Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This disgrace must not be endured

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MANITOBA'S child welfare system is in chaos.

We don't need reports or recommendations to understand that countless children in this province are ill-served by the very people sworn to protect them.

We know that social workers are overworked, that their caseloads are too high and that many of them are woefully untrained for the critical jobs they perform.

We know that there are specific standards for the care of children that detail exactly how often they should be seen by their workers, what sort of records kept and how to keep them safe from harm.

We know these standards are not being met.

We know devolution, the process that saw the files of thousands of aboriginal children in care shuffled from one central authority to new aboriginal authorities, hasn't worked. Many people in the system admit that process was too hurried, that files were lost and terrible decisions were made.

Children have died. More will die. It's as plain and as awful as that.

Child protection in this province has become so politicized that point-scoring has surpassed compassion and common sense.

More children are going to die if the government continues to hide the truth of what has happened to our child welfare system, if the guise of protecting the privacy of children in care is used to cover up the deaths of children who are killed by the people assigned to help them.

Gage Guimond died while in the care of CFS, sent to live with a great-aunt instead of back to the foster family he loved. The government won't say if the woman charged in his death was a licensed foster parent, had a criminal record or was checked on after Gage and his sister were taken to her home.

More children are going to be traumatized if the government continues its shell game of moving children out of hotels and into emergency shelters staffed by glorified babysitters who are not trained to detail with their sexual, psychological or emotional abuse.

The kids are no longer in hotels. But they're often in ratty apartments for weeks or months at a time, their minimal needs met by a rotating series of hired help.

One of the most poignant details in the stories Mia Rabson and I heard in the months we spent researching this series was of an 11-month-old girl dropped off at a foster parent's house. The worker didn't have the time to tell the foster mom the child's name. For three days, the foster mother simply called her "Peanut."

This is not child welfare. This is, at best, triage.

At worst, it's systemic child abuse.

The solutions aren't complicated. There is no excuse for not setting workloads that are manageable. It is unacceptable to say there isn't a standard to do risk assessments because it's hard to find an assessment tool that is culturally appropriate. It is madness to have social workers go on vacation, leaving their caseloads unassigned.

There's not enough money, not enough accountability and not enough support for front-line workers.

These are excuses. What is happening to Manitoba children is inexcusable.

We can't ensure there'll never be another child who dies from abuse or neglect. But that should still be the goal. Kids who die are not just the cost of doing business in child welfare.

It is time for all Manitobans to express their outrage. Consider the words of Gage Guimond's grandmother, who described the bruises on the body of her dead grandson. Consider the torture of Phoenix Sinclair, hurriedly buried after she was brutally killed. CFS didn't miss her for months.

If these were animals who had been killed, more public attention would have been paid to the horror of their lives.

Get on the phone. Call Billie Schibler, the Children's Advocate. Call Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh. Demand to know why some children in this province are disposable, why policy and recommendations take the place of actually keeping these kids safe and alive.

One child was too many.


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

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