Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For the child's sake, ask the neighbours

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Secrecy is the No. 1 priority of the child welfare system. Safety of the child comes a distant second. Little did Gord Mackintosh, the minister who elevated in law the safety of the child to the primary purpose of CFS intervention, know that his department would boot safety to the secondary concern.

A recent situation epitomizes the problems social workers face when they are unable to work with neighbours.

A person overdosed at a local home. The neighbours are retired aboriginal education and social work professionals. When three kids were apprehended from this address everyone in the community knew, and were relieved the kids were out of danger. Mom and Grandma were smoking crack most nights and there were always visitors to share the crack. This was not a home where children would be safe.

Just before the overdose, in spite of Mom and Grandma continuing to smoke crack and becoming quite incapable of caring for small children, the children were returned home. The children were there when the person overdosed.

Why couldn't the social worker talk to the neighbours about how the mom was functioning? The neighbours would have indicated this home is not a safe place for kids. We are told the social worker is not allowed to talk to the neighbours due to confidentiality.

As the crime rate has declined in North Point Douglas, more and more residents have become aware of serious child neglect and abuse issues. People contact the Powerline, as we call our little system. They describe serious child neglect or child abuse situations. We are responsible to forward this information to provincial Child and Family Services. Many people who call us are decent, caring people who have not been treated well by the system or who fear retaliation. They count on us to make sure something happens for these kids.

We called the child abuse line or the after-hours line. It became clear no one was ever going to assure us something was going to be done. In fact, we had two serious situations where we had to call numerous times before an at-risk child was visited by a social worker.

When you are aware a child is suffering, it's extremely difficult to sit quietly. We forwarded our concerns to Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard. We didn't hear from her but did get a few responses from her officials. We were never told whether our concerns were legitimate or not.

Being a stickler for legal process, I read the Child and Family Services Act. Section 18.4 indicates that when a concern is raised about a child a whole slew of people should receive a report. This list includes the child's principal and the person raising the concern.

Section 18.4 has rarely been respected. In fact, senior child welfare officials told me it was very inconvenient, so they didn't bother with that section of the act. We have told CFS numerous times we are not interested in details or treatment plans. We want to be sure a child we have identified as being at-risk is being helped.

We have been trying to tell CFS for years they need to chat to the neighbours from time to time if concerns are raised about a child. They claimed that would breach confidentiality. We said when workers visited during the day families might be functioning quite well. However, neighbours see how the children are cared for on "cheque night" and on weekends. North End activist Dilly Knoll once said, "They love their kids, they just love crack more." This sad statement is unfortunately true with some moms. It's the neighbours who can tell the workers whether families are cracking or not. It's also caring neighbours who can help the mom improve as a parent.

Could someone tell the system it takes a community to raise a child and the community can be a wonderful support to our social workers? Let's put the safety of our children first, ahead of secrecy.

Sel Burrows is a community activist who lives in Point Douglas.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 A15

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