Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bad cop, good cop CFS no solution

Inquiry hears case against split system

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A child-welfare system that is able to apprehend kids can still win the trust of at-risk families, the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair heard Wednesday.

The public probe into how the little girl slipped through the child safety net and was murdered has heard a lack of trust in Child and Family Services prevented caregivers from accepting help and stopped others from reporting Phoenix's maltreatment.

It's heard from some the system needs to be split into two parts -- good cop and bad cop. One arm of child welfare should work with families to prevent kids from being taken into care and be based on a relationship of trust. The other should be charged with protecting and apprehending children.

On Wednesday, lawyers for two groups argued splitting the system won't win anyone's trust or prevent another situation such as Phoenix's from occurring.

"Separating streams won't deal with it," said Hafeez Khan, representing Intertribal Child and Family Services. "Proper training and workers in place to build relationships with families in a respectful manner will," he said.

What the system needs is people with the ability to build relationships with children and their parents and the "collaterals" -- relatives, teachers, and others with connections to the family, Khan said.

A good child-welfare worker needs education, training and the ability to relate to people, Khan said.

"Certain people are good at it," he said. "They have the ability to build relationships and understand the needs of parents," he said. "What we've found is that as long as parents are treated with respect and dignity, those relationships can be fostered."

Splitting the child-welfare system would just add to the number of different social workers a family will have to deal with,said Laurelle Harris, representing the General Authority.

"You don't want multiple workers engaging with a family," she said. That makes it tougher to build a relationship of trust, she said. Forging relationships can only happen if workers have manageable caseloads, said the lawyer.

"Workload continues to be one of the most important factors," she said, recommending Commissioner Ted Hughes, in his report due Dec. 15, call for a maximum of 20 cases per worker.

The system has gotten better, with funding more than doubling since the death of Phoenix. Training and tools for child-welfare workers have improved, Harris said.

"In 2005, our social workers were not equipped in the way they are now equipped," she said.

They're earning trust by communicating better with parents, she said. An example is when a parent passes out and a child is apprehended. Before, a parent would be told to take a substance abuse program to get their child back. They'd take the program but be told they couldn't get their child back because they were still drinking.

"There was incredible frustration on the part of parents," said Harris. What the social workers wanted from them -- acts of protecting their kids repeated over time -- was not being accurately communicated, she said. Now it is, she said.

"It's not 'Go take a program,' it's 'This is what we're worried about.' " They talk about it and what are the next steps -- whether the child is apprehended or safe at home and what intervention is needed, she said.

"That practice model builds trust," she said.

So does working with the child to find out how what is happening in the home is affecting the child, then sharing that with the parent, Harris said.

The social worker and the child talk about the three houses -- the house of worries, house of dreams and house of good things -- and the child's voice is animated for the parent, she said.

"Very few parents, when they see the effect of whatever is happening in that house on their child, don't want to help."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2013 A4

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