Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

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WHEN the Children's Advocate Enhancement Act passes next week -- as it surely will -- responsibility for investigating the deaths of children killed in the care of Child and Family Services will be transferred from the office of the chief medical examiner to the Manitoba Children's Advocate.

And why does that matter?

Two reasons. First, the change is supposed to clear up a serious backlog of cases that require investigation. Second, it points out how seriously underfunded and understaffed the CME's office has been in their efforts to perform this critical role.

Of course, debate on the transfer has also provided an opportunity for all sorts of interested parties to squabble about who is best equipped to deal with the details of these tragedies.

A year ago, Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh promised the power shift as a way of fulfilling just one of the staggering 220 recommendations that came out of reviews of our child welfare system.

One of those reviews revealed that between January 2003 and March 2006, 145 kids died while in care, or within 12 months of receiving care from a child welfare agency. Some of these deaths were accidental. Others were suicides. Still others were children killed by people who were supposed to be looking out for their well-being. Forty-six of the death reviews were not completed at the time of the report.

(It's important to note the stats were dumbed down. They used to look at kids who died within two years of receiving care. Imagine how high those numbers would be).

Still, there was finally irrefutable proof that our so-called child welfare system wasn't doing enough to protect children. The reviews took place after the slaying of Phoenix Sinclair, a child who was killed and her body hidden for months before CFS even realized she was missing.

But here's the reality:

Next week, Alexander Suazo will be sentenced for the manslaughter of 16-month-old Baby Amelia, the child of his girlfriend. She died two years ago at his hands. Autopsy information reveals a long-term pattern of abuse. Child and Family Services had a file on Amelia and her 15-year-old mother at the time of the murder.

Most recently, Gage Guimond was killed after he was removed from a secure foster home, sent to live with a grandmother who didn't feel able to cope with the toddler, and finally handed over to a distant relative.

That woman is now charged with killing the little boy.

The death toll hasn't stopped. Reviews and investigations can't end the brutality. The system is in chaos and everyone -- from Gord Mackintosh on down -- knows children will continue to die unless a sea change takes place in how Child and Family Services agencies operate.

But that's not in the cards, it seems. The province is intransigent in its belief that devolution, the splitting of child-care agencies, will eventually work. How many kids will die in the meantime is just a macabre statistic.

Instead, we're going to witness the transfer of responsibility for the inevitable death reviews.

Gord Mackintosh has vowed to provide the Children's Advocate with two investigators, administrative staff and an additional $380,000 to get the job done. It's money and staffing the CME could have used to get the job done more quickly and efficiently. That wasn't in the cards during the near-decade the NDP has been in power.

This move has left some people wondering if the transfer of responsibility is analogous to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

One of the critics of the change is Dr. Peter Markesteyn, Manitoba's former chief medical examiner and now a consulting forensic pathologist. In a report to the standing committee examining the amendment to the act, he expressed strong reservations.

An advocate should not be an investigator, he believes, and an investigator cannot be an advocate. This is "a clear example of poor legislation as it will invoke conflict of interest issues," he said in an e-mail.

This may all seem rather far away from the horrible deaths of Phoenix Sinclair, Baby Amelia and Gage Guimond. But it is critical. It comes down to responsibility, to the fact that if our government is going to continue to fail the children in its care over and over and over again, it should at very least be able to investigate their deaths promptly.

That it has refused to fund the medical examiner's office to perform this essential role speaks volumes to its refusal to deal with any of the core issues.

Children are dying in care. Social workers are stretched beyond their limits. Fledgling agencies are hiring inexperienced workers. Kids are being warehoused. The body count is going to grow.

In the meantime, the NDP will be able to boast that it's implemented an important change to the Children's Advocate Act. Maybe they'd like to call it the Phoenix Sinclair amendment.

Or maybe they should just name it for Baby X, that nameless child who is destined to die unless this government faces its responsibility to fix a horribly damaged system.

 

 

 

 

 

Lindor Reynolds blogs at www.winnipegfreepress.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2007

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