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Solution lies in prevention: experts

Investments in kids from before birth through kindergarten will stop cycle

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Phoenix Sinclair died in 2005 at the age of five, at the hands of her mom and stepdad.

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Phoenix Sinclair died in 2005 at the age of five, at the hands of her mom and stepdad. Photo Store

The last two witnesses to testify at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry said Thursday they know what to do to prevent children like her from falling through the cracks, but getting the public to believe it and buy in might take a long time.

"All of our futures are at stake," said Jan Sanderson, deputy minister of children and youth opportunities. "The way things are going is not sustainable."

Health care, corrections and child-welfare systems are stressed. The number of kids in care more than doubled in the decade that followed Phoenix's birth in 2000. There are now nearly 10,000 children in care in Manitoba, and more than 80 per cent are aboriginal. Government funding for child welfare has increased dramatically.

"Prevention is paramount," Sanderson, CEO of Healthy Child Manitoba, told inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes.

After Phoenix's gruesome death was discovered in 2006, the child-welfare system received more resources and attention.

The focus now has shifted from fixing the problem to preventing it.

"The good news is some of these investments early on will make a difference in all those systems," Sanderson said.

Phoenix was born to teenage dropouts who were on welfare. Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair were aboriginals who were foster kids born into abuse and neglect.

Before Phoenix was born, Kematch had a baby boy who was apprehended. She hid her pregnancy with Phoenix. Social workers noticed she wasn't attached to her baby girl. She and Sinclair had another daughter, then Kematch moved out, leaving Sinclair to take care of two children under two. The youngest, Echo, died of natural causes.

Sinclair struggled, and Phoenix was taken into care but then returned to him. Kematch went to get Phoenix when she was four and immediately arranged to collect additional welfare benefits. She and her boyfriend, Karl Wesley McKay, had two more children, and moved to Fisher River First Nation after Winnipeg social workers came around asking about Phoenix.

The couple killed Phoenix in the summer of 2005 after torturing her, yet continued to collect her welfare benefits until her death was discovered in 2006.

A provincial inquiry began in 2012 after several delays from legal challenges by unions, agencies and aboriginal leaders.

After 126 witnesses testified during 85 days of hearings, Sanderson held the public to account Thursday.

"No one wants to hear Phoenix's story again," she told the inquiry. "Each of us has a role. There's a shared responsibility."

There's an economic and social incentive to invest in children, she said.

"The very same investments also make excellent sense to the business sector because of the economic payback and sense to those concerned about social justice. Early-childhood development is the great equalizer -- in the next generation, possibly."

Investing in young, growing brains is the best course of action, said Rob Santos, a researcher with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy.

"The early years matter enormously. They determine the foundation -- sturdy or fragile -- for what comes later. The biggest opportunity is those early years -- before a child is born, until they start school and kindergarten," said the psychologist, who testified while sitting next to Sanderson.

The environment has a big effect on brain development that's in hyperdrive during early childhood, he explained.

"Brain architecture is damaged by toxic stress," said Santos, noting there is visible damage to developing brains of kids in environments of poverty, addictions and violence.

Today, about one in four (or 4,000 babies a year) is born into toxic stress in Manitoba. For aboriginal babies born off reserve, it's about two out of three, or 2,000 a year.

"With an increasing number of stresses, there's a doubling to tripling of odds of those children having cardiac diseases as adults decades later," Santos said.

Poverty and social deprivation in the early years result in high rates of obesity, addictions and alcoholism as adults. Buffering or reducing toxic stress before a child starts school helps them learn, grow and have productive lives, he said.

"Think about the brain as adapting to the environment it is reared in," Santos explained.

A child born to poverty, used to chaos, hunger and violence, is going to have trouble in safe environments such as school and work.

"The difficulty is when the child's brain is adapted to a predatory, threatening environment," said Santos. "They interpret facial expressions differently -- they have different ways of processing social information."

Investments in parenting and maternal programs to nurture their brain development are proven to result in the biggest bang for the taxpayer's buck -- but the returns aren't instantaneous, the inquiry heard.

"It's pay now or pay later," said Sanderson.

 

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Friday, June 7, 2013 at 8:52 AM CDT: Corrects name to Rob Santos

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