Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province hopes to import success from Minnesota

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The Manitoba government has looked south to Minnesota for ways to improve its beleaguered child-welfare system.

There, the state government has rolled out a unique model that sees social workers working constructively with families in crisis to prevent children being removed and taken into care.

"I think there was a feeling the system wasn't working as well as it could," says Chuck Johnson, assistant commissioner for Child and Family Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Resources.

"We were really looking for a way to approach families -- a different way that saw us work more in partnership with families. We didn't want to be confrontational."

The Family Assessment Response is used when there are reports of neglect or maltreatment. Cases of serious physical or sexual abuse are still handled in a traditional manner with children being removed from the home.

The Minnesota child-welfare system gets about 18,000 reports of children in need of assistance each year.

The state has 14,000 children placed in homes other than their own. About 1,600 are permanent wards.

Johnson says many cases of neglect can be handled by helping families with basic needs such as affordable child care, adequate housing and counselling.

"What we've found is that if we take the approach that 'we're here to help you,' you get the families engaged," he says. "The old system treated all families the same way."

Families are also told by social workers what they're doing right, be it showing affection to their children or ensuring they get to school.

The family has to agree to take part in the program. If they don't want to comply, their children may be removed.

Minnesota began a pilot project to test the Family Assessment Response in 2000. It started slowly, in just 20 counties, and rolled across the state.

Johnson says it took time to train staff and explain the new system.

"Some social workers had lost the capacity to trust the parents," he says. "This isn't just a change in policy. It does require a lot of training. You can't just drop this on people."

Johnson says the goal is to keep families intact whenever possible.

"Children are best off with their parents," he says firmly. "There's an awful lot of trauma when that child is taken away from the family."

Eighty per cent of the families who agree to use the model remain intact, he says.

One of the best results of the model, Johnson says, is it takes away the stigma of being involved with the child-welfare system.

"We're working in partnership. We're not coming to take away their children."

Manitoba Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh says the Minnesota model will be incorporated into the province's plans for improved child-welfare services.

"Family enhancement, this year, I'd like to see that roll out," he says. "It's a non-adversarial system. There's still a protection stream and then a family-enhancement stream. It's a formalized stream."

Manitoba would dedicate 50 or 60 workers to family enhancement to begin with, Mackintosh said. Agencies will have to restructure their operations to reflect the new approach.

A similar system, which has had success, exists in Alberta.

"Alberta's the Canadian model on that one," Mackintosh says. "They were very careful. They phased it in. We're going to phase it in."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2008 b3

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