VICTORIA — The refusal by the British Columbia government to compensate a young woman for its mistakes deeply disappoints the provincial ombudsperson, who says the former foster child may not be the only one harmed.
Jay Chalke said Wednesday the woman, identified as Alexandra, was led to believe by the Ministry of Children and Family Development that she would be eligible for government support for post-secondary education worth tens of thousands of dollars, but was denied.
He said the ministry is also refusing to consider if other people were similarly affected.
"I'm deeply disappointed that government continues to refuse to compensate Alexandra, but also that they are refusing to look to see if other young people were also not provided with correct information or legal advice," said Chalke.
"This is a ministry that has the obligation to act in the best interests of young people," he said. "Alexandra's best interests were definitely not protected in this case, and I'm concerned there may be others who are in the same situation."
Chalke made the comments following the release of a report titled "Misinformed," which makes five recommendations and details the investigation by the Office of the Ombudsperson following Alexandra's complaint.
Her last name is not published to protect her privacy, but the report says she was born in the 1990s in a small town in B.C. and is currently in her 20s.
Children's Minister Mitzi Dean said in a statement her ministry will be reviewing the ombudsperson's report "to fully understand what went wrong when Alexandra sought advice from the ministry in 2015 and how we can avoid this in the future."
She said important changes have been made since to ensure proper support and communication to help youth transition from care.
"It's clear that social workers need to provide accurate and complete information to youth and families, and we will continue to improve communication and information sharing," said Dean. "We want to ensure that all youth in care receive the supports that will help make them successful in life.”
The statement does not discuss providing compensation but said "all former youth in care, including this young woman named Alexandra, have access to free tuition at B.C.’s public universities and colleges."
Chalke said Alexandra received mistaken advice from a social worker about her potential eligibility for post-secondary education supports and other funding if she transferred custody from government care to that of her aunt when she was 17 years old.
Alexandra was not told her transfer of custody to her aunt made her ineligible for post-secondary funding supports, he said.
She was also not provided with the obligation to receive independent legal advice to help her understand the consequences of the decision, Chalke said.
"But when Alexandra applies to a program of choice believing those supports she's been led to believe by the ministry would be available (they) actually were not," he said. "Supports totalling tens of thousands of dollars, including living expenses, tuition were not available to Alexandra because on her 19th birthday she was in the custody of her aunt."
The report said prior to Alexandra living with her aunt, she lived in a family home that included physical and emotional abuse where she was removed by the ministry five times, starting when she was three months old.
Alexandra wrote a personal letter to Dean relaying her frustration and dismay at the unfairness of being denied financial support, the report said.
"In terms of my placement, I was not made aware of the long-term effects my choice would have," she said in the letter. "I didn’t even really understand that it was completely up to me. I was given the option to 'go with family who is willing to take you' or 'go back into the system.'"
Chalke said despite Alexandra being denied funding, she did enrol in an education program on her own, incurring personal debt.
Three of the report's five recommendations rejected by the Children's Ministry were: compensate Alexandra; audit to determine if other youth have received misleading information; and add an extra layer of oversight to the issue by involving the Public Guardian and Trustee of B.C. in custody transfer applications.
The two recommendations supported by the ministry centred around developing strategies to make sure government staff are aware of benefits, limitations and obligations in giving legal advice for youth, Chalke said.
B.C.'s Office of the Ombudsperson is an independent voice that investigates complaints about local and public sector organizations and reports of serious wrongdoing in the provincial government.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press