection, the current system fails to look at the child’s history – things like, "Were other calls made in the past?" or "Are there any patterns?"

“What we’re seeing, I think in large part because of how busy and stretched the system is, they’re just taking a look at it as, ‘Is there a protection concern? Nope. Move on.' Where as we’re saying, ‘What about that cumulative story?’” Charlesworth explained.

“We’re seeing episode by episode, rather than patterns."

It could be a reason why, according to the foster family of the three siblings, repeated reports to social services for years were apparently ignored. It was only when the biological mother herself called the ministry for help that the kids were taken into care, said the foster mom.

“(The siblings) have never been taught anything. They haven’t had hugs, kisses. They haven’t been loved,” she said.

There is no evidence that children were physically harmed, but this is an issue of concern in other B.C. homes.

Charlesworth’s office gets a staggering 250 reports a month of children in care with critical of life-altering injuries.

The victims suffer a range of harms from sexual violence to physical violence, and in some cases attempt suicide or experience suicidal thoughts, she explained.

“For every one of those, we do a very careful review of what’s happened to the child,” she said.

Charlesworth questions whether B.C.’s child protection system is doing what it needs to do, given the complexities kids are currently facing.

"When we designed these systems, we didn’t anticipate the toxic drug crisis that’s destroying so many families, we didn’t anticipate the tremendous housing crisis…or the cost of living,” she said.

Charleworth believes it’s time to build a new model.

Meanwhile, the foster family of the three children want changes made so more children don’t fall through the cracks.

They have filed a formal complaint with the Ministry of Children and Family Development as well as the RCMP. They said they are frustrated and believe their concerns have not been thoroughly investigated.

RCMP in the Okanagan would not comment on the specific case, but said they strive to ensure investigations are thorough and that they work closely with partner agencies including the Ministry of Children and Families. RCMP in northern B.C. did not respond to questions from CTV News.

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