Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Embattled boss suspended from child-welfare agency

Move follows complaints about spending, nepotism

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The executive director of an embattled aboriginal child-welfare agency was suspended Wednesday after allegations of nepotism and extravagant travel spending surfaced last month.

Cree Nation Child and Family Caring Agency director Linda Constant was placed on administrative leave and forced to turn in her keys after a meeting in The Pas. Cree Nation, which provides child-welfare services to seven bands in northwestern Manitoba, will now be run by a senior administrator on loan from Opaskwayak Cree Nation's child-welfare agency.

"The authority will work together with the administrator and staff to ensure children are safe and that there is no disruption in the delivery of services to children and families," said Rose McKay, CEO of the northern authority which oversees aboriginal child-welfare agencies.

The fate of Cree Nation's board was uncertain last night amid allegations the board has taken luxury trips and retreats over the last couple of years even though former workers complained of chronic understaffing.

Officials with OCN's child-welfare agency said Cree Nation's board had been suspended for the next six months while the province and the northern authority tried to get the agency back on track. But McKay said a decision on the board's fate won't be made until Monday. That's when the chiefs from the seven northern bands served by Cree Nation meet in Winnipeg.

The news comes just as the province and the northern child-welfare authority are putting the finishing touches on a review of Cree Nation launched last summer after former staff complained to the Doer government about mismanagement and excessive spending at the agency.

The former social workers highlighted $70,000 spent on luxury staff retreats, conferences and out-of-province board meetings to locales like Kelowna, Niagara Falls and Prince Albert, Sask. Since the review began, the travel has continued to destinations like Minneapolis and Alberta, say the former workers.

And they said most of the trips were taken by car and mileage was paid at 55 cents per kilometre. For a trip to Niagara Falls, one driver could claim well over $3,000 for the return trip.

In 2006, two dozen senior staff also received a three-per-cent wage hike retroactive 10 months, and a $30,000 van was purchased for Constant in lieu of a raise.

Many of Constant's family members work at the agency, though some predate her.

Cree Nation is run by a board made up of chiefs or band councillors from the seven First Nations it serves. At last count it was responsible for about 440 kids in care.

Pukatawagan Chief Shirley Castel says she is so fed up with Cree Nation that she wants to pull out of the embattled agency and partner with Opaskwayak Cree Nation's child-welfare agency instead.

She said the office in Pukatawagan is chronically understaffed with extremely high turnover. It should have six staffers but often only has one.

"That doesn't help the agency or the foster families or the children," said Castel. "That seems to get lost in the shuffle."

Castel said the band has long wanted to withdraw from Cree Nation and work on a joint venture with OCN near The Pas.

Last month, when news of the turmoil at Cree Nation surfaced, Chemawawin Cree Nation Chief Clarence Easter said it may be time for Cree Nation's executive director and some board members to resign.

The chiefs of the seven bands are meeting next week as part of a Swampy Cree Tribal Council gathering to discuss the review of Cree Nation and how to proceed.

Constant was expected to attend that meeting.

The review of Cree Nation is one of five investigations into aboriginal child-welfare agencies that are underway now, and it prompted calls for the province or the northern authority to step in and remove Constant.

The other agencies under review are Anishnaabe Child and Family Services, Sagkeeng Child and Family Services, Southeast Child and Family Services and Peguis Child and Family Services.

The reviews were launched either after complaints arose about operations or finances or after a child died in care.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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