GET ready for next year's child-welfare catch phrase: Differential response.
That's social work-speak for programs and specialized staff that gently weasel their way into troubled families and prevent abuse and neglect before it happens. The goal is to keep families together rather than sending kids to foster homes.
It represents a fundamental shift in the way child welfare is done, and it will mean another 50 or 60 new front-line workers will be hired, say provincial officials.
Two agencies are testing differential response, also known as family enhancement or family support. One agency is testing a new made-in-Manitoba risk-assessment tool that has prevention built into it. It works for families whose risk levels might not trigger foster placement but could benefit from counselling, regular visits from social workers and perhaps some fetal-alcohol services.
Another agency is going through case files to see which ones could have been better handled in a non-adversarial way rather than a full-on investigation, which often results in the apprehension a child.
Differential response will be rolled out provincewide late next year.
Family Services and Housing Minister Gord Mackintosh said it's the long-term solution to the rapidly rising numbers of kids in foster care.
That number has increased almost 20 per cent since Phoenix Sinclair's body was found in March 2006. Officials estimate the number of kids in care now tops 8,000.
A new army of prevention specialists means child-abuse workers can focus exclusively on the worst cases instead of trying to shoehorn services to families on the cusp of a crisis. Experts expect it to shrink workloads.
But front-line staff, speaking on condition of anonymity, say it's tough to focus on prevention on some reserves where the basics of life are often a social worker's first priority. When a child-welfare worker spends an afternoon rustling up a space heater for a family with no heat or a meal for kids who haven't eaten in days, it's hard to find time for family counselling.
Prevention is easier in Winnipeg compared to northern reserves that don't even have a full-time nurse.
"Differential response can capture some of those cases," said one social worker from an agency in the Southern Authority. "But can it do all it is intended to do in reducing kids in care? Absolutely not."