Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hughes report doesn't have all the answers

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The Hughes commission report is out and the recommendations to improve Child and Family Services are mostly practical solutions matched to the problems uncovered during the inquiry.

But we are probably going to witness a tragedy such as the murder of Phoenix Sinclair again because we can't solve major flaws in the system.

First of all, we can't stop children from having children. Teenage parents do not have the maturity and skills to raise children properly. The Hughes inquiry addresses this problem by spending lots more money to provide programs and services. But pure and simple, we can't solve the problem of unwanted teenage pregnancies.

Social workers came under a lot of fire, and I have no sympathy for the lazy slacker who fakes home visits or the incompetent or uncaring worker who fails to take action when the opportunity is available. The Hughes report deals mostly with what might be called routine or standard cases and if the recommendations are followed, we can avoid the situation that led to the tragedy of Phoenix Sinclair.

But there are extremes out there that can cause even the most dedicated social worker to pause. Few people are going to walk into a home where you might encounter some whacked-out drug addicts sitting on the couch comparing weapons, and snatch a child.

This is the perplexing reality that dooms us to failure. As long as society is based on the rights of the individual, children will be placed in danger. At the risk of putting down the many fine single parents on social assistance, there will always be cases where the children are used to get an increase in monthly welfare payments. Without spot-checks and violating parents' rights, the parent just has to put together a passable home situation whenever the social worker comes to call.

The rest of the time, the child could be locked in a basement, hungry, wearing dirty diapers and nursing various injuries, like Phoenix.

Social workers are required to do home visits. But you can imagine some of the cases on file that make a social worker absolutely dread visiting. Burnout is common and so are cursory investigations, because the social worker fears being stalked by some street-gang member if she files a bad report or the child has to be taken into custody. Proper protection is impossible to provide and therefore not addressed in the Hughes report.

Neither can it address the root of all social problems -- poverty, pure and simple. The Hughes report isn't going to eradicate poverty, and Manitoba's poor are over-represented in the child-welfare system. Many are good parents. Phoenix's parents were monsters.

Another big picture we haven't got a handle on is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. FASD remains a serous problem, which can increase generation by generation if not checked. FASD parents and FASD children require a lot of special care and the potential for disaster is always there.

There are almost 10,000 children in the system right now in Manitoba. That is double what it was just a decade ago when the process of devolution began so First Nations could gain more control over raising their own children.

It is here where we may find the biggest flaw in the Hughes report. First Nations leaders maintain devolution was rushed and proper funding has never been available to bring it up to speed. We hope and pray the massive number of children in care may now benefit from the increased funding the Hughes report recommends.

But the report doesn't significantly address devolution.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak says the province has only "bought some time." That means we are going to see the same thing again.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer who has served on the board of directors of child welfare agencies.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2014 A9

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