An inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Phoenix Sinclair recommends reduced social worker caseloads and the replacement of the Office of the Children’s Advocate with a new body with similar status to the provincial ombudsman and auditor general.
The province released Commissioner Ted Hughes’ long-awaited report this morning. The 900-page document is expected to serve as a blueprint for provincial child and family services reform for years to come.
Hughes, a former judge, was tasked with examining how Manitoba social services failed five-year-old Phoenix, who had bounced in and out of foster care before she was murdered by her mother and mother’s boyfriend. The girl’s remains were found at a dump on the Fisher River reserve in March 2006.
Hughes recommends improved record keeping by social workers and their supervisors to improve accountability. He said, where possible, social workers should continue to serve a family in their dealings with CFS agencies instead of being moved from one file to another.
He calls for improved housing and adult education programs for disadvantaged families. He said housing allowances for those on social services should be increased to at least 75 per cent of the median market rate.
Hughes presided over 91 days of hearings involving 126 witnesses. The province has had his report for more than a month. Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross is to unveil the government’s response to it later today.
During testimony, the province acknowledged that Winnipeg CFS workers and supervisors did not ask the right questions and focused solely on immediate safety concerns rather than on long-term risks to Phoenix’s safety and well-being.
Hughes said he agreed with that assessment but went a step further. "Even when the agency asked the right questions and did the appropriate assessment, it failed to follow through on providing the services that it had identified as necessary," he wrote.
Hughes agreed with testimony that social workers are challenged by heavy workloads and that staff training is sometimes substandard. But he said he did not find evidence that the organizational challenges had a direct impact on the services that were not delivered to Phoenix and her family.
"I believe that the social workers who testified at this inquiry wanted to do their best for the children and families they served, and that they wanted to protect children, but their actions and resulting failures so often did not reflect those good intentions," he wrote.
"What was missing was a fundamental understanding by staff of the mandate of the child welfare system and of their own role in fulfilling that mandate. For the most part, workers and supervisors lacked an awareness of the reasons why families come into contact with the child welfare system and of the steps they needed to take to support those families. The focus on short-term safety concerns to the exclusion of long-term risk is an example of this lack of understanding."
Hughes said the province has made several positive changes to its practices since Phoenix’s death. He said the improvements should result in better services. But he emphasized that the real issue in Phoenix’s case was one of compliance.
"Deficiencies in the delivery of services to Phoenix did not result from a lack of understanding of policies, procedures and provincial standards, or from confusion about which standards applied. Rather they resulted from a lack of compliance with existing policies and best practice."
Recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry report:
- That anyone who practises social work in Manitoba, whatever their title, be registered by the Manitoba College of Social Workers. That a Bachelor of Social Work or equivalent degree as recognized by a proposed Manitoba College of Social Workers be required of all social workers hired by agencies to deliver services.
- That a Manitoba Representative for Children and Youth be established under separate legislation with the same independence afforded to the provincial Ombudsman and Auditor General and that the office be responsible not only for children in the CFS system but for all children and youth in Manitoba who are receiving or eligible to receive any publicly funded service. This would replace the Children’s Advocate’s office.
- That CFS agencies be funded so that family services workers have caseloads of 20 cases per worker.
- That funding be increased for family enhancement services.
- That CFS authorities each perform and publish annual composite reviews of the well-being of the children who are receiving services from their agencies.
- That CFS supervisors, social workers and family support workers be required to keep complete and accurate records of all involvements with children and their families, including records of all services they deliver.
- That a new information management system be capable of keeping track of all children receiving protection services as well as all children in care, and contain a feature that flags those known to pose a significant risk to children. The system must also be able to interface with other government systems, including health, education and employment insurance.
- That every effort be made to provide continuity of care of service that to the extent possible the same worker provides services to a family throughout its involvement with the child welfare system.
- That CFS agencies strive for greater transparency and information sharing with caregivers. This may require changes to legislation.
- That the supervising CFS authorities enhance availability of voluntary and early intervention services by placing workers in schools, community centres, housing developments and any other community centres, housing developments and any other community facilities where they would be easily accessible.
- That when responsibility for delivering services to a family is transferred from one worker to another, these workers communicate orally with each other to the extent possible, and either record the conversation in the file or document the reason why a conversation was not possible.
- That social work supervisors prepare written reports of supervision meetings with workers and that copies be retained in the appropriate case files.
- That before a case file is closed the supervisor must document the reason for approving the decision.
- That the province take the lead in concert with Ottawa, municipal governments, First Nations and the private sector to increase the availability of affordable housing.
- That social assistance housing allowances be increased to at least 75 per cent of the median market rate.
- That supports for families transitioning from First Nation communities to urban centres be expanded and enhanced.
- That the premier of Manitoba raise the issue of the disproportionate number of aboriginal children taken into care by child welfare authorities across Canada as a national issue at the next premiers meeting.
- That aboriginal culture and history, including the history of colonization and the impact of residential schools, be integrated into the provincial curriculum, including early childhood education and extend through elementary and secondary school.
-- compiled by Larry Kusch