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Watchdog agency threatened legal action at times, Phoenix inquiry told

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Even after the discovery of Phoenix Sinclair’s death caused an uproar in March 2006, the Office of the Children’s Advocate had a hard time advocating for children in the child welfare system, the former head of the watchdog agency told the inquiry into the little girl’s death today.

At times, Billie Schibler said they had to "send in the big guns" and threaten legal action to get responses from the child welfare system. She did it in 2006 when the head of the Child Protection Branch at the time didn’t respond to concerns that children were at risk of falling through the cracks whenever birth alerts were sent to an agency and a file closed without confirming the agency had received it.

She did it in 2007 out of a concern that not all children in care had been seen in person by their case worker, as a directive from the province ordered after Phoenix’s death was discovered in 2006. In March 2005, Winnipeg Child and Family Services closed the file on Phoenix for the last time. She was murdered that summer by her mother and stepfather in Fisher River First Nation.

In 2007, Schibler wrote to the province when it came to her attention that not all social workers were complying with the directive to have face-to-face contact with every kid in care, she said, citing seven specific cases.

"Phoning a caregiver to ask if child is safe" is not face-to-face contact, she told the inquiry – nor is "hearing that another worker has seen the child in the community." Schibler said she recalled getting a response saying the children in question were eventually seen and accounted for.

Schibler said there needs to be a registry for social workers to hold them accountable and give the public an avenue for complaints. She also said a truth and reconciliation process would help restore the credibility of the child welfare system in Manitoba. If the number of kids in care is ever going to be reduced, though, more therapy is needed for broken families and their children who end up in the system, said the woman who now heads the Metis Child and Family Services Authority.

"It’s easy to be a good parent when you’ve had a loving, nurturing and supportive environment around you," said Schibler. "We expect people to do that despite what they’ve been through," she said.

"Those children in care today are tomorrow’s parents."

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