Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Analysis: Culture of secrecy allows repeated shameful tragedies

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When Roanna Meagan Fontaine jumped from a sixth-floor balcony to her death, at least we knew her name.

We knew the 14-year-old loved fashion and dancing and wanted to open her own beauty salon one day. We knew something bad happened to her at a party in the North End the night she died. We knew worried friends and neighbours on Peguis First Nation repeatedly phoned the local child-welfare agency about her in the months before she committed suicide. We knew this through luck, not because the people tasked with ensuring her safety told us.

What we don't know, even seven years later, is how she slipped past the army of social workers, the risk assessment tools and protection protocols, the case-management systems and fail-safes that are supposed to form the backbone of Manitoba's perennially troubled child-welfare system.

But at least we knew her name. That is more than we know about the 28 children who, like Roanna, committed suicide while under the supervision of social workers over the last three years alone. And, it's more than we know about the six children with open or very recently closed child welfare case files who were killed in homicides in the last three years. And, it's more than we know about Manitoba's latest child death, and maybe more than we'll ever know.

When a child dies in care and forever after, a nearly impenetrable armour of secrecy descends over government, over social workers and even over the watchdogs whose job it is to make sure the system really does keep kids safe.

When a child dies in care and forever after, a nearly impenetrable armour of secrecy descends over government, over social workers and even over the watchdogs whose job it is to make sure the system really does keep kids safe.

That's what happened to Roanna seven years ago, and that's what appears to be happening again this week following the homicide of another toddler, a little girl who died last Thursday following what's believed to be a beating.

The Free Press began making inquiries Monday after getting a tip a toddler had died Thursday after being returned to her parents from care. Among those contacted in the search for answers to this latest tragedy were both Child and Family Services and the RCMP.

Nearly a week after her death, despite several days of inquires, we don't know her name or the basic circumstances around her death. More worrisome, Manitoba Child and Family Services could not say whether the toddler was in foster care, was known to social workers or had any kind of open child protection file.

It's not clear why that information couldn't be gleaned with a few mouse clicks or a couple of calls to key social workers, but the province said late Wednesday it was still gathering information and could offer no insight into what kind of care the child was getting, if any. There ought to be no more straightforward question to answer, especially after a week.

RCMP also stonewalled. When rumours of the toddler's death began leaking out Monday, the RCMP was asked specific questions about the case. They stayed silent, also for nearly a week. Without repeated questions from the media, they may never have issued a terse media release. If there are no charges laid in the case, and no subsequent court case where evidence is revealed and tested, we may never have any idea what happened last Thursday in Peguis.

Calls to on-the-ground child welfare offices also went unanswered.

On Monday and again Wednesday, staff at the Southern Child and Family Services Authority, which oversees the Peguis agency, refused to speak about the toddler's death and whether it had come to their attention.

"Again, under the CFS Act, we can't comment on that," said spokesman Jim Compton.

Nor can the Children's Advocate, which may ultimately conduct a review, as it does when a child with an open CFS file or one closed within the last year, dies. They do about 60 of those a year.

We never get to read them. If one is ever done on the toddler, we won't likely get to read it, either. Those child death reviews, and all the private and possibly damning information in them about damaged families and failures in the system, are kept secret by law. The only three people who see the dozens of child death reviews done each year are Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross, the chief medical examiner and the ombudsman. In theory, the minister then trickles out details to child-welfare officials on a need-to-know basis. But it seems the public never needs to know.

Over all of this hangs the legacy of Phoenix Sinclair, another toddler whose murder in 2005 became emblematic of a child-welfare system in chaos, one where a child disappeared for months before anyone noticed, one where the provincial government's initial response was to delay, obfuscate and hide behind their own overly rigid legislation they claim muzzles them.

Six months ago, nearly a decade after Phoenix's death, following a massive inquiry into the inner workings and chronic failures of the system, commissioner Ted Hughes recommended more power and independence for the Children's Advocate, which hasn't yet materialized. That extra power could give staff there more latitude to speak freely about specific child deaths, shedding light on what went wrong and adding a little humanity to what are now just raw numbers in an annual report.

Following the inquiry, the province promised changes to the way things work. "We want to move away from a culture of secrecy and blame," said Irvin-Ross at the time.

Whether by design or by profound disorganization, the culture of secrecy persists, and that allows potential failures in the child-welfare system that cost children their lives to remain invisible.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A4

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