New Brunswick's minister for long-term care delivered a mixed message Thursday on policies about convicted sex offenders in special care homes, declaring she was open to new ideas while refusing to commit to any changes.
Lisa Harris told the legislature she was willing to listen to suggestions on how to avoid a repeat of a resident being sexually assaulted by a registered sex offender in a special care home in Saint John.
"We certainly are looking at the policies and procedures," she said in response to opposition questions. "I am very, very open to any idea of how we could make the policy, the procedure, better."
That response appeared to contradict a March 2 letter Harris sent to the mother of the sexual assault victim, in which she said the home had complied with all policies and "we are not actively working on any new policies in regards to this."
Harris added to the confusion when she spoke to reporters after question period. She declared she was adopting "a spirit of continuous learning" on the issue but was not launching any sort of review of existing policies.
"We're going to listen," she said. "It's a continuous process. With that process happening, there's no date to that. I'm not saying we'll have a complete study that we're going to have a 'yes' or 'no' about."
Residents not screened
Harris faced questions over the placement of a man with two convictions who was on the national sex offender registry in a Saint John special care home. While living there, he sexually assaulted the other resident, who has cognitive and physical disabilities.
While employees of special care homes are screened for criminal convictions, residents are not. Harris said in question period Thursday homes are not obligated to accept any resident.
Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard pressed Harris Thursday to say how many other sex offenders are living in special care homes. Harris said she didn't have those numbers, "and I can't even say for sure if we have access to that information."
Earlier in the week during a committee debate, Harris told Shephard that checking residents for criminal records would be "a complicated social and legal question."
Shephard said Thursday no minister could have foreseen what happened in the Saint John home, "but now that we know there is a policy that could lead to such a tragic happening, we should be taking steps to raise public confidence that it's never going to happen again."
Harris responded that New Brunswick's policy matches that of other provinces but she would meet with seniors advocate Norm Bossé "to see if there's anything more than we can possibly do … He may have an idea. He may be able to share something."
Shephard told reporters Harris's supposed openness to new ideas contradicted her March 2 letter that said no policies would be changed.
"She's maybe getting some messages that people are concerned," she said. "Maybe they didn't understand that this would be a concern to people."
No policy review ordered
Harris told reporters that she wasn't ordering any policy review but was willing to listen to suggestions from Bossé, Shephard and others.
"If I had information that would help me do better, or something that could allow us to have a better practice or a better policy, I'm very open to that," she said. "If she has an idea, by all means share it. If she does, why hasn't she shared already?"
She said she would ask departmental staff to repeat a "jurisdictional scan" of other provinces to see how they deal with sex offenders in special care homes.
She declared New Brunswick's approach was "right on par" with other provinces, but also said she wants it "to be the best province in Canada" at protecting people in special care homes.
Shephard also declared it "ludicrous" that Harris wasn't able to say how many registered sex offenders are living in special care homes.
Disappointed with no answer
"A critical thinker would have asked this question when they first sat down to talk about it, if for no other reason than to assure herself of what the facts really are," Shephard said. "It disappoints me she didn't have that answer."
This is the second time in two months that a Liberal minister responsible for part of the Department of Social Development has run into trouble trying to explain policies that apply to the most vulnerable New Brunswickers.
Last month, Families Minister Stephen Horsman struggled to explain why he only learned of a disturbing case of child neglect from media reports.
Horsman said he had not been briefed on the case and, during a legislative committee session, was not able to provide Shephard with statistics on how often child-protection workers were missing their required monthly case visits.