Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In child welfare, no one dares say R-word

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RACISM is the elephant in the room in any discussion about Manitoba's child welfare system.

You can't look around it. You can't ignore it. You can't pretend it's not there.

And you can't call into question the devolution process without being accused of overt racism. It's a nifty way of shutting down questions about the efficacy of a child welfare shift that transferred files, social workers and children, often without proper training or accountability, across Manitoba.

The process started when the late Justice Edwin Kimmelman referred to the practice of sending aboriginal children to non-native homes for adoption as "cultural genocide."

Those two words would be used as justification for causing chaos in a system sworn to protect children, warehousing kids in hotel rooms and emergency shelters in lieu of the licensed foster homes of non-aboriginals, and transferring traumatized children back to family members who were sometimes ill-equipped to deal with their needs.

Gage Guimond died this year after being removed from a loving foster home and placed with a great-aunt. She has been charged with manslaughter in the two-year-old's death. Phoenix Sinclair died after being returned to her mother and stepfather, who now face charges for her death.

They're only two of Manitoba's dead children in care.

The issue has the ugliness of a street fight for those who stand on opposite sides of the debate. Is returning children to their birth families always better than sending them to a nurturing, non-aboriginal family?

In an interview with Free Press reporter Mia Rabson, Elsie Flette, CEO of the Southern First Nations Child and Family Services Authority, said the aboriginal community firmly believes the best place for a child is with its own family.

"We make no apologies for that," she said. She sighed when asked if devolution places race over child welfare.

"To me there is an underlying piece out there about aboriginal people shouldn't be doing this," she said. "The onus is always on us to prove (we can). The attitude is out there that because aboriginal people are now doing this somehow the system has less quality."

Peter Markesteyn, Manitoba's former chief medical examiner, takes a different approach. Now a consulting forensic pathologist, he bases his comments on the deaths of Manitoba children in care, notably Gage Guimond and Sophia Schmidt.

"The cultural stuff is important," he says, "but people can survive without the culture. Everything being the same, it's valuable. But the safety of the child, their economic welfare, their psychological welfare, that's more important. If you are well looked after, it is possible to catch up on culture. It's not so easy to catch up on neglect."

Nahanni Fontaine, justice co-ordinator for the Southern Chiefs Organization, flatly rejects that line of thinking.

"There are aboriginal children that are being placed with aboriginal families and they are thriving," Fontaine says, insisting many of the problems in the system are the result of aboriginal women being marginalized. "People are critical because children are placed with family members they may not know. Why is it OK to place them with strangers, then?"

She admits the aboriginal agencies have had "growing pains."

"I think devolution is a good thing," she says. "There's been generation after generation where we haven't been in charge of our own destiny."

Perhaps the most moderate comment came from a close friend of the Guimond children's foster family.

"Aboriginal is not the issue," she said. "Birth control is not the issue. The system is the issue."

It would be unfair not to mention that racist attitudes are openly expressed in discussions of the child welfare system in our province. Rants about "those people" came up frequently in the three months Rabson and I spent researching this series.

We unearthed several essential truths in that time.

That racism is the elephant in the room is just one. That children are being sacrificed for political gain is another. Perhaps most chilling is that more children will die in care until their needs are placed ahead of the battles of adults, all of them convinced they know what's best, despite much evidence to the contrary.


More tragedies

Here are some more children who have died violently in recent years while under the care of the child

protection system.

Heaven Traverse


On January 12, 2005, two-year-old Heaven Traverse was rushed from her foster home on the Peguis First Nation to the hospital in Fisher Branch suffering from head injuries. She was transferred to Children's Hospital in Winnipeg and lay in a coma for two days.

She died on January 14, 2005, 11 months after she had been removed from her parents home for alleged neglect.

Her father, Lawrence Traverse, has said he complained to CFS authorities repeatedly that his daughter was being abused in foster care after he noticed bruises on her during visits and Heaven's older sister, who was with her in foster care, told him the toddler had been hit with a shoe.

Traverse said his daughter's body was covered in bruises from head to toe and that they had to buy a headband for her to wear in her coffin to cover the bruises on her forehead.

In April 2006 Heaven's foster parents were charged with assault in connection with Heaven's death.


Venecia Shanelle Audy


Around suppertime on Aug. 14, 2006, Swan River RCMP were called to a home in Bowsman, 19 kilometres north, to respond to a report of a young child falling down the stairs.

Three-year-old Venecia was rushed to the Swan Valley Hospital where she was pronounced dead. Her cause of death has never been made public but an autopsy turned the case into a homicide investigation when her injuries were clearly not the result of an accidental fall down some steps.

Venecia's paternal grandmother, Irene Simpson-Campeau, told a local newspaper she had cared for Venecia and Venecia's younger brother until March of 2006 because Venecia's mother, Melissa Audy, now 24, was overwhelmed with the responsibility of looking after four children under the age of six.

Child welfare authorities were involved in Venecia's life periodically, and had some contact with her in the 12 months before she died.

Melissa Audy has been charged with second degree murder and is out on bail awaiting trial. Her common-law husband, Jason Allen Kines, has also been charged with sexual assault and sexual interference related to the case.


Patsy Desmarais


Patsy Keanna-Lynn, four, was sick with the flu on July 12, 2004, and missed out on

a trip to the movies to see Spiderman.

Her mother, stepfather, and most of her five siblings went to the movies, while she stayed at the Place Louis Riel Hotel in Winnipeg with an aunt. The family was in Winnipeg from their home on the Skownan First Nation, north of Dauphin, to get medical care for Patsy's little brother Xavier. After the movies, her mother drove her aunt home and left the stepfather in charge.

Garnet William Sinclair has admitted getting frustrated because Patsy wouldn't go to sleep and shook her before her throwing her down on the hotel room bed. She bounced off the bed and her head hit a wall, leaving her with a brain injury from which she would never recover.

She was raced to Children's Hospital but died three days later.

An autopsy found 17 bruises on her body in addition to the head injury. Child and Family Services was involved with the family and her death has been reviewed. No details of what CFS was doing for the family have been made public, nor have the results from the review.

Garnet William Sinclair was convicted of manslaughter in November 2006 and sentenced to 30 months in jail.


Michael Helgason


Michael Helgason, one of triplets, was nine months old when he died of a massive head injury on October 22, 2004 after his mother allegedly slammed his head into his bassinet.

An autopsy discovered a skull fracture and internal bleeding from blunt force trauma.

His mother, Michelle Camire, was receiving over 50 hours a week of respite care from child and family services because she was struggling to cope with the triplets and her toddler daughter.

Camire was charged with manslaughter but a trial earlier this year resulted in a hung jury.


Baby Amelia


She will only ever be known as Baby Amelia to protect the identity of her mother, who was just 15 when Baby Amelia died May 29, 2004.

Just 16 months old when she died, she had been severely beaten. Her injuries included skull fracture, broken ribs, and cuts and bruises on her arms, legs and torso.

Her mother has admitted leaving her daughter to suffer for two days. By the time an ambulance was called - after Amelia's grandmother discovered her - it was too late. She had already been dead for several hours.

In January her mother pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death. The mother and Amelia were both considered active cases of CFS, which automatically gets involved in the cases of young teenage moms.

Alexandro Suazo, the mother's boyfriend, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in April.


Gage Guimond


The story of Gage's recent death is in tomorrow's Perspective section. He died July 22 of head injuries.

His great aunt is charged with manslaughter.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2007

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