Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province to spot-check foster homes

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In the wake of two damning reports and an avalanche of criticism of the province's child welfare system, the province will spot-check thousands of foster homes to ensure they're licensed and safe and will launch an agency-by-agency review this fall.

As well, the three pieces of legislation governing kids in care -- the Child and Family Services Act, the Adoption Act and the authorities act -- will be reviewed, updated and likely amalgamated, which is a two or three-year undertaking.

The flurry of activity this fall is part of an overhaul of the embattled child welfare system already underway, but recent reviews of two aboriginal agencies have turned up the heat.

Last month, the province released a review of the murder of Gage Guimond which found Sagkeeng's child welfare agency failed to perform basic safety checks on Gage's various caregivers, one of whom is now charged with his murder.

On Wednesday, the province released a similar review of the Cree Nation Child and Family Caring Agency that highlighted a litany of problems with case management, questionable spending on luxury staff retreats and a lack of monitoring of foster homes.

Both reports suggested that boards appointed by First Nations have offered ineffective oversight, that agencies are rife with nepotism and that basic safety checks on kids in care often don't get done.

The two reviews are the latest in a string of investigations and reviews of the province's aboriginal child welfare system which followed the discovery of the murder of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair in March 2006. In January, a judge's inquest report lambasted the child welfare system for the suicide of 14-year-old Tracia Owen.

Those reviews made nearly 290 recommendations, which the province is acting on now.

This fall, the four oversight authorities are expected to start work on systematic "quality assurance" reviews of each of the 22 frontline agencies in the province. Each agency will get a thorough inspection of its casework, hiring practices and finances every three to five years to catch the kind of problems that plagued Sagkeeng and Cree Nation before a child dies or public funds meant for child protection are misused.

Already the first quality assurance review on the Anishinaabe CFS agency based in the Interlake has uncovered enough troubling information to warrant a deeper look.

"These kinds of reports will be seen regularly by Manitobans," said Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh. "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

This fall, social workers will also launch a systemic audit of all the foster homes in the province to ensure each one is licensed and all the proper criminal record and child abuse registry checks have been done on the caregivers. Each of the roughly 7,200 kids in foster care will be seen face-to-face if a routine visit hasn't already been done recently.

The review should be done by Christmas.

The province ordered a similar visit to every child in care in the spring of 2006 after Phoenix Sinclair's death.

The Cree Nation report highlighted the failure to scrutinize foster homes. Of the 265 foster homes and emergency placements on Cree Nation's roster, 155 were unlicensed.

One former Cree Nation worker said the review was little more than a whitewash. It took far too long to suspend and then fire Cree Nation's executive director for misspending and bad management, and the whole issue might have been swept under the rug were it not for Tory leader Hugh McFadyen, who hammered the government on corruption at Cree Nation last spring.

"It was as shallow as they could make it and they didn't want to deal with the chiefs," said the former worker.

Most of the chiefs of the seven bands served by Cree Nation have been conspicuously silent on the issue, except for a couple who called for a full housecleaning at Cree Nation or who are looking at pulling out of the agency altogether.

This fall, the province will also start in earnest on a plan to keep kids out of foster care by intervening earlier in troubled families. And the family services department is looking at rebuilding or overhauling its software system that keeps track of each child's case file. Basic file management has been an ongoing problem for many agencies, including Cree Nation, which has struggled with a serious backlog of filing and case updating.

Already, the software system social workers use includes a new feature that alerts staff when a child has been transferred too often from one foster home to another. That feature was added following the suicide of 14-year-old Tracia Owen in 2005. She was moved between foster homes and group homes at least 64 times before she hung herself in a Winnipeg garage.

Three of the CFS kids who died at the hands of caregivers or parents are still waiting for their day in court.

Phoenix Sinclair

Age: 5

Died: June 2005

Phoenix was in and out of foster care most of her life. In 2005 she was living with her mother, Samantha Kematch, and her mother's then common-law boyfriend, Karl Wesley McKay. Despite recent allegations of child abuse, Phoenix's case file was closed in March 2005. Three months later she died, although her death was not known about for 10 months.

It took her 12-year-old stepbrother to come forward before anyone seemed to realized nobody had seen the little girl in months.

She was allegedly beaten with a broom stick and shot at with a B.B. gun, deprived of food and water and locked in a pen in the days before she died.

Her remains were found by the RCMP in April 2006 near the Fisher River First Nation.

Kematch and McKay have been charged with first-degree murder and are awaiting trial. Both were denied bail are remain in custody. They will appear in court later this month on various motions but their criminal trial is currently scheduled for November.

Phoenix's case was the catalyst for several reviews of kids in care including a mandatory check by social workers of every kid in foster care and a review of files which had been closed in recent months.

Venecia Shanelle Audy

Age: 3

Died: August 14, 2006

Venecia and her siblings had been known to CFS for most of their lives. Venecia and one sibling were living with a relative until a few months before she died. Initially her mother called 911 saying her daughter had fallen down the stairs but it was later determined she died of internal bleeding following a severe blow to the abdomen.

Venecia's mother, Melissa Audy, is out on bail awaiting trial for second-degree murder. She is not to have any contact with her children unless supervised by child and family services workers.

Her stepfather, Jason Allen Kines, is awaiting trial on charges of aggravated sexual assault, sexual interference and failure to provide the necessities of life to a child.

Gage Guimond

Age: 2

Died: July 22, 2007

Gage was placed in foster care shortly after his first birthday after his mother abandoned him and his sister. In the winter of 2007 he was moved from that foster home to live with his grandmother, who told CFS workers she wasn't able to care for him. Gage and his older sister were removed from that home after being discovered in the aftermath of a drinking party covered in head lice. He was eventually placed with his great aunt, Shirley Guimond, who was determined to be low-risk despite a previous conviction for assault. Gage died six weeks after he moved in with his aunt.

Shirley Guimond is out on bail awaiting trial for manslaughter. She has a curfew, must abstain from alcohol and cannot have contact with any child under 14.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2008

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