Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Don't lay blame; help fix system, inquiry advised

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BLAMING front-line social workers and supervisors for a lack of "common sense" in their handling of Phoenix Sinclair is misdirected and serves no purpose, the lawyer for one supervisor told an inquiry into the death of the little girl.

"There hasn't been the same focus on those people who had the control," Bernice Bowley, representing supervisor Diva Faria, said Tuesday during final submissions. "Workers were powerless to change the environment."

Faria was the Winnipeg Child and Family Services supervisor who signed off on closing the file on Phoenix without the child being seen in March 2005, just a few months before the five-year-old was tortured and killed by her birth mom and stepdad at Fisher River First Nation.

Faria was trying to manage an underfunded, overworked front-line unit with no time for proper supervision or handling of cases, the inquiry has heard. "Common sense" in that work environment, coupled with standards at the time, meant cases such as Phoenix's, where there were no known protection concerns, were routinely closed without seeing the child, said Bowley. Senior managers in the department and government were aware of the lack of resources but didn't do anything about it until after Phoenix's death lead to several investigations and reports, the inquiry has heard. They haven't, however, been labelled as lacking in common sense, said Bowley.

"Wouldn't it have been common sense to train workers and supervisors?" Bowley asked. "Wouldn't it have been common sense to provide good quality tools and manuals to give them enough time to do thorough work and be able to make good judgments?

"To the (department's) credit, it has implemented profound changes."

Today, a child has to be seen before a file can be closed if there is an allegation of abuse, neglect or maltreatment. An intake module was introduced that makes prior contact checks mandatory and available in real time, so if someone such as Phoenix's stepdad, Karl McKay, joins the family, workers will see his history with CFS and domestic violence. New rules mean supervision records have to be kept and can't be destroyed. Many were in Phoenix's case.

"Instead of blame, the better, more helpful course is to explore more ways to improve this system," Bowley said.

Commissioner Ted Hughes' final report is due Dec. 15.

It's already been recommended to improve the qualification requirements and pay for child-welfare workers in order to recruit and retain front-line workers who often leave for less stressful social work jobs that pay better.

Several parties to the inquiry suggested overhauling the image of the child-welfare system.

The system would benefit from a communications and public awareness strategy, said Harold Cochrane, the lawyer representing the Child and Family All Nation Co-ordinated Response Network (ANCR) and Northern and Southern First Nation authorities overseeing child-welfare agencies.

"Trust has to be built up in some fashion," Cochrane said. "There was information out there in the community percolating about Phoenix and her family and various people decided not to contact CFS.

"The purpose of this recommendation is to try and bridge that gap -- to try... to educate the public on what we do and why the work is important."

There also needs to be First Nations jurisdiction over child-welfare matters, Cochrane said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2013 0

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