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Government inaction contributed to child welfare crisis, MGEU claims

Death of Phoenix Sinclair was most critical point

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Government inaction over the past decade contributed to a crisis in child welfare that saw the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair in 2005 as its most critical point, the Manitoba Government Employees Union claims.

The MGEU, which represents more than 500 social workers, released three letters to two different government ministers on its website this week detailing their concerns about the deteriorating atmosphere within Child & Family Services — confusion, increased workload, staff turnover and deteriorating morale — between 2002 and 2005, a period the union describes as the most chaotic in the province’s child welfare system.

The first letter, to then Family Services Minister Drew Caldwell, came a year before Manitoba’s child-welfare agencies underwent a "devolution" process that split family services into four new authorities: one each for aboriginal children in northern and southern areas of the province, one for Métis children, and a general authority for all others.

MGEU spokeswoman Janet Kehler said the letters were released by the union now as a way for it to defend its members in wake of the criticism against several social workers who were involved in the Sinclair file. Their dealings with the child and others are focus of the inquiry into how the system handled the little girl’s case before her murder by her mother and her boyfriend in 2005.

"In the vein of full public disclosure and given that people are drawing conclusions from the information that’s being presented at the inquiry, rather than hold on to all of our information until I give testimony at the inquiry later in January, we felt the public ought to have the context in which all of this work was being done," Kehler said.

The first letter is dated Dec. 19 to Caldwell, the second is dated Feb. 21, 2005 to then Family Services Minister Christine Melnick and the third is dated July 11, 2005 also to Melnick as a follow-up to the earlier one.

Kehler said the union’s concerns it raised at the time were discussed at the ministerial level, but never acted on to reduce the pressures on workers to be more responsive to clients.

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