Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Who failed this child?

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THE couple who took in and cared deeply for Gage Guimond for almost half his little life were proven foster parents with kids of their own. Why the boy who turned two years old Saturday, a day after he was hospitalized for the injuries that would kill him Sunday, was removed six weeks ago from this stable, safe and loving environment is the question sitting on the desk of child welfare authorities.

If the answer is that the parents were unrelated to the boy, Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh has a big job ahead of him.

For decades, child and family services agencies have pursued the policy of "family reunification," which seeks to return a child in care to its family where possible. But what is possible cannot be seen as necessary. In this case, Gage had been in the foster care of a series of relatives since being born to a young mother in a family that had considerable contact with child welfare authorities.

He lived in at least one non-related foster home, the Selkirk family who cared for him between his first and second birthday. Those parents say they were told repeatedly that Gage would be returned to his paternal grandmother, who had him briefly as a baby. He was removed from her care after she went out drinking one night.

Gage's placement in June with his mother's aunt in Winnipeg, the home where he was fatally injured, suggests the Sagkeeng Child and Family Services Agency was more concerned with making a familial connection, however distant. It may have been difficult to foresee the harm that came to him. But common sense and abundant research on childhood development holds that a child passed from home to home as a baby has only a fleeting chance of making the critical, formative bond to a loving parent. Gage's best chance, at least six weeks ago, rested with the family he knew best, in Selkirk.

The decision to move him failed Gage Guimond in the most profound way. A series of investigations are underway and there may be a series of mistakes uncovered, given the layers of laws, rules and protocol. Paring back all those decisions, the case comes down to the most obvious question: Why was he taken from a stable, loving home?

It may be that a social worker made a singularly bad decision, rubber-stamped by a distracted supervisor. It may be that both were new and poorly trained. It may be that officials involved in Gage's short, tragic life felt pressured to follow an agenda that subverted regard for his best interests.

Manitoba, like Canada broadly, has undergone a sea change in its child welfare system over the last half century, moving from a time when white social workers imposed orders from a centralized, government-run agency to take away and adopt out native kids to non-aboriginal homes. Today, agencies are increasingly run and worked by aboriginal people operating on a mandate to keep families together, native kids in native homes and native communities. But the premise of preserving families and culture has become for some a political campaign that, at times, disregards a child's best interest or sees all of the interests as inextricably linked. Gage's Selkirk foster parents are aboriginal, but they were not related to the boy.

The evolution to culturally appropriate child welfare service was a long time coming in Manitoba, but in the end it happened too fast. That was revealed by a recent review of the system and the new aboriginal authorities -- a review launched by the grisly death of Phoenix Sinclair, who was returned to parents now accused of her murder.

The creation of three aboriginal authorities and one general authority was natural; the vast majority of Manitoba kids in care are aboriginal. But after four years of planning, that process saw agencies scrambling to hire aboriginal workers and prepare for a daunting workload. The review found staff poorly trained and ill-equipped workers struggling to meet the needs of children, to balance the demands of policies to keep aboriginal kids with aboriginal families, and to keep families intact, despite a dearth of resources. This has had devastating consequences for some kids.

There has been no let up for the workers. After Phoenix's death, they were ordered to make contact with every child receiving or recently receiving service. In December, agencies were ordered by the province to recruit 300 new foster beds to cut the use of hotel rooms as an "emergency" placement. The agencies did all that. Mr. Mackintosh needs to ask if speed compromised attention to detail.

During the rush, Gage was sent to a new foster home. Whether the great aunt met all the checks required is part of the investigations now. Mr. Mackintosh cannot think that the little boy's death can be explained by a simple lapse of judgment, though. This case, and the troubling findings of a provincial review that found a new system shot through with holes, suggest a combination of decisions that may stem from policies that put political, cultural and family concerns ahead of the safety and health of a little boy who needed something very basic -- a stable home. Mr. Mackintosh must ensure child welfare agencies know something equally as basic: Cultural and family interests are important but are fundamentally secondary to a child's interests.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2007

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