Marvin Bernstein was in P.E.I. this week, meeting with various officials to provide information and expertise on why he believes a child advocacy office is needed in P.E.I.
Bernstein says UNICEF has been actively advocating for P.E.I. to implement a child advocacy office, as it is the only province in Canada without one.
A child advocate would protect the human rights of children under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, Bernstein said.
“Part of the mission for UNICEF is that no child should be left behind, and part of the concern here is that we don’t think children in Prince Edward Island should be short-changed,” he told The Guardian.
“They shouldn’t have to be disadvantaged and denied an opportunity to access advocacy services that exist in every other province in Canada.”
Bernstein says he has been following media coverage of the issue in P.E.I. and has been surprised by some of the government’s response.
He pointed specifically to a package of information tabled by Premier Wade MacLauchlan in the legislature this spring, which includes some broad analysis of services offered in other jurisdictions and the costs.
The material also includes a definition of a child advocates as “an administrative, bureaucratic position similar to an ombudsman.”
“An advocate is anything but a bureaucrat, you don’t report to government, you act proactively and you can direct your own agenda,” Bernstein said.
As Saskatchewan’s former children’s advocate, Bernstein was involved in individual investigations involving children, but these could sometimes lead to a more system-wide review if he identified trends in the concerns being brought to his office.
In 2009, for example, he dealt with a number of individual cases involving overcrowded foster homes in Saskatchewan. This led him to delve deeper into the issue and, after a province-wide investigation, he released a scathing report that outlined major concerns related to children in foster homes, including an extensive, 20-year history of allegations of abuse and mistreatment of children in foster homes. This led to a number of key improvements to the child welfare system in Saskatchewan.
Calls for a child advocate for Prince Edward Island have been ongoing for the last two years, but MacLauchlan has remained firm that beefing up existing front-line services for families and adding a child lawyer, parenting co-ordination services and conflict resolution measures to the mix are better ways to address service gaps for vulnerable children in P.E.I.
Bernstein says he supports these initiatives as ways to improve P.E.I.’s child welfare system, but he noted none of those roles are independent of government, and that a children’s lawyer is only focused on the legal interests of a child in a particular court proceeding.
“All of those are important initiatives. But I think the fundamental point I would make is they are not a substitute for establishing an office of a child advocate,” he said, noting an advocate has investigative powers, the power of subpoena and can make recommendations to government for necessary changes.
“Part of the role of the children’s advocate is to be an amplifier of the child’s voice to be able to say, ‘This is what I’m hearing, this is what I believe young people are experiencing.’”
But despite his many years of experience in advocacy and in the child welfare field, Bernstein was not able to secure a meeting with MacLauchlan this week. Similarly Family and Human Services Minister Tina also declined to speak with him when he reached out to her by telephone last fall.
He did meet with some senior government officials, but noted the reception he received from them was far less enthusiastic than from the Opposition MLAs he also met with this week.
“It was very cordial, and they were certainly listening and taking down information, but no commitment, no sense that this was necessarily going to be taking a particular direction, that things had shifted, that they had an open mind.”