The safety of children will take precedence over all other considerations -- including cultural and family ties -- for kids in care in Manitoba's child welfare system, through legislation expected this spring.
After investigations into the deaths of Gage Guimond and Tracia Owen suggested their safety wasn't always the No.1 consideration, Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh plans to amend the Child and Family Services Act to send the message to everyone in the system that nothing trumps the safety of a child when determining where they should live.
"It should be self-evident, but we can't take a risk with this message," Mackintosh told the Free Press on Thursday.
"Safety must be paramount when it comes to the best interests of the child. There's no room for the message to be anything other than crystal clear that safety is job 1."
The existing CFS Act in Manitoba indicates the system must always act in a child's best interest. But safety is specifically not listed in the act as one of the guiding principles for the system, nor as one of the ways to determine what a child's best interest actually is.
That is going to change with the amendment, Mackintosh said.
The amendment will send a strong message to all child welfare authorities that returning children to extended families or culturally appropriate settings is not acceptable if it also puts them at risk.
Tracia Owen, 14, hanged herself in 2005. She had been involved with the child welfare system her entire life and was returned repeatedly to her parents, even though from the time she was born there were warning signs the parents were unable to care for her.
Her inquest report was a scathing indictment of Manitoba's child welfare system.
Two-year-old Gage Guimond was killed in July 2007 after having been removed from a safe foster family and sent to live, along with his sister, first to his grandmother and then to a great- aunt, even though social workers were aware the grandmother had addictions issues and the great-aunt had a criminal record.
The great-aunt is now charged with manslaughter in the toddler's death.
The government has not called an inquest into the little boy's death and will not acknowledge whether any CFS staff have been fired or disciplined in the case.
A source close to the system, however, said there was at least one high-ranking employee placed on paid leave following Gage's death, but that he has since returned to work.
Manitoba Children's Advocate Billie Schibler said the government is sending a very important message with this move, reminding everybody that absolutely nothing supercedes keeping a child safe.
"I would have thought everybody would understand that the first and foremost priority is always the safety of the child," said Schibler.
She said, however, that with the major changes the system has undergone in the last few years, "maybe there was some kind of confusion."
"We've seen incidents where concerns have been raised," Schibler said. "I think maybe it needs to be spelled out that at no point in time should a child's safety ever be compromised."
Additionally, front-line workers are going to be strongly directed to enforce an "every child seen every time" mandate, Mackintosh said.
"There is a requirement in our standards that every child is to be regularly seen. It is important that be reinforced, enunciated in ways like never before by clarifying the standards and training," he said.
"We're even having some early discussions about whether that should be in the act. What does that mean, 'child seen'? I think on the front line we need some better clarification of what is the extent of 'child seen,' " he said.
It will no longer be acceptable, said Elsie Flette, CEO of Southern First Nations Child and Family Services, for a front-line worker to be told a child is sleeping or not at home, nor can the worker simply look at a sleeping infant and conclude there has been no abuse or neglect.
"If you have infants, you don't just look at the child sleeping. You actually look to see if they have bruising and so on and so forth, depending on the situation."
Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen called on the government last fall to make legislative changes reflecting the safety of a child. On Thursday, he said this is a welcome move but hopes it's not the government's only move.
"We're not going to be satisfied until we see the system and its operations have been changed to reflect (the legislative change)," McFadyen said.
He said it's time to revisit the issue of devolution and revisit the lines of accountability to ensure that not only does the legislation say safety is job 1, but that is actually practised.
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said he feels devolution offered some important improvements to the system, but he said this is an important change to remind everyone what the system is supposed to be doing.
"The principle is the child always has to be put first," Gerrard said.
Flette said an ongoing internal review of Sakeeng Child and Family Services is looking at workloads as well as "the role of almost everybody that had contact on Gage's case or should have had contact on Gage's case, on decisions that were made."
Current and former staff are all being interviewed, she said.
It is expected the review will * be completed in June, 11 months after Gage was buried.
It will be just the latest in a string of inquest reports and internal reviews of child welfare in Manitoba, all of which have shown an overworked, overburdened system. There are more than 7,000 kids in care in Manitoba.
"The outside reviews were completed not long before Gage died and what they found were there were historic and deep-seated shortcomings in the child welfare system in Manitoba that had to be addressed in many ways," Mackintosh said.