Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Child-welfare system stuck in 'chaos'

Any of the regimes that have been tried in the past would work if we really cared

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As the Sinclair inquiry grinds away and my distress grows, several people have urged me to respond in some manner to my reading of historical child-welfare issues.

I am not currently in the active service loop, but for half a century I was a participant and observer of the child-welfare system. As a social worker, I worked for a few years in child welfare. I served on the board of the old Children's Aid Society of Winnipeg (CAS), and in the 1990s on the board of Winnipeg Child and Family Services. For many years I contributed in a small way to the network of services dealing with child physical and sexual abuse. Finally, I am a past president of the Manitoba Association of Social Workers (MASW) and was on the board of the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers.

I have for decades been of the strong belief that while paying lip service to the idea that children are our most important assets, society doesn't really give a rip to try to prove it. This is not new. It is historical fact that the CAS in Winnipeg grew out of the already existing Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We have seemingly always worried more about pets than "our most precious asset."

Throughout my career, there have been periodic efforts to tweak the system, in the apparent belief that this will magically solve the problems inherent in whatever is the current service-delivery vehicle. We've moved from a single-service system to regional offices, back to single-service, and a devolution to aboriginal delivery mechanisms.

Here's a news flash -- any one of the organizational methods would work pretty well if there was the will to make them successful. The reality has been that regardless of the political party in power, there has never been a concerted effort to look at the full requirements to make a child-welfare system that can at least reduce the problems. This should not be a partisan issue, but any (even partial) solutions take more time than the next election date, and hence are not sexy enough to warrant full commitment.

During my two stints on two different child-welfare boards, the message from government was essentially the same: reduce costs, don't take so many kids into care, and why are you in a deficit position?

In the case of CAS, it was "shape up or we'll take you over." And so they did. Resources have continued to be hard to find, and the problems continue to escalate. Over the decades, hundreds and hundreds of dedicated social workers have gone out every day in an attempt to investigate and protect kids and families, praying that this won't be the day that the decision to check on Child A won't mean Child B is in jeopardy.

And if brought into care because that jeopardy seems imminent, what alternative-care facility will there be?

I've sat in ministers' offices and been told we were spending too much money and had to find ways to reduce costs. Which kids do we sacrifice?

There was an excellent letter in the Free Press on Dec. 10, titled Getting at the root problem. It pointed out the less-than-obscure truth that problems of poverty and housing clearly exacerbate child welfare, and influence the amount of intervention child-welfare workers must make. Wow, another news flash. Unless there is some effort to change even a few of these contributing factors, the "let's change the system and see what happens" attitude will prevail. There are no simple answers to complex problems, but we know better than we do.

Finally there's the issue of competence and the regulation of social-work practice. I was an MIRSW member from the beginning (my certificate was No. 5). I spent a great amount of time, along with many others, trying to gain regulation of social-work practice, meaning legal accountability, training and ongoing professional development. We were shot down at every turn. We could sort of understand aboriginal opposition, but it also came from leaders at the University of Manitoba faculty of social work. As a result, we are the only province in Canada that doesn't regulate the use of the title social worker and how practice is being carried out. There is beginning legislation on the books, but it's never been declared. I wonder why?

My pessimism about productive change even under the appropriate glare of the Sinclair inquiry is basically total. As has happened periodically over the decades, people will continue to say, "Isn't that awful. Something should be done" before they turn to the Arts & Life section.

Can something be done? You bet. But it won't be easy and it won't be cheap.

First, we would really need to look at what is making many people vulnerable. We would need to examine housing and poverty, and training for parents who have not had any experience of being parented themselves. There are programs in other parts of the world that have made inroads on these issues. We need to define both protection of children and work with families -- a very difficult task.

Second, we need to ensure solid, mandated communication between all agencies providing child-welfare services, regardless of location, size or cultural background. There must be understanding of regional or cultural imperatives, and a process for full and complete transferring of information, without suspicion or self-protection. There is hatred and suspicion on the part of families on all sides of child welfare and the system mustn't play into it.

Third, we need regulation of social-work practice. Every person dealing with children and families must have necessary training, accountability, supervision and ongoing professional development. Period. There will always be vulnerable children and families, and with the best of intentions there is no guarantee mistakes won't be made. But they need to be discovered before things get to the point of a Sinclair disaster.

I'm simply one retired social worker with more than a few memories and scars from earlier fights on behalf of children. I have no brilliant insights. But I have immense pain when I continue to see the same problems go unchanged year after year.

In the 1960s, I was on the public relations committee of MASW. I wrote an article that suggested that child welfare was in "chaos." I took immense flak, both from within the system and wider. Here we are 50 years later, and I see no reason to change that word that got me into trouble. Please, someone out there prove me wrong.

Keith Black is a retired Winnipeg social worker with degrees in social work and law.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 A15

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