National Post

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

Doing 'something' to help the childen on agenda

Paul Wells
National Post

Well, it's a Herculean task the members of the Commons Sub-Committee on Children and Youth at Risk have set for themselves. Wish them luck. We're all going to need it.

The sub-committee met for the first time in public yesterday, under its chairman, John Godfrey (Liberal, Don Valley West). Mr. Godfrey is a patrician fellow whose omnivorous interests usually flit from subject to subject at a bewildering pace. But he's actually found a subject that has held his attention for the last year and a half: the thorny question of what government can do to keep children's lives from being wrecked at an early age.

Mr. Godfrey is fixated on the idea that the years between, say, the mother's pregnancy and kindergarten can make or break a child's entire future and chances of succeeding. Poverty, disease, insufficient nutrition, absent parents, poor education, and much else can make the difference between a child who has a shot at a good life and one who's jinxed. But how can government tip the scales?

The answer, Mr. Godfrey suspects, is "something." Government can do something. Senior Liberals are inching toward the same conclusion, and there is much talk in this town about making next year's budget a "children's budget," whatever that means. The sub-committee's mandate is to figure out what would go into such a budget.

So yesterday Mr. Godfrey and his colleagues hauled some experts into a Parliament Hill meeting room and asked them how Canada's kids are doing. And in excruciating detail, the MPs were told: It's hard to tell. And it's even harder to know how to improve life for those who are doing poorly. It was an exhaustive, virtuoso admission of ignorance.

Take children under state supervision, whether it's in hospitals, foster homes, or what-have-you, Katherine Scott of the Canadian Council on Social Development said. "That's a tremendously underprivileged group and we really know very, very little about it." The same can be said for aboriginal or immigrant children, street kids, or those with disabilities. All are at greater risk for development problems, but even in those groups most turn out all right. Of those who fail, "they're such small groups you can't say anything really definitive about them," Ms. Scott said.

On children with disabilities, Karen Kidder of the Canadian Institute on Child Health said, "Regrettably, we know less today than we did in 1994." On the environment and health, her colleague Sandra Schwartz said, "Very few reports have focused on the specific vulnerability of children."

The MPs were left trying to figure out how to get a handle on an issue whose size hasn't even been measured. "I'm very interested in the impact of public policy on Canada's children," Libby Davies (NDP, Vancouver East) said. "And who does that, you know? Who actually keeps track of that?"

An optimist might hope that the people who make public policy -- governments -- would track its impact. An optimist would be wrong.

"We don't know, really, a hell of a lot about what works for kids," Ms. Scott said. Take the Community Action Program for Children, a $53-million package of federal initiatives already in place. "There are some that do really good things. There are others that aren't so great," Ms. Scott said. "But we don't have really good evaluative data."

So the MPs find themselves stuck between a desire to "do something"and a chasm of ignorance about what needs doing, what can be done, and how to tell whether it works. They face an interesting year.

Copyright Southam Inc.