P.E.I. child advocate concerned about proposed changes to vulnerable sector checks for child-care workers

Marvin Bernstein, P.E.I.'s child and youth advocate, says criminal background checks should remain in place for child-care workers. (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)
Marvin Bernstein, P.E.I.'s child and youth advocate, says criminal background checks should remain in place for child-care workers. (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)

P.E.I.'s child and youth advocate and the Official Opposition are both raising concerns about proposed changes to government regulations that would allow some staff to be employed in licensed child-care centres without requiring a vulnerable sector check by police.

Currently, under provincial law, every staff person who works at a child-care centre must undergo criminal records and vulnerable sector checks to determine if they are suitable to work in the field.

But the province said sometimes police have been refusing to provide the checks, saying the Criminal Code of Canada stipulates they only do that if the person's job puts them in a position of trust and authority over children.

The province says not every job at a daycare fits that description.

One example would be "administrative staff who are located within that licensed facility but not working directly with children," the province's director of early childhood development, Doreen Gillis, said when the change was debated in the legislature on Nov. 3.

"They would never be in a position of trust and authority with a child, [and] so directly responsible for the care and supervision of that child. They would not be eligible, through our understanding, to receive a vulnerable sector search."

Gillis said her department had consulted with P.E.I.'s child and youth advocate about a suite of changes proposed for child care, including the change regarding vulnerable sector checks, and the changes "were well accepted" by the advocate.

No consultation, advocate says

But advocate Marvin Bernstein said there was no consultation, just a PowerPoint presentation.

"The elimination of vulnerable sector checks in early learning childhood centres would, in my view, compromise the safety, protection and well-being of children," Bernstein wrote in a letter to the three party leaders.

It is a slippery slope when protections for young children are chipped away and eliminated for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. — Marvin Bernstein

He wrote that staffing roles "are fluid when it comes to the shifting needs of young children and there may be an urgent need for a staff person to step in and support and care for a young child.

"It is a slippery slope when protections for young children are chipped away and eliminated for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens."

Check every worker: Greens

P.E.I.'s Opposition Green Party said every adult is in a position of trust and authority over every child — and every worker in a child-care setting should be checked.

"What we're looking for in a vulnerable sector check is a history of sexual offences," said MLA Lynne Lund.

I cannot think of many positions in a child-care centre that could be held by someone with a history of sexual offences that parents would feel good about. — Lynne Lund

"I cannot think of many positions in a child-care centre that could be held by someone with a history of sexual offences that parents would feel good about."

The Opposition and the child advocate said the province could change job descriptions to meet the Criminal Code requirements so all staff can continue to require the checks, rather than remove that requirement for some.

The province's position is that some positions are simply ineligible to have the checks performed under the Criminal Code of Canada.

When people are apply for those positions and police refuse to conduct a search, they find, "out of no fault of their own, these individuals are in violation of the current regulations and ineligible for employment," according to an email from a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning.

The spokesperson said the province has struck a working group "to ensure requirements for provision of a [vulnerable sector search] are consistent with the Criminal Records Act while being as expansive as possible.

Room for change?

During question period on Nov. 10, Minister of Education Natalie Jameson hinted the province's position on the issue could change.

"I appreciate the concerns that were raised by the Child and Youth Advocate office," Jameson said, in response to a question from the Opposition.

"I am certainly willing and committed to working with them on a positive step forward."