It is high time Manitobans got a good idea of whether Manitoba's Office of the Children's Advocate has made real progress in its attempts to fix problems in the care delivered to children at risk of abuse or worse. Commissioner Ted Hughes, whose report on the inquiry into the death of little Phoenix Sinclair was released last week, says the best way to do this is to make the office truly independent of its political master, the minister of family services.
Indeed, the children's advocate office is a creature of the Child and Family Services Act and its first duty is to advise the minister. While the advocate is an independent officer of the legislature, the office does not have its own legislation. Mr. Hughes recommended that be changed, and the advocate's mandate be expanded to include representing the interests of all children receiving services from any publicly funded body, not just kids in contact with child welfare agencies.
Children's advocates have stretched the boundaries of their mandate to incorporate the concerns and issues of those in the care or receiving services from a variety of government funded agencies. The responsibility should be made formal in new legislation, as Mr. Hughes recommended.
Former advocate Billie Schibler said she never felt pressure from the minister of family services, and felt she was independent of the government, presenting her annual reports to the House speaker. Ms. Schibler said, however, public perception was that she was tied to the Family Services department because her powers flowed from the CFS Act.
Beefing up the power of the advocate's office through separate legislation, as laid out by Mr. Hughes, would formalize some of the current operations and improve the appearance of independence.
Children and the public will be much better served, however, in the commission's recommendation to expand the office's role in investigating unexpected deaths of children receiving care from CFS to include critical injuries. Leaving those incidents to police investigation or a child welfare agency review alone limits the system's ability to ensure weaknesses in procedure or regulation are caught. Review in the case of death is important, but the lessons from the many more "near misses" can help prevent such fatal tragedies.
Mr. Hughes also recommended the reviews of deaths, previously held confidential by the system, and critical injuries should be made public. Much of the telling testimony during the inquiry about the errors that ultimately allowed Phoenix Sinclair to disappear from the agencies' radar screens (she was dead and buried nine months before anyone at CFS learned she was missing) had been unearthed in other reviews years prior to the inquiry, but the reports were hidden from the scrutiny of Manitobans.
Effectively, that secrecy allows the system to hide its mistakes and gives Manitobans little understanding of weaknesses and what fixes might be made. In fact, the inquiry heard, the findings and recommendations out of various reviews after Phoenix's death weren't even shared with the front line workers, including those who erred in her care.
This must change, as Mr. Hughes describes. Fundamental to that shift is public accountability, and that requires publicly releasing the advocate's reviews of deaths and critical injuries to children.