Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Problems, prescriptions and progress

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There's been a flurry of fixes to the child-welfare system since Phoenix Sinclair's death. They come under the umbrella of Changes for Children, and they come with a hefty $42-million price tag.

But what's really changed in the child-welfare system since March 2006?

 

Child safety

 

Problem: Protecting a child didn't trump every other factor when social workers decided where kids should live -- a gap that contributed to the death of Gage Guimond and others. Sometimes workers failed to see a child in care when they made routine checks to foster homes, which happened in the Phoenix Sinclair case in the months before she died. Also, not all foster homes or "places of safety," where kids in care were living had undergone a series of criminal-record checks or formal risk assessments.

Solution: New legislation clearly spells out that safety is the paramount consideration when placing a child, trumping everything, including cultural appropriateness and family ties. A new policy says every child must be seen every visit. Also, following the report into Gage's death, officials undertook a provincewide audit of every foster home to ensure each was safe.

Reality Check: Sixteen kids have died while in child welfare's care since the changes began, but the new policies might not have had time to work.

Accountability

 

Problem: Kids like Phoenix and Gage were dying with little scrutiny or public accountability. As abuse rates, apprehensions and suicides continued to skyrocket, no one knew who was in charge: The minister? The chiefs? The child-protection branch? The four child-protection authorities?

Solution: New legislation mandates that every time a child dies, the Children's Advocate investigates. The office now has staff to do that. A series of operational reviews that cover everything from finance to case paperwork to the workings of the volunteer board have been launched, and every agency will get a checkup every four years. Quality-assurance staff and human-resource specialists are being hired to help agencies.

Reality Check: Things are better, especially in the Southern Authority, where senior social workers say CEO Elsie Flette has "cleaned house" and cracked down on shoddy practices. "Devolution has been a miracle for native agencies," said one senior staffer in a southern agency. "We've seen children die for 15 years, and you never read a word about it and nothing ever changed. The province knew what was happening and never took action. Now, we're accountable to someone, and that's hard, but it's a good thing." Billie Schibler, the children's advocate, agreed. "I have never seen the child-welfare system as open or as publicly transparent," she said.

The weak link is the chiefs. Their role serving on or appointing agency boards is still hazy and to date they have offered limited oversight. Many boards are weak, especially in The North, and there's confusion over how band leaders can be accountable while avoiding conflicts of interest.

Workload

 

Problem: Brutal caseloads have been a problem for decades, a fact that inquest judges have been hammering home since the 1990s with virtually no action. It's not even clear how high some caseloads are because every agency counts them differently and some cases are more high-maintenance than others.

Solution: The province is tracking caseloads and working on a universal model for all agencies to use to determine how much work each staffer is doing and what the standard ought to be.

Reality Check: It's slow. The province added new staff at the one-stop-shop intake agency for all kids, and that shrunk the caseload from 21 to 14.7. But other social workers say workloads, especially on reserves, are preposterously high, and the province has stalled on setting a target.

Hiring and training

 

Problem: Many workers in aboriginal agencies don't have social-work degrees or related experience, and nepotism often placed staff in positions they couldn't handle. Training and skills were spotty.

Solution: The province has approved funding for 99 front-line staff and another 50 to 60 jobs are to be funded next year. More than 2,000 social workers and foster families have received training, and there's a schedule for constant skills upgrading.

Reality Check: Social workers in the trenches say they have not noticed extra bodies. There's no data on how many of the 99 positions are filled nor how many social workers have quit. Plus, caseloads are on the rise, so that eats up time for new staff. "They can't keep qualified social workers in the system," said Conservative child-welfare critic Bonnie Mitchelson. "They've set these agencies up to fail."

Too many kids in care

 

Problem: The number of kids in care is soaring. Since 2006, an extra 1,200 kids have been apprehended, a number officials peg at 8,000 now. Kids are taken into care because there's little prevention up front and because rookie intake workers are risk-averse and fearful of another Phoenix tragedy.

Solution: Differential response, a fancy word for prevention, family counselling and support, will be rolled out provincewide by 2010. It will involve a huge number of new hires to catch families before they fail. Also, a new set of provincewide standards -- which include 19 new must-dos -- is almost final, along with a made-in-Manitoba risk-assessment checklist that's supposed to be more flexible and replace a hodgepodge of risk-assessment checklists.

Reality Check: Much of this is to be rolled out next year. Southern Authority CEO Elsie Flette says it represents a fundamental shift in how child welfare works. It could mean an end to the generations-old practice of scooping Native kids out of their homes.

Shortage of foster parents

 

Problem: There were simply not enough qualified foster parents to meet the need, especially aboriginal foster homes where First Nations kids can stay connected to their roots.

Solution: The province launched a blitz to recruit more foster parents and it boosted, by $6.1 million, the daily rate paid to parents for basic needs and recreation.

Reality Check: There are now more than 1,000 new foster beds provincially and 500 more trained foster families. It's an improvement, but there's an additional need for foster parents who can take in large sibling groups and care for children with disabilities. The province doesn't keep track of how many new aboriginal foster homes there are.

Housing kids in hotels

 

Problem: Child-welfare workers were housing children in hotels in emergencies, an expensive solution that deprived the kids of living in a family setting. In August 2006, there were 166 kids in hotels, an all-time high.

Solution: The government vowed to stop the use of hotels for children in care, except in an emergency such as fire or flood or to keep siblings together. More foster families helps, and a new 10-bed assessment unit -- scheduled to open next year in Winnipeg -- should ease the problem.

Reality Check: Hotels are still being used, although less often. In July 2008, 79 kids were housed in hotels, and there's an annual average of three a day. But experts agree it's better than leaving kids in unsafe situations or sending brothers and sisters to different crisis shelters.

Bad record-keeping

 

Problem: Not every CFS worker had access to a computer and not every reserve had decent Internet access. Social workers didn't use the case-management system consistently. It tended to have only limited information on a child. Kids such as Tracia Owen were moved dozens of times, but social workers didn't know because many case files were shallow. And basic filing wasn't done, so dormant cases stayed open longer than needed.

Solution: The province beefed up CFSIS, the computer system used by social workers, and boosted training. CFSIS will now contain detailed information, not just dates and times of visits, about each child that any worker can see. A red-flag system has been added to the case-management software to alert social workers when a kid has been shunted from home to home.

Reality Check: Record-keeping has improved, but some bands still don't have high-speed Internet access.

Suicide

 

Problem: It stems back generations, especially on remote reserves where sexual abuse, drugs and poverty have an iron grip. But it gained new urgency this year thanks to reports that almost 40 kids and 10 adults attempted suicide in the first five months of the year in Shamattawa alone. Last year, 74 children tried to kill themselves there. Six children in care committed suicide since 2006.

Solution: An $8 million, four-year strategy that includes a youth crisis unit in Thompson and a mobile unit able to travel to reserves. Expanding peer support and prevention programs at northern Manitoba schools and reserves is also part of the plan.

Reality Check: The plan is brand-new so it's too early to tell. But it's limited to more of the same programs that have often fizzled and there's limited activity on the reserves that need them the most, often places where the province doesn't have jurisdiction to deal with the root causes of poverty and abuse.

Child sexual exploitation

 

Problem: Kids who grow up poor, in foster care or who suffer abuse are the first to get lured into street prostitution.

Solution: A big menu of stuff -- a six-bed rural healing lodge to treat kids most entrenched in street life, six new outreach workers, part of a street team to co-ordinate programs that already exist and a host of crackdowns on johns.

Reality Check: The plan is brand new, but it's fairly comprehensive.

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2008 b4

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