Q&A: Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond


Interview with Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond by Brianna Brash-Nyberg
Focus on Adoption magazine

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is BC’s first Representative for Children and Youth. She was appointed in 2006, and was re-appointed for a second five-year term in 2011. A judge on leave from the Saskatchewan Provincial Court, she holds a doctorate of law from Harvard and has worked as a criminal law judge in youth and adult courts, with an emphasis on developing partnerships to better serve the needs of young people in the justice system. She lives in Victoria with her family. We asked Ms. Turpel-Lafonde to share her reflections on her journey as she approaches the end of her tenure as Representative.

What services does the Rep’s office provide to adoptive families?

At the heart of our work is the belief that every child has a right to be raised within a family­—preferably their own family of origin, or else with kin or a permanent, loving adoptive family. We emphasize strengths and resilience and keep a keen eye on what matters most: making good decisions in a timely fashion that are in the best interests of children and families.

The advocacy services offered by staff in the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth (RCY) can provide support for children, youth, and families as they navigate permanency options and processes, especially when difficulties, delays, or concerns arise. RCY staff are also available to help children, youth, and their families navigate special needs and mental health services. I believe that advocacy needs to be based on respecting the right of children to a permanent family.

RCY also monitors the government’s performance in the area of adoptions and permanency planning. We ensure the public receives accurate and complete information about how these children and families are receiving services and whether the government is meeting the outcomes it sets.

What was the greatest challenge you have overcome as the Representative?

I have faced many obstacles as Representative, largely stemming from a strong resistance in BC to exposing problems in child welfare and the systemic nature of those shortcomings. I try to keep focused on the right of those children to a family, and to either ignore obstacles or work through them methodically and keep my head down, staying focussed on children’s rights. I’ve been supported by amazing leaders in permanency in BC inside the Ministry of Children and Family Development and, even more significantly, in independent agencies and NGOs.

One accomplishment that gives me joy is how we pushed through five ministers to get adoptions designated as a core service area for government. We promoted massive improvements in keeping children as the focus. Getting government to set goals, commit to timelines and resources, and to make this a key joint project was a meaningful accomplishment.

In hindsight, it should have been much easier. It took a lot of advocacy to get this prioritized but once we did, things started to come together. We built good relationships and set the expectation of change, which resulted in improvements—overdue improvements, but nevertheless good changes.

How do you envision the future of adoption, foster care, and child welfare in BC?

I sincerely hope the next Representative will continue to place adoption and permanency at the forefront and make sure they become immersed in the details and support each child. Foster care is supposed to be temporary, but sadly it became a long-term state of affairs for a generation of kids who aged out of care too early and without a permanent family.

We’ve turned some of it around, but massive change is still needed in BC to keep a focus on outcomes and on accountability. We’ve had one year of success and I’m not sure it can be sustained, so I really believe adoptive families and the child serving system will need to push to keep this as a priority.
Frankly, I really don’t think most people in authority outside MCFD know much about what life is really like for many vulnerable children and youth, especially those in care, and how quickly they can be moved or returned to their family of origin before the family’s underlying issues are addressed.
Keeping the situation visible and promoting change is important. That change needs to lead to a place where children and youth have meaningful rights that will be respected and enforced so that they’re treated with full worth and dignity.

I hope the next Representative will see that children and youth are not just the “client” of a bureaucracy here: they’re people who have potential, who have the right to enjoy growing up in a family setting, and who deserve the very best in every way.

Could you share a story that stands out from your time as Representative?

There was one case in which I was engaged with the ministry every day for 73 days on a placement for three children. It was a tough case, but in hindsight, it was beyond ridiculous how hard it was for someone such as myself, with clear legislative powers, training, and capacity, to get this case resolved. I worked every day, including through winter holidays, and encouraged my team to not give up. MCFD asked me to stop advocating and writing notes and daily letters of concern. It was intense and way too conflicted, but those kids deserved our time and attention. It took about 16 months but we all got to the right place and these children have now been placed in their “forever family.”

The challenges in controversial or difficult cases are so immense that, at times, I have despaired. I’ve seen children moved quickly and proper standards and process not followed to great grief and suffering by them and their caregivers. The safeguards are not enough to ensure that kids are the focus. But we cannot give up. We have to find ways around roadblocks and obstacles and keep children at the centre of our work. I guess—I hope!—that if we break down barriers with some cases, the next ones can be easier.

How can adoptive families and the child welfare system contribute to reconciliation with Aboriginal people?

Intergenerational issues such as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and trauma are massive in Aboriginal families and communities because of the harms of residential schools and other factors. We seem to have embraced the language of trauma and recognition of past harms, but continue not to grasp that these are real issues for a cohort of children who are not adequately safe or supported within some families. The lack of family-focused therapy to process trauma and address ongoing abuse is unacceptable. However, what we need to recognize is that a care system with stronger kinship and foster care will be needed for some time. You cannot just pretend that sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect are resolved because we talk about the issues more in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Report. The services to those children, youth and families are poor and largely unavailable and we will have a continued demand on the system to meet those needs.

Reconciliation requires caring relationships, honesty, and respect. Families are resilient. When they’re properly supported, they can place their children at the forefront and work together to confront trauma. They do this best when other families surround them with love, healing practices and spirituality that supports them in exploring what happened and moving forward to a healthy future.

I’ve really tried to push a refresh for Indigenous children and youth that emphasizes kinship, custom adoption, and recognition of tribal practices, including recognition of the many adoptive families that have done this work without MCFD support. I envision further work here to promote reconciliation and believe it can heal old wounds, provided we do not pretend what is happening to children and youth today isn’t harmful or set aside the abuse to focus on a naïve believe that reconciliation has occurred.

What advice would you give to families, both as the Representative and as a parent?

Sometimes the child who seems the least loveable in the moment is the one who needs love more than others. Step back and reflect on behaviours or situations that might be upsetting the family peace, and find a way to embrace that child so that they can become the person they may not realize they’re capable of being.

For parents, I can share my own firm belief that there will be difficult days and that the wisdom of the Elders and the humour of our friends have a magical way of smoothing those days over, bringing us back to a place where we can be ourselves and be fully accepted. The place we all call “home” is not just a physical place but an emotional and spiritual place that can be complete bliss and comfort.

What do you see as the biggest achievement of your tenure?

What motivates me is seeing special people from all walks of life—men, women, and children of all racial and spiritual backgrounds—build and sustain helping, loving relationships with highly challenging children. I’ve seen children in absolute crisis settle in under the skill of these caring relationships, and grow and blossom in a way that is magical and life-sustaining.

Nothing means more to me than nurturing and celebrating this capacity and the resilience it promotes. Our beautiful ability to see something in others that they themselves cannot see, and to help them get there, brings me joy. It’s more important than any job title, wealth, or achievement. It’s the very bedrock of what makes us human.

The greatest achievement of my time was working with the tenacious people at the front line of systems of care with children to make a difference—and improving adoptions and finding forever families was a success that was mine in part, but like all successes for children and youth, is shared by many and especially by the remarkable adoptive families of BC!

Learn more about the work of BC’s Representative for Children and Youth online at www.rcybc.ca.