Wright the wrong man for the job
If you want to begin to understand the utter disdain Nova Scotia’s department of community services has for its own legislation — and for the people it is supposed to serve — consider its recent appointment of Robert Wright to the committee that is supposed to review the province’s Children and Family Services Act.
Wright is a senior community services bureaucrat, a former director of Cumberland County family and children’s services and executive director of the department’s recently announced youth strategy and services.
Incredibly, however, Wright has been named to the review committee as one of two persons “whose children have been, are or may be in need of protective services…” (italics very definitely mine).
When the Nova Scotia Family and Children’s Services Act was introduced in 1990, it was hailed as a progressive piece of legislation, but even its framers understood the act would need to be reviewed regularly to make sure it was still working to — in the words of the act — “protect children from harm, promote the integrity of the family and assure the best interests of children.”
Which is why the legislation required the minister to “establish an advisory committee whose function is to review annually the provisions of this act and the services relating thereto and to report annually to the minister concerning the operation of the act and whether the principles and purpose of the act are being achieved.”
The 10-member committee was supposed to represent all the key players in the child protection system, including not only agency representatives, legal aid workers and other insiders but also — specifically — two people whose experience was from the receiving end of child protective services.
Wright, whatever his many other sterling qualities, should not be a “parent” representative on this committee. (A government spokesperson says she can’t say what Wright’s specific qualifications are for the post “as it would be a breach of confidentiality,” noting only that the legislature’s toothless human resources committee appointed Mr. Wright.)
Regardless, the fact is he is an insider. He can’t help but represent — and be seen to be representing — the government’s vested interest in the review process. A government spokesperson claims the department sought “legal advice” before it appointed him; I’d love to see the verbal gymnastics involved in justifying that leap of lizardly legal logic!
The unhappy truth is that Wright’s appointment merely continues the pattern of cavalier contempt the department has shown for its own process.
Between 1999 and 2005, this government didn’t even bother to appoint a review committee. It only reluctantly did so after two determined women — who’d had their own unhappy experiences with the system — took the minister to court two years ago.
After Supreme Court Justice Hilary Nathanson ordered the department to belatedly live up to its legal obligations, the then-minister, David Morse, did his best to sabotage the ruling’s intent.
The legislation calls for the appointment of “two persons drawn from the cultural, racial or linguistic minority communities” in order to bring other perspectives to the table. Morse instead appointed two Children’s Aid Society staff members who, only incidentally, happened to come from those communities.
Morse named a personal friend as the first parent member on the committee. (The government, of course, wouldn’t even consider applications from the two women who’d taken the government to court and won; they clearly were too interested in the system’s workings. The department claims it’s still looking to fill the other parent vacancy on its committee.)
And now, thanks largely to the government’s ongoing efforts of hobble its work — delaying appointing new members to replace those who have resigned or whose terms have expired, naming people like Wright who clearly don’t belong — the committee is in a shambles. It still hasn’t even filed its last annual report, which would have been only the first since the courts ordered it to act.
None of this is intended as a knock on Robert Wright’s qualifications to serve as executive director of the new youth strategy the government has set up in response to the Nunn Commission report. Or even to suggest he could not represent the minister’s interests on the review committee; there are slots for that too.
But he cannot — and should not pretend to — represent the interests of those on the receiving end of the system.
If the minister doesn’t revoke his appointment, Wright should do the honourable thing and resign himself.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.