The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, currently in legal limbo, was widely believed to be the first chance for a complete examination of Manitoba's child-welfare system.
It turns out that's not the case. Twenty-five years ago, the province commissioned an in-depth review of child-welfare services in Winnipeg. That inquiry was a reaction to the deaths of six children in care the previous year.
The fate of that all-but-forgotten report should serve as a cautionary tale to those involved in the Sinclair inquiry and to those of us who hope substantive change will follow its findings.
Dr. Eric Sigurdson, then a Dauphin pediatrician and child-abuse expert, and University of Manitoba social work Prof. Grant Reid (along with three seconded provincial employees) spent a year interviewing doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, child-protection workers and others involved in the child-welfare field. They wanted to know what worked, what didn't, and how to fix things.
At the end, they produced a 391-page reported studded with recommendations. That report, External Review Into Matters Relating To The System Of Dealing With Child Abuse In Winnipeg, is harrowing reading.
"As a result of unforeseen demand (for child protection)," the pair wrote in their introduction, "the present system is severely overstressed and it is able to provide only basic services."
They cited severe organizational problems within the child-welfare system: a lack of standards, not enough resources, heavy workloads, the need for a central information-processing system and improved education and training for social workers. Sound familiar?
"If adequate funds are not made available to operate the child and family services system," they wrote, "children will be needlessly abused, and more will die."
Sigurdson, now a psychiatrist and child-abuse expert at the Health Sciences Centre, admits he feels frustration many of his recommendations remain in limbo and the problems he clearly illuminated still exist.
"Workload was a big issue," he says of his 1986 research. "It was one of the most common concerns of social workers, child-abuse workers." Last month, a former CFS intake supervisor testified at the Sinclair inquiry staffing levels during the child's short life were "grossly inappropriate." He said meeting accepted provincial standards was impossible.
"We see so many young people in care," Sigurdson said in an interview Thursday. "Are we making any progress in addressing this? How are we doing as a community, as a society to reduce this?"
His report, issued just as personal computers were becoming prevalent, called for an integrated computer system that would make the sharing of children's files possible across regions.
Last week, provincial auditor general Carol Bellringer released a report indicating the provincial government is making slow progress in implementing key child-safety initiatives. She cited the lack of an effective central data bank as a continuing problem.
Bellringer's report followed up on an audit her office conducted six years ago. Twenty-nine improvements to child welfare were recommended in 2006. Only 15 have been implemented. Sigurdson says many of his 1987 recommendations were acted on but others were left to languish or delayed as the child-welfare system evolved.
Decades have passed since Sigurdson and his team completed a thorough examination of our child-welfare system. The issues he raised, for the most part, remain as critical factors for this province's vulnerable children. The government ordered this work done and took possession of the hefty report.
What remains a mystery is why so few people know about this important study, why it is not referenced in any of the Sinclair inquiry's background material and why so many of the serious problems illuminated have not been addressed.
I still hope the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry sheds some light on what is wrong with the system and how it can be fixed. But having just read a similar report prepared 25 years ago, I'm not holding my breath.