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Child-welfare reforms now probe's focus

Dean outlines lessons learned

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Eight years after Phoenix Sinclair was murdered by her caregivers, the inquiry into her death is hearing what's been done to try to mend the child-welfare safety net she fell through.

The lessons learned after her 2005 death went undiscovered for nine months have not been lost on social work students at the University of Manitoba, said its dean. "I can imagine that it's really a connection of the inquiry to what students are learning in their courses," Harvey Frankel told the inquiry that entered its second phase Wednesday.

The province needs to treat social work like nursing and figure out how many workers are needed then help fund the spaces to train them, said Frankel, who heads the only accredited social work program in Manitoba.

"We don't know what the labour force needs are." What they do know is that Manitoba faces "unique challenges," he said.

"It is aboriginal child welfare, by and large," he said. "The majority of families involved in the child-welfare system are indigenous families," said Frankel.

"Most of the families involved are families living in poverty," he said. "That's a special challenge. The work is really difficult and requires a person who really wants to do it."

Burnout is a danger in the high-stress job that requires workers to make decisions that can result in life-and-death situations for kids, some of the 81 witnesses testified in phase one of the inquiry during 54 days of testimony.

"It would be important to know what social workers wished they knew before they went out to work." asked Jeff Gindin, the lawyer for Phoenix's dad, Steve Sinclair, and longtime caregiver Kim Edwards.

Frankel said they surveyed social workers, including U of M grads working in the field. The response was there needed to be more time spent learning about social work practice and specialization in child and family services.

He couldn't say why the number of kids in care has increased in Manitoba to nearly 10,000 in the last decade.

It's not because of funding cuts.

The lawyer for the province told the inquiry funding has tripled for child welfare -- to $423 million in 2011 from $165 million in 2001. Sacha Paul said the federal government has upped its contribution, too -- to $125 million in 2011 from $50 million in 2001.

Education that empowers the aboriginal community is the only way Manitoba is going to reduce the number of kids who need to be in care, said Frankel.

They're redesigning the undergraduate curriculum for social work, he said. Now, nearly 28 per cent of social work students are aboriginal and about 23 per cent of the full-time faculty are aboriginal, said Frankel.

The university is developing a master's program in social work based on aboriginal perspectives and knowledge rather than mainstream social science, said Frankel. It incorporates elders in its academic programs, for example, the dean said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2013 A8

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