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Child welfare system is antiquated

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Testimony at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry can break the hardest heart. Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair, her parents, were hobbled -- financially, emotionally and psychologically -- and incapable of caring for her.

The sense of rising panic I felt for Phoenix, listening as the days of her short life were plotted out in sparse detail contained in child welfare files, was surpassed only by the dreaded realization that her home was considered low risk for much of the time it was in the hands of the system.

Other families were much worse off, the lives of other kids more precarious. Today, if we are to believe social workers, the job is harder because the factors feeding the calculus of "risk" -- addictions, poverty, violence, drugs, street gangs -- have amplified.

Repeat studies show kids are taken into care not because of physical or sexual abuse, but because of neglect, which results from poverty (lousy housing, lack of food) and addictions.

In Manitoba, "case plans" try to address the risks, but that means tapping a few, disconnected and overstressed community resources.

The effect is felt in the community and in the homes "at risk."

Lisa Spring is a parent mentor at the West Central Women's Resource Centre. Her program was set up two years ago specifically to help mothers and others -- aunties, grandmas -- who have had their kids taken by CFS. Parents are bewildered. Social workers speak "gibberish" parents can't understand. Visits with children taken into care are delayed because workers are too busy. Parents, in crisis, are told to change their friends, change where they are living, clean up. Do it fast.

In the centre's catchment "every single family is high risk, the way risk assessment goes," Spring says.

Spring notes there is a real incongruity in a system that tasks the same worker to do family support -- determine the parental problems that need addressing and then find community resources to help -- and protect children. Even if the worker has time for "support," their attention is always focused on protection. That engenders distrust, something social workers and supervisors at the inquiry have highlighted as a real barrier to helping families.

There must be a better way.

In Sweden, money is poured into supporting mothers and families to alleviate poverty. In Western Australia, supports are invested in struggling homes to prevent family breakdown. Both Sweden and Western Australia have dramatically lower rates of apprehension, compared to Manitoba.

In British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, a system of "differential response," one track of workers hooking families up to community resources, another attending to high-risk cases and apprehensions. This recognizes neglect springs from deep-seated social issues that defeat even those parents with the best of intentions.

Closer to home, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard sees answers from a model used by a northern First Nations community, which has bucked the trend and cut its apprehensions markedly.

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation's wellness centre integrates services, addressing physical and psychological health, and it brings child welfare into the fold of family health. Gerrard says if children are found at risk because, for example, parents are drinking, the parents are removed and a relative or friend goes into the home.

With all services working together, the community keeps its eyes on homes where children are at risk and responds in timely fashion.

Nisichawayasihk has also cut the number of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, he notes.

Saskatchewan in 2010 had an inquiry flowing from repeat deaths of children in care. The report that followed, which recommended a robust preventive family services response, could have been written in Manitoba: Rising numbers of caseloads, apprehensions, 80 per cent of children in the system were aboriginal.

In neither province, however, does the CFS Act recognize the critical role extended family plays with aboriginal kids, nor the tradition of custom adoption. This means many children are apprehended unnecessarily.

Manitoba's system to respond to kids, and families, in need is antiquated, and its rising rate of apprehensions condemns it. The Phoenix Sinclair commission surely will recommend it be overhauled to ensure money is spent to support families, not tear them apart.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2012 A10

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