The B.C. Teachers’ Federation is urging the provincial government to establish a Commission on Child Protection.
“Clearly, recent events have highlighted the serious problems that can arise when established protocols are not followed,” said Jinny Sims, president of the BCTF. “We need people from across the education community, the social services sector, and the child advocacy area to work together to ensure all children and students are protected from exploitation — whether they’re at school, at home, or in the community.”
This morning Sims will present the proposal to the Education Advisory Committee, a body chaired by Deputy Minister Emery Dosdall and including education leaders from all partner groups. They are meeting this morning at Simon Fraser’s downtown campus.
The proposed Commission on Child Protection would investigate and report on actions necessary to ensure children are protected from physical harm or sexual abuse. The commission would have a broad mandate to consider existing procedures in the School Act, the Teaching Profession Act and the Child, Family and Community Service Act. Thus, it will be able to provide comprehensive and considered advice to the Minister of Education and the Minister of Children and Family Development.
“Teachers firmly believe such a broad review is necessary,” Sims said. “There are two key reasons: the evident confusion and lack of enforcement by school boards of existing safeguards and reporting procedures, and Liberal legislative changes that reduced protection for children by weakening requirements to report.”
In 2002, without consultation, Gordon Hogg, then-Minister of Children and Family Development, introduced amendments to the Child, Family and Community Service Act that reduced protection afforded to children. The previous legislation required anyone with reason to believe a child is at risk of abuse to promptly report it to the proper authorities. The amendment required anyone with concerns to report only “if the child’s parent is unwilling or unable to protect the child.”
The BCTF Executive Committee passed a motion in opposition to the amendments in Bill 17, noting the lack of consultation with teachers, as well as the failure of the ministry to communicate the changes to those who work with children. The then-BCTF president wrote to Hogg, expressing grave concerns:
“This letter is to express our profound disappointment with your decision to make changes to child protection laws which will, in our view, reduce the protection afforded to children….
“While this change may appear superficial to those who do not work with children and parents, the practical implications are profound….
“The weakening of the obligation to report cases of suspected child abuse can only have the effect of increasing the risk to children. The impact of the changes is likely to be an increase in the amount of unreported child abuse….”
Despite teachers’ pleas, the government did not reconsider the ill-advised amendments, which were ultimately passed and now form part of the Child Protection Act. Soon after, teachers reported being instructed not to report child welfare or abuse issues to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, but rather to discuss them first with parents — even if a parent was the suspected abuser. They were told only to report if it appeared the child’s parent was unwilling or unable to do so.
“The legislation clearly weakened the protection for kids, and put the onus on teachers to confront parents or guardians with these very serious matters that put families into crisis. Yet there was to be no connection or support from the ministry. It was not right for kids, and not good practice for schools,” said Sims, an experienced high school counsellor.
Sims said teachers tried to impress upon the government that the negative impact of the Bill 17 was compounded by cuts in social services and by the Liberals’ decision to cut guarantees of school counsellors from the teachers’ contract.
“Children who are being abused often disclose to a trusted teacher or counsellor,” said Sims. “But since the Liberal policies have taken effect, many students have lost access to school counsellors.”
The BCTF has for some time been working to educate its own members about the legal and moral requirements to report evidence of harm or abuse, and about the duty to always maintain a professional distance in relationships between teachers and students.
The BCTF promotes a workshop available to schools through its professional development program. The workshop helps school staffs identify the appropriate boundaries between students and teachers, highlights the importance of child safety and protection issues, and reviews the procedures for reporting on these issues.
Sims is suggesting that this workshop, or similar professional initiatives, should be part of teacher training programs at universities, and should also be made available by employers to all in-service teachers. “We would be pleased to work with universities and employers to make this workshop available more widely,” she said.
“Teachers support all efforts to eliminate potential harm to students, but we really believe a comprehensive approach to the issue is essential. Let’s do it right, and do right by the kids in the process,” Sims said.