A curious lack of will: B.C. fails to protect vuln

When the frail old woman finally died, a pathologist found numerous bruises on her body and a ruptured liver. The Crown alleged Barbara McCune, aged 83, died as a result of the ruptured liver when her son Michael, aged 53, stomped on her lower ribs. The defence said the bruises and liver injury were caused by accidental falls. Michael, unemployed, who had lived with and cared for his mother for 11 years in North Vancouver, and was not employed, was charged with her murder. The jury found him guilty of manslaughter. That was two years ago. Last year, 23-year-old Aaron Millar, suffering from schizophrenia, stabbed his mother, Ruth, to death in their Victoria home. The coroner’s jury was told about the family’s futile attempts to find out what was wrong with Aaron and to have him institutionalized. But instead, doctors had respected Aaron’s right to privacy and chose not to inform his family of his mental condition.

These are headline-grabbing cases, but there are many more equally shocking and disturbing instances of elder abuse. The Millar case, however, was significant in that it turned the spotlight on the provincial government’s failure to protect vulnerable adults — particurly seniors — against physical, mental and financial abuse.

The jury issued 31 recommendations to Premier Glen Clark, the Attorney-General, Minister of Health and the Provincial Coordinator, Emergency Mental Health Services, to improve the help extended to the mentally disabled and their families. The main recommendation, made to Clark was that the guardianship legislation that has been in limbo, should be proclaimed as soon as possible.

Four Acts designed to protect adults at risk were passed by the B.C. legislature in July 1993 and the new legislation was expected to be proclaimed in 1996. The acts are the Representation Agreement Act; Health Care (Consent) and Care Facility (Admission) Act; Adult Guardianship Act; and Public Guardian and Trustee Act.

"A whole range of different community groups helped create the new legislation," says Professor Rob Gordon, who served on the joint government/community working committee on guardianship that came up with recommendations, and drafted the new legislation. Gordon had expertise in the area of adult guardianship and mental health law, and in 1989 he completed a major study of what was happening in Canada.

"The legislation had the support of all political parties and was waved through the legislature with cries of joy because it heralded a new era of human rights. Why the previous Attorney-General, Colin Gabelmann, was so reluctant to move forward with the legislation after it had been passed remains a mystery," Gordon says.

Some critics of the government’s apathy declare there were certain interests that wanted to use the legislation to create a massive province-wide system of advocacy with a central Advocacy Office — similar to the Advocacy Commission that was being formed in Ontario at the time.

An enormous bureaucracy was created around the Advocacy Commission, resulting in significant opposition by existing small advocacy groups. Their criticism and opposition was convincing, and the Commission was disbanded after only six months of operation because the cost was considered too high in relation to the benefit.

"When we were drafting the B.C. legislation we had an eye on what was going on in Ontario and believed there were major problems with the Advocacy Commission model. Our opposition was based on cost and the creation of a large bureaucracy," says Gordon.

"Guardianship legislation is critical, but the government is not listening to the people," he adds. "A long time ago I said that if there was going to be any progress made with this legislation it would be over somebody’s dead body, and I think that’s appalling. We are currently in a crisis stage not too different from the one B.C.’s child protection system was in a few years ago."

That system failed to protect five-year-old Matthew Vaudreuil, who died in 1994, provoking a public outcry. Following a scathing report issued by Justice Thomas Gove, a new Ministry for Children and Families was established last year.

"The government has an advocate for children, for people with mental illness and mental disabilities, but there’s no advocate for seniors," says Pearl McKenzie, former executive director of the B.C. Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors. "The abuse of seniors in many ways is very similar to the abuse suffered by people in other groups and of all ages. It’s very important for all of us to work together to make life safe for everyone in our communities." McKenzie was one of the group of individuals, including Gordon, who began reviewing guardianship legislation about eight years ago.

A couple of months ago she wrote to Ombudsman Dulcie McCallum requesting her office become involved in promoting fairness within the administrative practices of the government. "The government has made promises to people and community groups across the province to implement this legislation, but they’ve not been kept," she says.

The attorney-general has been saying the new legislation is very expensive to implement. He must be thinking of the original figure of $12 million and not the pruned-down figure of $1.6 million.

"People are angry that the government has treated the best efforts of individuals and community groups with contempt," says Gordon. "Nobody seems to trust the government, and the partnership that was so productive in 1992-93 has splintered. There’s a call for people to mobilize again — and the government might not like what comes along."