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Phoenix's file would remain open now

Inquiry hears from head of child welfare agency

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The head of the Winnipeg child welfare agency that conducts vital screening to see if kids are at risk outlined how Phoenix Sinclair's file would not be continually closed today as it was before her death in 2005.

"We do a better job of conducting child-protection investigations," Sandie Stoker told the provincial inquiry into Phoenix's death Thursday.

To show how the intake agency has improved, the executive director of the All Nations Coordinated Response Network reviewed the last four times Phoenix's file was opened and closed by Winnipeg Child and Family Services using the protocols and procedures adopted since the little girl was murdered in 2005 by her mother and stepfather.

"She would've been apprehended," Stoker told the inquiry into how the five-year-old girl fell through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net. At the very least, her case would've been transferred to a social worker who would have had to meet with Phoenix's caregivers, meet the little girl face to face and conduct a safety assessment before closing her file, said Stoker.

Now, every time the agency gets a referral that a child might be in need of protection, it has to fill out an intake-module report. It requires the social worker to identify family members and the person the child allegedly needs protection from.

For that information to be entered into the intake module, a prior contact check has to be conducted to see if there's a CFS history of abuse or neglect. The worker has to identify the issues of concern on a checklist. That information determines a response time for checking on the child, whom the worker must see in person, as well as conduct a safety assessment. The forms look like scoresheets. They determine the level of risk to the child and what to do next.

In each of the last four intakes involving Phoenix, the risk was high, said Stoker. Concerns about her mother's crack-cocaine use and parenting capacity, the troubled history of the caregivers in her life, her father's drinking and her stepfather's domestic violence all factored into the level of risk.

Decisions are now based on probabilities, not feelings, said Stoker.

The inquiry heard earlier from the supervisor who closed the file on Phoenix twice in three months without social workers ever laying eyes on the child. Diva Faria testified earlier she didn't feel there were any child-protection concerns. She was a crisis-response unit supervisor for Winnipeg Child and Family Services that preceded ANCR when a hospital social worker and a foster parent both raised red flags about four-year-old Phoenix and her family in December 2004 and March 2005.

"If I had felt there were child-protection concerns, I would not have closed this case," Faria told the inquiry earlier.

Stoker said ANCR today is trying to provide services to families so they can take care of their kids before they're at risk and need protection, said Stoker.

For nearly a year, it has been using a "differential-response" method, streaming families into two categories: protection, or "family-enhancement" for cases where some services are needed to help the parents keep their kids from being in need of protection.

"The goal is providing them with services so risk decreases," said Stoker. Being taken from parents is traumatic for a child no matter what her home life was like, she added. About 22 per cent of ANCR's staff are working in the "family-enhancement" or prevention stream.

The majority are still needed to work in protection, she said.

"It takes about five years to see a shift in resources," said Stoker, who has spoken to colleagues in other jurisdictions who have used the differential-response method longer and are seeing it work with more prevention and fewer protection cases.

"We're not there yet."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A11

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