Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Children's advocate wants new powers

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Children involved in child welfare have a right to privacy that can be hard to understand. When news of a child death emerges, it is logical the public wants details about the child to be shared. Each of us who are caring, community-minded citizens feels a sense of disbelief, sadness and anger that anyone could intentionally harm a young child. We search for details in an effort to make sense of tragedy.

The Office of the Children's Advocate investigates the deaths of children who were involved with child welfare. We also advocate on behalf of children and youth who are currently receiving, or who should be receiving child-welfare services. Yet, under current legislation, which has remained unchanged for 15 years, children and youth who require advocacy in other public systems are prevented from accessing the OCA, unless they are involved with child welfare.

In reality, most of the children and youth who ask us for help are involved in multiple public systems, including justice, education and health. However, since our legislation is buried in the Child and Family Services Act, we have virtually no power to advocate for best interests of children in those other systems, despite the presence of legitimate concerns.

The OCA needs a broader, independent mandate and more latitude to report publicly in the best interests of children.

We have the essential responsibility to hold the child-welfare system accountable for the decisions it makes. One way we do that is through meticulous investigations and formal recommendations. Those recommendations are often developed in dialogue with the staff, agencies, and authorities who were responsible for providing services to the child. And while current legislation describes that our office sends only three copies of the final report: one each to the chief medical examiner, the ombudsman, and the minister responsible for family services, those reports are in turn sent to agencies, authorities and service providers to ensure our findings are shared not only at the top levels of bureaucracy, but with the individuals where some of the changes must occur.

In the event of a child death, current legislation allows us to interview any person and obtain any file or other information if we believe it is relevant to understanding how child-welfare services were delivered to the family. Depending on the circumstances, we may reconstruct several years of the child's or family's chronology and include highly sensitive information from sources including health records, treatment facilities, court dockets and more. This information, while critical to understanding the experience of the child and developing the rationale for strong formal recommendations, may not be directly related to the circumstances of the child's death.

The death of a child should not carry an assumption that the public has a right to examine the histories of each family affected by such tragedy. There may be surviving siblings and others who are still relying on public systems for care and protection. Children come to the attention of child welfare for many reasons and not only as a result of abuse or neglect. For example, many children are currently receiving child-welfare services in our province in order to access appropriate medical treatment. Public disclosure of sensitive details about a family can -- and has previously -- resulted in increased risk for young people and their caregivers. When public discourse focuses on issues instead of individuals, systemic changes can happen.

Ensuring the public is informed of issues, while respecting a family's privacy, is how we work with vulnerable young people since public awareness can be the precursor to change. We hope Manitobans will continue to express interest in analyzing how public systems respond to the needs of children and youth. We currently publicize details of many systemic issues through our annual reports, special reports, newsletters, information sheets and via social media.

Children and youth are in particular need of advocates. They have a voice but virtually no legal power to make anyone listen to them. Our experiences working with these young people reveal they sometimes feel they have no say in what happens to them. The OCA should be empowered with a stronger mandate to report publicly on any organization receiving public funding and delivering services to children and youth -- because even the smallest voice has the right to be heard.

Darlene MacDonald is the children's advocate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 A9

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