Testimony at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry may give Manitobans some hope that the child-welfare system is better at protecting children from abuse and neglect. The tools now eliminate judgment calls workers once exercised in deciding how to handle cases, using instead a computer-generated risk assessment that determines response time.
Five-year-old Phoenix was killed in 2005 by her mother and stepfather, despite years of contact with and warnings to Child and Family Services workers. The workloads and pressures saw her file repeatedly given lower priority, her family ignoring CFS efforts to help them better cope with their poverty, addictions and inability to care for their kids. Friends warned CFS they suspected Samantha Kematch was abusing her daughter, but the warnings went unheeded.
A new, mandatory "structured decisionmaking" tool used by workers assesses risk level and response times. As well, the definition of what constitutes abuse has broadened since 2007, capturing more referrals for immediate response to ensure a child's safety.
Standardizing what CFS defines as abuse and high risk is not a bad thing -- many social workers and supervisors involved at various points with Phoenix's file assessed her risk differently. But rigid assessment is only as good as its proven accuracy and a system's ability to respond. Staffing levels have risen, but the new definition of abuse helped trigger a 120 per cent rise in investigations from 2007 to 2012. Far more children are coming into care or receiving CFS services.
There are not enough money, time or foster homes to keep up with that trajectory. Phoenix was known to be at risk but was given lower priority as there were more pressing cases ahead of her. So, running a computerized assessment across the system simply puts many more cases into the quick-response inbox.
The system needs to shift fundamentally, separating prevention workers from protection workers. Phoenix was cared for by a network of friends and relatives -- who gave her love, nurturing and safe harbour -- who nonetheless deferred to her parents' primary role, while working above all to keep the child out of CFS's clutches.
The vaunted "village" did not prevent the unspeakable abuses she eventually suffered, nor the beating that killed her.
Prevention programs based in the community, reflecting the values of residents they serve, are more likely to be seen as helpful to, rather than threatening a family's security. That, not the cold, calculated efficiency of a computer risk assessment, is the key to cutting risk and, ultimately, the number of kids coming into the care of the state.