‘We need to lift the veil of secrecy’

Mystery surrounding toddler's death sparks questions about child welfare system

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A child who was in and out of CFS care was murdered. That much is now clear after her mother pleaded guilty in court.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/04/2017 (2135 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A child who was in and out of CFS care was murdered. That much is now clear after her mother pleaded guilty in court.

But the retired judge who oversaw a provincial inquiry into the child welfare system says the lack of details about what happened to the 21-month-old Interlake girl underscores how far Manitoba still has to go to ensure the public that the system is working.

As the provincial government pledges to review legislation that has allowed for information about the homicide of the girl to be shielded from view, the former commissioner of the $14-million Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry says this case sounds all too familiar. The public shouldn’t have to wait for another long and expensive public inquiry to find out whether Child and Family Services acted properly, retired Justice Ted Hughes said Tuesday.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files Retired judge Ted Hughes says the inquiry he led was meant to stop more cases, such as that of Phoenix Sinclair, from happening.

Less than a year after Hughes’ recommendations were released to help prevent another death like that of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, another Manitoba girl died in similar circumstances of abuse and neglect.

Hughes spoke to the Free Press about the case of an Interlake toddler who died in July 2014 after suffering months of abuse. She had been taken into foster care at birth, and died after being malnourished, neglected and assaulted following her return to her parents a year earlier. Her mother has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in her death and her father is still awaiting trial for manslaughter.

Nearly three years later, few details have been publicly released about the girl’s death, and many are covered by a publication ban as the criminal case involving the girl’s parents winds its way through court.

“That Phoenix report was written such that this would never happen to another child, and obviously something has gone wrong and this little girl has fallen through the cracks again,” retired judge Hughes said, reached at home in British Columbia.

“By having a very expensive public inquiry, it all came out in the Phoenix (case). But it should not be necessary to have another expensive public inquiry to get all the facts out of this case,” Hughes said. “But it may be difficult until the criminal case is over.”

Families Minister Scott Fielding said Tuesday the government will review a portion of the Child and Family Services Act that government officials have repeatedly cited in denying information to the public about specific CFS cases, including this one.

“As a government, I think we need to lift the veil of secrecy for the CFS system,” he said in promising to review Section 76 (3) of the CFSA, which states that child records cannot be disclosed except in certain limited circumstances.

“We can look at the interpretation of that segment to ensure there’s more transparency…” Fielding said in an interview.

He said in doing so, however, a balance must be struck between openness and privacy concerns.

The Free Press sought copies of briefing notes to the minister on the case of the slain child under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). Six documents were provided — all almost completely blacked out.

The most recent briefing note, dated Jan. 30, also included nine recommendations — it did not indicate from whom — apparently resulting from the case. All the recommendations were redacted.

Fielding stressed that he played no role in the decision to redact most of the information provided to the Free Press. That was done by civil servants, he said. “That isn’t something that’s politically driven. That wasn’t driven from my office,” he said.

A source with knowledge of the FIPPA process said the government may have acted well within its rights if the recommendations that were made pertained to the particular case. However, government officials would be on shakier ground in redacting the recommendations if they addressed systemic issues within the CFS system, she said.

Meanwhile, Fielding said the Pallister government is taking several other steps to increase system transparency — including a bill that was introduced this legislative session to give the Manitoba children’s advocate more flexibility in releasing information on specific cases.

He noted the government has launched a review of its freedom of information legislation, and it will also review how other provinces strike the balance between privacy and transparency when releasing information about child welfare cases.

Outgoing Manitoba Children’s Advocate Darlene MacDonald said she could not comment on this particular case, but in an emailed statement to the Free Press, she said it’s important to strike a balance between confidentiality and transparency to maintain the public’s confidence in the province’s delivery of child-welfare services.

“Our office has been advocating with the government directly for a couple of years now that they need to find a better way of delivering services in a more transparent way. Blanket bans on discussion of events is sometimes important in extreme circumstances, but much more should be done to ensure the public is accurately informed, especially on deeper, systemic causes that precipitate critical events,” she wrote.

“I have specifically recommended that the government examine possible legislative remedies regarding the sharing of child welfare information with the public in exceptional circumstances where the public interest, and interests of children and youth, may outweigh the privacy restrictions currently in place.”

Hughes made 62 recommendations arising from the death of Phoenix Sinclair that were designed to address cracks in the child-welfare system and help prevent future deaths. He said Tuesday “it’s critical” for the public to get answers about CFS involvement with the 21-month-old girl prior to her death, particularly since she suffered neglect. One of those recommendations involved detailed record-keeping on all CFS visits with children and their families. Those records have not been publicly released in this case.

“There’s a series of recommendations; if they’d followed them in this case, my judgment is that there would be a lot more known about the background than there is today,” Hughes said.

“The public needs assurance that child protection is receiving the attention it requires from the department of government that’s put in charge of children who are taken into care, and the follow up that is required to ensure the safety of those children. It’s a public issue. I think the public’s entitled to know,” he added.

Malnutrition and prolonged abuse were noted as contributing factors in the toddler’s death, court heard when her mother pleaded guilty on Monday. She faces life in prison and is set to be sentenced in July. The girl’s father is awaiting a trial set for February 2018.

The little girl died on July 17, 2014, after she was taken to hospital in Hodgson, where medical staff saw signs of “severe neglect and abuse,” Crown attorney Daniel Chaput told court Monday. The child died of internal injuries caused by a beating she suffered earlier that day, court heard.

Malnutrition and “repeated and prolonged historical abuse” also contributed to the toddler’s death, Chaput said.

Neither the child nor her mother can be identified under a court-ordered publication ban imposed Monday. The reasons for the publication ban remain unclear.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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