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B.C. children's report says addicted parents pose risks to kids

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VICTORIA - British Columbia's government is moving to relax alcohol laws while failing to adequately protect children from their drug-and-alcohol addicted parents, warns the independent children's representative.

In a report released Tuesday, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond recommends stronger care programs for children of addicted parents.

The report, Children at Risk: The Case for Better Response to Parental Addiction, examines the case of a 10-year-old boy severely injured in a head-on crash that saw the drunk mother and her drunk boyfriend barely hurt.

The report said the boy was initially given a 50 per cent chance of survival and was admitted to hospital suffering head, lung, arm and ligament injuries. He required a tracheotomy and surgery to reconnect his skull to his spine.

The boy has mostly recovered, but the report said his speech and movements are slower and he's often frustrated at school, exclaiming, "My brain is broken."

Turpel-Lafond recommends that children's best interests top all interests at the Ministry of Children and Family Development. She also recommends the children's ministry and Health Ministry create an addictions strategy and a system of care for parents with substance-abuse issues.

She said in a telephone interview little is being done to combat addiction, even though the government is loosening liquor laws so children can join their parents in pubs and adults can drink alcohol at markets and festivals attended by children.

"This case is a serious case," said Turpel-Lafond. "But the recommendation speak to a broader absence, which is we've deregulated access to alcohol but we haven't increased our surveillance in terms of inspections and what happens with minors, and we really haven't developed an appropriate addictions strategy."

She said the government takes a soft approach with families, and that often results in addicted parents gaining access to their children, with potentially tragic results.

"We need to respond to the needs of the child, and not just have a default position in British Columbia, which is a very passive one, saying 'someone else will make sure that the addict doesn't have access to the (children).'"

The report said about eight per cent of children aged 17 years and younger live with an alcohol-addicted parent and about four per cent live with a drug-dependent parent.

The report said it's impossible to determine the percentage of addicted parents in child-protection cases, but one 2002 survey of 40 B.C. child-protection workers estimated 70 per cent of the mothers in their caseloads were substance abusers.

The report said the children's ministry received five protection reports about the boy over nine years but did not take adequate steps to ensure his safety until after he was injured.

The mother has a long history of addiction, which included the use of cocaine, amphetamines and opiates, but the report said most ministry workers who dealt with the family did not have formal addiction training.

The accident occurred in January 2009 on a rural highway, when the boy, his mother and her boyfriend were returning from a day of tobogganing.

The report said the mother and her boyfriend, who was driving, had been drinking, and the vehicle crossed the centre line and hit an oncoming car.

"The mother's boyfriend was witnessed by several citizens fleeing the scene of the accident on foot and was later found by police at his home," the report said.

The boy had been placed in the care of his grandparents who were told to supervise all visits with his mother, the report said.

Turpel-Lafond said the children's ministry placed the boy in a situation where he wasn't safe because the boy's grandparents permitted him to be with his addicted mother.

"The safety of the child was not the focus," she said, adding the children's ministry allowed the child to remain in too much risk.

Children's minister Stephanie Cadieux said social workers are becoming more aware of addiction and how it impacts families.

"While we attempt to work with families in every way possible to keep families together, our responsibility is the safety of the child," she said.

Cadieux said the government's plans to relax liquor laws also include several health and safety initiatives to protect children.

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