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Phoenix case inspires hope

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The following are excerpts from a report written by Justice Ted Hughes, who headed the Commission of Inquiry Into The Circumstances Surrounding The Death of Phoenix Sinclair.

Phoenix Victoria Hope Sinclair was born a healthy baby with a lifetime of possibilities ahead of her. But she entered life in circumstances that were fraught with risk and it was clear from the start that her parents would need significant support if they were to make a safe and nurturing home for her.

Phoenix's parents, Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair, were teenagers. They themselves had suffered abuse and neglect as children and had come of age as wards of the child welfare system. Neither had much in the way of a parental role model in their lives. They were Aboriginal; neither had completed high school; they were unemployed and living on social assistance; and both had substance abuse issues. Kematch had already had a baby, when she was 16; he was taken into care and she had shown no interest in him. Neither parent had made any preparation at all for Phoenix's birth, though Sinclair said that on the day she was born he fell in love with her and he chose her name.

This report examines the ways in which Manitoba's child welfare system failed Phoenix and her family, from the day of her birth until she was killed at age five.

Years have passed since those events. Lessons have been learned and changes made. This report considers those changes and finds that the child welfare system is on the right path, though it has more distance to cover. But the social and economic conditions that render children vulnerable to abuse and neglect are well beyond the scope of the child welfare system. In particular, the circumstances that bring aboriginal children to the child welfare system in such high numbers are deeply rooted in this country's history and call out for special attention. This is a responsibility shared by us all.

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I agree that the evidence disclosed a child welfare system challenged by heavy workloads, and staff whose training and knowledge of standards was limited.

These were failures by the organization to meet best practices.

But I do not find evidence that these organizational challenges had a direct impact on the services that were, or were not, delivered to Phoenix and her family.

I believe that the social workers who testified at this Inquiry wanted to do their best for the children and families they served, and that they wanted to protect children, but their actions and resulting failures so often did not reflect those good intentions.

What was missing was a fundamental understanding by staff of the mandate of the child welfare system and of their own role in fulfilling that mandate. For the most part, workers and supervisors lacked an awareness of the reasons why families come into contact with the child welfare system and of the steps they needed to take to support those families. The focus on short-term safety concerns to the exclusion of long-term risk is an example of this lack of understanding.

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The fact that Phoenix was aboriginal is not irrelevant to this Inquiry. More than 80 per cent of Manitoba children in care are aboriginal. The picture is similar across Canada, and the numbers are growing. There isn't much difference in the rates of serious abuse among aboriginal and non-aboriginal families but the substantiated reports of neglect are many times higher, the Commission learned.

Cross-Canada research shows that aboriginal children are taken from their homes in far greater numbers, not because they are aboriginal, but because they are living in far worse circumstances than other children. They are poor because their parents are poor. They live in substandard housing; their parents are struggling with addictions; and they don't have the family and other supports they need.

The reasons for these conditions that afflict so many Aboriginal families, witnesses told the Commission, are rooted in the legacy of colonialization and residential schools, the conditions on reserves, cultural dislocation and loss of identity.

And poverty becomes entrenched: when a child grows up knowing no one who has finished school or held a steady job, it's difficult to envision another kind of life.

These are large challenges, beyond the reach of the child welfare system. The responsibility to keep children safe cannot be borne by any single arm of government, or even by a single government. It's a responsibility that belongs to the entire community.

It is also a problem that extends beyond the boundaries of Manitoba. It is a serious national problem and it needs to be tackled at a national level. For that reason I am recommending that the premier take this issue to the next meeting of the Council of the Federation and that he take the lead in urging his colleagues from the Provinces and Territories in a national dialogue to find solutions.

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It is not possible to entirely prevent violent acts against children. But the conditions that put Phoenix at risk the day she was born are within our power to address, and it is our collective responsibility to do so.

Protection of Manitoba children will take a concerted and collaborative effort and true commitment from the child welfare system, other government departments, community-based organizations, and the general public.

Despite all the steps that have already been taken in Manitoba, the number of children coming into the child welfare system, particularly Aboriginal children, continues to rise.

To truly honour Phoenix, we need to provide all of Manitoba's children with a good start in life, and offer to the most vulnerable an escape from the cycle of poverty and vulnerability that trapped Phoenix and her family.

My hope is that the heart wrenching evidence I heard in Phase One of this inquiry will serve as a catalyst to ensure that the recommendations that emerge from this report are wholeheartedly embraced and implemented. The protection of children is a shared value of the whole community. The public interest that this Inquiry has received encourages me in the belief that achievement of the better protection of all Manitoba's children, and especially the most vulnerable, will be the true legacy of Phoenix Sinclair.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 A15

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