Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First things first at CFS

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MANITOBA'S child welfare system has long been characterized by two recurring themes -- upheaval and crisis. When one's around, the other is close behind. Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh is juggling the fallout of an organizational upheaval that has been blamed for putting little kids at enormous, sometimes lethal risk. He wants to shake things up again.

Amid evidence the child welfare system is buckling under a devolution that dispersed children in care to three new authorities, Mr. Mackintosh wants workers to focus on prevention. Modelled on practices elsewhere, it is hoped that investing more time with risky families before crisis erupts will cut the number of kids in care, ease strain on workers and save children from injury and death.

Prevention is a good idea, but it is not new to Manitoba. In the 1980s, the Pawley administration decentralized child welfare agencies and sent them into the neighbourhoods to help struggling families keep it together. But with more intimate contact, workers found there was so much work to do that agencies began running mounting deficits. All of it unravelled in the 1990s when the Filmon administration decided to get government out of family affairs and concentrated on protecting children. At the end of the decade, the NDP began retooling the system again.

Child welfare in Manitoba has lurched from one philosophy to another, sometimes to the extreme. The latest approach has put native administrations in charge of native kids, making culture and family ties a priority, alongside protection. Children have been lost in the organizational shuffle and deadly mistakes have been made. A review found that many workers hired have little or no training. Some are torn between putting kids or culture first.

Mr. Mackintosh is heartened by evidence out of Alberta and Minnesota that focusing on prevention has seen fewer children seized for protection and fewer incidents of neglect or abuse. He plans to make prevention a higher priority here. But Manitoba's system is hobbled by a lack of basic resources -- well-trained and experienced workers, adequate foster beds and a paucity of counselling services for kids. In some communities, workers cannot find a safe place to keep a child for a night. Telling them they will now have to find anger-management counselling for families is more than a tall order.

Mr. Mackintosh is not wrong to look at what works elsewhere and to move toward preventing family breakdown. He has, however, lots of evidence that children in need of protection are being shortchanged, that the nuts and bolts of child welfare in Manitoba are loose. Before loading more demand on a system looking for its legs, Mr. Mackintosh should ensure child welfare workers can do their first job -- protecting the vulnerable -- well.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2007

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