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Reports are not results

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A discouraging report by the Manitoba Ombudsman released Tuesday reveals that much of the work done over the years to pinpoint weaknesses in the child welfare system in the wake of deaths of children has resulted in few fixes. Some 75 reports on investigations, 340 recommendations -- for what?

A case in point: The system has not adopted a reliable method of assessing risk to children in care, or receiving services of agencies.

This is alarming, especially in light of the inquiry underway into the grisly death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, in 2005.

When various investigators reviewed how child welfare workers handled her case -- she was in and out of the system from birth -- they found many mistakes and a host of "best practices" that were not followed. In particular, risk to her was downplayed, and that contributed to the fact she got lost in the paperwork, even though warnings she was being abused were made to CFS months before she was murdered by her mother and mother's boyfriend.

Testimony by workers at the inquiry now underway into the death has indicated that a standardized risk assessment tool is in place today. But Ombudsman Mel Holley says this is not the case. Some agencies have started to use those standards, but most others have not.

The risk assessment tool was meant to prevent workers from missing or downplaying risk, and to improve supervision of case work.

The lack of progress on this critical element in child protection is an example of where good advice runs headlong into politics and practicalities -- some agencies don't want to adopt methods imposed from above, while others are in financial straits -- Mr. Holley says. In an interview, he said many weaknesses found over the decades by child-death investigations are recurring themes. Little progress generally can be touted, but he is cheered by the fact agencies have finally agreed to adopt uniform risk assessment.

Mr. Holley's office has been responsible since 2008 for following up with agencies to ensure recommendations from investigations are adopted, in hopes of preventing future tragedies. But with such slow progress, the Ombudsman has yet to write a report. Mr. Holley hopes to have his first account of agency compliance this spring.

This analysis of the long-standing deficiencies in Manitoba's child welfare system is discouraging, and instructive.

Investigations must be independent of the agencies, but imposing fixes devised without the involvement of workers, agencies and the leadership of regional child welfare authorities -- three of which were formed to ensure culturally relevant services to aboriginal communities -- doesn't work and can reinforce deep-seated distrust among its many parts.

Further, the adoption of standards must reflect the capacity of agencies, some of which struggle with inexperienced staff, a dearth of social services in communities, and budgets that don't reflect the costs.

Mr. Holley and Manitoba's 33 child welfare agencies have a lot of work to do. The Hughes inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair's death is in a good position to examine the barriers to compliance by agencies and offer recommendations accordingly. Ultimately, fixing what ails child welfare in Manitoba needs the buy-in from all agencies and must reflect what is practically possible.

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 March 16, 2013 A14

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