Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Child-care system can change

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Several inquiries and inquests during the last decade have exposed Manitoba's child-welfare system as a moribund relic, resistant to change and innovation, and determined to protect its secrets from public scrutiny.

The government's response to the devastating disclosures in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, for example, has been sluggish and timid.

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The only concrete initiative so far has been the introduction of legislation that would introduce critical-incident reporting into child welfare, similar to what hospitals do now when something goes terribly wrong.

The problem with such a practice, however, is that it is designed for internal purposes only. There's no way for the public to know if there are trends of neglect or incompetence in the health-care system. The child-welfare system will be equally immune from meaningful scrutiny under the government's proposed legislative amendments.

It's impossible to hold government and its agencies accountable when even basic information is not disclosed.

Was the disorganization and lack of professional discipline exposed in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry an anomaly, or typical behaviour?

Again, there's simply no way for the public to know without greater disclosure of child-welfare incidents.

A recent case in point was the death of a child who was receiving care from child-welfare officials. It took a full week before officials disclosed that small morsel of information. Nothing else will ever be learned about the homicide unless there is a criminal trial, or an inquest.

The system may well have performed perfectly, but there is no mechanism for providing that assurance to the public. In fact, strict privacy laws prohibit the release of any information that might tend to identify children in care.

If history has taught us anything, it's that governments operating in secrecy are prone to abuse.

Child-welfare officials say their hands are tied by legislation, but every law is subject to revision.

Alberta's government has shown laws are not immutable. Last May, the legislature voted unanimously to repeal legislation that made it illegal to publish the name and photograph of a child who died in the care of the province.

The new legislation provides a mechanism for the biological parents to oppose publication, but the judge has to consider the public interest in weighing such cases.

The amendments also enhance the way Alberta investigates and learns from the deaths of children in care. It forces officials to disclose more information about how and why deaths occur.

Albertans can now expect more transparency and accountability in their child-welfare system, which has found a way to balance privacy rights with the public's need to know.

It is not a magic elixir, but it will be much easier now to chart successes and failures. As trends emerge, more voices will be able to engage in debates about how to improve the system. Public scrutiny will also lead to a higher standard of responsibility within the system, which is no longer protected by outdated notions of secrecy.

The Office of the Children's Advocate sees the benefit of greater disclosure, although it has not recommended the sweeping changes undertaken in Alberta. Among other things, the office is concerned about how the system prepares wards of the state for life on their own when they turn 18. There's some evidence, the office says, that youths are falling between the cracks as they transition out of the system.

It's impossible to know if there are systemic, thematic problems, however, without more hard facts.

Manitoba's government has options for change. It just needs to embrace them so it can break from its dysfunctional past in how it cares for some of society's most vulnerable persons.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 A16

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