Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Phoenix's legacy takes shape

New policies, new money in place; new attitudes? -- time will tell

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Manitoba will set a wretched record this year -- 8,000 abused and neglected kids, almost all of the aboriginal, will be in the care of child-welfare authorities or foster families.

As Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine pointed out recently, that almost matches the number of residential school survivors in Manitoba.

That record comes more than two years after five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair fell through one of the biggest cracks in the province's crumbling child-welfare system. Her torture, confinement and murder at the hands of her mother and stepfather shocked the Doer government into action and prompted an overhaul of child welfare and a re-examination of devolution.

More than $48 million in new spending has started to flow. A flurry of new foster families has been recruited, and nearly 100 front-line social-work jobs have been added.

Since Phoenix's remains were found buried near the Fisher River Cree Nation dump in March 2006, there have been at least six major reports on child welfare calling for more than 400 fixes and endless press conferences announcing new programs with catchy euphemisms such as Reclaiming Hope, Join the Circle of Care and Changes for Children.

"Her tragic loss, at least, has been able to spur an examination of the child-welfare system like never before in the history of this province," said Family Services and Housing Minister Gord Mackintosh. "There's been a lot of examinations historically but nothing this comprehensive."

But what has really changed for the thousands of kids in the care of nearly 20 separate agencies?

Last year, a Free Press series on child welfare uncovered a system in chaos, without enough funding or staff to ensure kids were safe or enough resources to help families before their kids had to be taken away. Kids in care weren't properly monitored, others were returned to their families without proper risk assessments and social workers were crushed under heavy caseloads.

Some are filled with hope at changes to come. Next year marks the last full year of the overhaul that has child-welfare officials confident that a flurry of hiring and program, policy and legislative changes launched since Phoenix died will start working. That includes new legislation that says child safety trumps every other consideration, including cultural and family ties.

The province is looking at finally getting a handle on caseloads after a half-dozen reports condemned the punishing number of cases social workers handle and repeated provincial promises to set a target.

Most heartening is a new push to intervene in struggling families before abuse begins or a crisis erupts -- a common-sense approach that old-fashioned, rigid federal funding models have so far made impossible.

Prevention could start to shrink the number of kids in care, especially on reserves, some of which have seen 40 to 60 per cent of their children placed with foster families, often off-reserve.

"We just cannot keep doing this," said Southern Child and Family Services Authority CEO Elsie Flette. "It's counter-intuitive."

About half the recommendations made by various experts after Phoenix's death are complete or nearly complete and nearly all the others are under way.

But the current reality is still grim. Since Phoenix was discovered, at least 16 more kids have died accidentally, been murdered or committed suicide while child welfare was supposed to be watching over them. Caseloads have not shrunk appreciably, frontline social workers say, nor has the new funding helped kids much.

"The biggest complaint I hear is money didn't trickle down to the agencies," said a senior worker at a southern agency. "The money went for system-wide projects and maybe one FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) co-ordinator for all the agencies."

Non-aboriginal foster parents continue to raise red flags about kids transplanted back to their birth families despite safety concerns. And there have been regular scandals at agencies -- most notably the Cree Nation Child and Family Caring Agency, where staff and board members took luxury retreats and the executive director was given a $30,000 van instead of a raise while frontline workers complained of rampant nepotism and mismanagement.

"All I can say is that certainly there's been good intentions on the behalf of government to have these [recommendations] implemented and that there's a commitment there and the funding's there and the framework's there," said Children's Advocate Billie Schibler.

"How the authorities implement this and how effective this will be on an outcome level, I guess this remains to seen."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2008 A1

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