Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Risks to children in care often seen as 'relative'

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There is an obvious connection between Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard's ordering of a review of Sagkeeng Child and Family Services yesterday and the inquiry into how Phoenix Sinclair's file was handled by child welfare before she was murdered at age five in 2005.

The first, most obvious tie is that child welfare workers were -- and are -- buckling under the weight of caseloads too large to manage safely. Thirty, 40 or more cases on the desk of each worker -- more than twice professional standards for case management. That was the case when Phoenix was born; that's the case now.

As a result, children, and families, suffer. Some, like Phoenix, die.

The details of these families' lives would scare the bejesus out of most ordinary folk. But to social workers at child welfare agencies, the dysfunction, abuse, neglect and risks to children are commonplace. That was true of Winnipeg CFS in 2000, when Phoenix was born. It is true, according to what Sagkeeng social workers have told CBC, of that agency today.

That's why the little girl was regarded as a low-risk case while her file was sliding in and out of the hands of various social workers, being opened and closed as things did and didn't come to the attention of Winnipeg CFS, which, by its own admission, didn't have much face-to-face contact with her parents and rarely saw Phoenix at all.

Social workers testifying before the Sinclair inquiry this week have been quite blunt in telling lawyers they had kids and families that were at much higher risk than was Phoenix, who was returned to her parents the first time at about four months old in 2000.

Investigators called in to assess the details, examine CFS's actions in the Sinclair file -- what it did and didn't do in line with professional standards, policies and the law -- came to starkly different conclusions about the wisdom to close her file the first time about a year later.

A Sec. 4 report by the province in 2006, after Phoenix's death, found that when the file was closed the first time, as Phoenix was in the lone care of her father, Steven Sinclair, the baby was at high risk of abuse or neglect.

Other reviews, internal and external after the death, noted the service to the family, while appropriate in the first months following her birth, was substandard.

As background, both parents were very young, recently just out of the child welfare system themselves, had case files that warned of their aggressiveness, their substance abuse, their trauma from their childhoods with parents who were alcoholics and neglectful.

Samantha Kematch, Phoenix's mother, was abandoned by her mother at 13, had a history of depression, involvement with a street gang, and was seen as a threat to her last foster parents and other kids in the home.

Steven Sinclair, badly neglected by his abusive parents, was regarded by one worker to be a threat to children in his care. Within two years of having sole care of Phoenix, he was binge drinking, doing drugs, leaving Phoenix with others, some inappropriate to care for her, and involved with the Indian Posse.

So how to explain the discrepancy?

Well, first, investigators who came in after the fact were not burdened with balancing Phoenix's needs against the hundreds of other kids. Only tangentially do the after-the-fact reviews note that, to front-line workers, risk is relative, not something strictly dictated by a manual.

The social workers often referred to the fact they needed hard evidence of child protection issues -- something they could put before a judge -- to justify keeping a file open and to continue to intervene in families' lives when they were not welcome. Hard to gather that evidence when you're rarely in a family's house; rarely if ever in the company of parents and children.

That and the abiding faith a social worker had in Steve Sinclair's desire to nurture his daughter, and the fact he had help of friends and family, led to the decision this "low-risk" case would be closed for the first time in fall 2001.

An illustration of the disconnect between front-line workers and case review investigators is outlined by the following exchange.

Worker Kathy Peterson Epp was asked about a passage in one review that noted her belief Phoenix was being cared for by Sinclair's sister, who was a Christian and had not drunk alcohol for two years, was misplaced, that being a Christian or dry for a couple years was no guarantee of anything.

Peterson Epp responded that her notes were intended to guide other workers of the agency, should the file she was closing be reopened. Those workers would know that in the aboriginal community of the North End, being a "Christian" home meant no alcohol was allowed in the house. That, in her eyes, was truly significant. That, she noted, was something perhaps the investigator was unaware of.

Here's another example. Laura Forrest, an intake worker who reopened the file in 2003 (Phoenix had been taken to the hospital by a "godfather" because she'd had something stuck in her nose for months) was praised for her work, while criticized at the same time in the Sec. 4 report.

She found there was abiding risk to Phoenix due to unresolved problems with her dad, but did not herself physically see Phoenix.

Forrest disagreed with the report writer, Andrew Koster, that Phoenix should have been taken back into care. That requires proof of risk and a child in need of protection, she stressed. Koster evidently felt the evidence was there; child welfare workers had to prove that to a judge.

What the investigators had was the benefit of considering the whole picture, the luxury of reading carefully through the story laid out by the file histories of Kematch and Sinclair, the reports of "collateral" agencies and of professionals involved by the agency or with Phoenix.

In totality, the agency repeatedly failed the little girl, failed to give the family the service warranted, failed to make contact directly, investigators found. Again, those investigators have a very different idea of when intervention is required and justified.

Social workers have cases histories available. But if they don't have the time to chase down a family they were supposed to make personal contact with, do they have the time to put the jigsaw puzzle together?

In an age of professional standards, where everyone can know what is expected of child welfare workers, the fact is social workers and investigators can come to starkly different conclusions about where to rank cases that, as I said, would scare the stuffing out of most of us.

I have no doubt that if an objective assessment of Sagkeeng's handling of the files in front of it were to be done now, it would be discovered there are children at risk who are not being watched by social workers.

That means, eventually and tragically, we'll be hearing about them, too.

Indeed, Forrest had the last word at the inquiry yesterday. First, she never was interviewed by any of the reports' investigators. She never read the reports -- even though they could have helped her review her work and correct shortcomings.

Lastly, she noted, changes have been made. But Forrest, a family services worker with CFS now, says the problems out there, in the community, the addictions in families, the need for basics such as food, are exacerbated now. "It's not easier to do my job."

catherinemitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 A15

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