Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Child welfare looking like a black hole

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At the time child welfare workers were all but ignoring Phoenix Sinclair and her family's descent into dangerous chaos, Manitoba was spending $140 million on child protection. In 2000, according to testimony at the inquiry looking into her death, child welfare workers carried 25 to 35 cases each.

Today, we are told that caseloads remain as high, but workload -- the amount of attention the cases require due to their complexity -- has become more severe.

The drugs, violence, gangs and addictions have all become bigger problems in Winnipeg's central and North End neighbourhoods and workers are hard-pressed to keep up.

The troubles go some way, perhaps, to explain the dramatic rise in the number of kids in care. In 2004, there were 5,782 children in care, apprehended by the system.

Today, that number is closer to 9,800. Those numbers don't include the many more children receiving services from CFS.

Not a lot of progress has been made toward keeping families together.

Today, Manitoba's child-protection budget is $403 million, some 350 per cent higher than in 2000.

This inquiry will see child welfare in Manitoba, repeatedly found wanting, weak and ineffective in so many aspects, get another injection of cash.

Is child welfare the new health care, the insatiable black hole of the provincial budget?

Health care eats more than 40 per cent of provincial revenues. But, its budget between 2000 and 2012 ($2.1 billion to $5 billion) rose at a slower rate than child welfare spending.

Injecting cash is how governments respond to crises.

Indeed, after inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes released his report on a similar review he conducted in British Columbia in 2005, the government there spent $50 million just to respond to his recommendations. Social workers were hired, and an office similar to our Children's Advocate was opened to oversee the CFS system and investigate child deaths.

Hughes blamed upheaval and budget cuts in B.C. for the crippled system that placed kids at risk, resulting in repeated deaths.

The central theme of Manitoba's child welfare system has been upheaval. In the mid-1980s, it moved into prevention and decentralized service to get workers into neighbourhoods.

In the 1990s, the Filmon Tories re-centralized and said parents had to take responsibility.

In 2000, when Phoenix was born, the system was still moving social workers out of neighbourhood units into larger, central offices.

Five years later came devolution, which saw thousands of cases transferred to native agencies overseen by four new authorities. Native agencies, lacking training and staff, seconded Winnipeg CFS workers. Volumes of records were physically shifted into new hands.

The line graph of child welfare spending shows change costs money.

For example, the Southern Authority, the largest of the four, saw its budget rise to $129 million last year, from $37 million in 2005. And in 2007, following a system-wide review in the wake of Phoenix's murder, $55 million was poured into the government's child-protection budget.

All this and still the number of kids taken into care skyrockets -- Manitoba takes kids into care at a dramatically higher rate than in the United States, New Zealand, England, Sweden and 10 times higher than in Western Australia.

This inquiry will trigger a wave of reforms to the child welfare approach. The commission is also examining the underlying social conditions of aboriginal people, who make up more than 80 per cent of children in care.

Manitobans know where this leads -- addressing poverty, addictions, dysfunction of families caused by the removal children who were then raised without parents in residential schools.

Other jurisdictions have adjusted by adopting what's called a differential response: one track of the system works with struggling families before risk to children rises; another track intervenes to apprehend when safety is jeopardized.

In 1988, the Howard Pawley government called this prevention. It's a big job and it requires a large, upfront investment for long-term dividends.

How will a government already wrestling deficits manage that?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A14

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