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Child-welfare system better: Flette

Agency head tells inquiry of more funding, new policies in place

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The child-welfare system in which Phoenix Sinclair disappeared has been beefed up and is improving, says the head of the Southern Authority.

Elsie Flette told the inquiry into the 2005 death of the five-year-old, who was in and out of care from birth, that more money has been injected into agencies responsible for children and ways to ensure they're safe.

Phoenix's situation would be handled differently today, Flette said Tuesday.

"Red flags would've been picked up by the process."

Winnipeg Child and Family Services closed the file on Phoenix in March 2005 before devolution was complete and the files of aboriginal kids in care in Winnipeg could be transferred to aboriginal authorities such as Flette's.

The Southern Authority oversees agencies serving kids on and off-reserve from 36 First Nations, including Fisher River where Phoenix was killed in the summer of 2005 by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay. As head of one of the provincial authorities, Flette saw the flurry of reports and 295 recommendations made following the discovery of Phoenix's death in 2006.

The Southern Authority is responsible for nearly half the kids in care in Manitoba. As of March 31, the Southern Authority had 4,322 children in care. The four Manitoba authorities combined on that date had 9,730 kids in the system.

Winnipeg CFS closed the file on Phoenix in March 2005 without a worker seeing her and at times didn't know where she was living or with whom. The inquiry also heard social workers didn't check out her mother's new boyfriend when McKay moved in or how the situation changed for Phoenix after the couple had a baby.

With new policies and decisions-making tools in place at Southern Authority agencies, workers wouldn't see that clean apartment and a happy younger sibling and assume Phoenix was alive and well, said Flette.

"The social worker has to go and see a child face to face... The social worker needs to have a visit with the child and ask questions," she said. The last time CFS went to check on Phoenix was after receiving a call the four-year-old may be abused and locked up in a bedroom. Kematch stood in the tidy apartment doorway holding a clean and happy baby and the social workers didn't see Phoenix.

Flette said the authority has trained more than 500 social workers in Structured Decision Making to follow guidelines rather than relying on their "gut" to assess a child's safety.

Several workers involved with Phoenix's case said they used their discretion, assuming she was safe, and didn't have clear standards to follow. They didn't check out McKay on the Child and Family Services Information System (CFSIS) when he moved in with Kematch to discover his history of domestic violence.

Flette said they're training workers in standards and addressing connectivity problems of First Nations so they can better access the central CFS computer information. A new funding model has helped, with provincial funding tied to information about kids being put into the CFSIS system to ensure the data is updated, she said.

Some of the Southern Authority's smaller agencies have seen their funding double, she said. Sagkeeng's child-welfare funding rose 52 per cent and Peguis's increased 89 per cent.

The new federal-provincial funding formula agreed to in 2010 is more equitable and replaces a "dog's breakfast," said Flette. "Every region was differently funded." The Southern Authority receives about $60 million a year -- a 49 per cent increase for the agencies it oversees, she said. Still, the federal portion of the funding formula for children in care on First Nations is a concern, she said. It's based on the child population of a reserve and assumes seven per cent of kids there are in care.

She knows of three agencies dealing with reserves that have more than seven per cent of their kids in care. One has 14 per cent, said Flette.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 1:21 PM CDT: fixes name of Structured Decision Making

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