Kids pay price for government secrecy

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It is one of life’s greatest ironies that the more you shine light on mistakes made by government, the more determined government becomes to keep everything it does in the dark.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2017 (2123 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is one of life’s greatest ironies that the more you shine light on mistakes made by government, the more determined government becomes to keep everything it does in the dark.

As a case in point, consider the fierce battle raging between the Free Press and various arms of the provincial government that are seeking to conceal the details of the brutal 2014 murder of a 21-month-year-old child by her mother, the tragic conclusion to a young life full of abuse and neglect.

The Free Press has followed this case for three years, during which time both the provincial child-welfare system and the provincial court system have undertaken extraordinary measures to keep secret the identities of the child and mother.

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press Files The three volumes of The Legacy of Phoenix Sinclair, Achieving the Best for All Our Children report by The Hon. Ted Hughes.

This week, a Court of Queen’s Bench court judge ordered a publication ban to prevent any publication of the identities of child and mother, despite the fact the mother had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Normally, once a guilty verdict or plea is entered, the identities of parents and children involved in a case such as this would be part of the public record. The court elected to ignore this tradition, without citing any authority to support its decision.

That is not the only attempt being made to conceal details of this case. The provincial government has taken additional steps to conceal the intimate details of how the child-welfare system responded to this case before, during and after the toddler’s tragic death.

In response to a freedom of information request by the Free Press, the province redacted huge portions of briefing notes on the case prepared for six different cabinet ministers. The omissions included nine recommendations from the Family Services Department in relation to this case and details of the strategy being employed to manage media inquiries.

This is an odd way to respond, if only for the fact that Manitoba only recently saw the value of a full and frank examination of failure in the child-welfare system.

In January 2014, the final report of the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair was made public despite years of effort by the province and the union representing social workers to derail or limit the review.

All told, it cost $14 million to examine the systemic issues that led to five-year-old Phoenix’s horrible death at the hands of her mother and stepfather. The recommendations from that inquiry have led to profound and positive changes in the treatment of vulnerable children.

One would think after demonstrating the value of publicly exposing Phoenix’s case, no one would be foolish enough to try to cloak other cases in secrecy. Remarkably, that is exactly what is happening.

In many ways, it’s not surprising. As mentioned earlier, an unblinking examination of a systemic failure can do more to harden the resolve of government and the people who toil within it to resist further exposure.

Five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair was murdered by her mother and stepfather in June 2005, prompting a public inquiry. The Legacy of Phoenix Sinclair: Achieving the Best for All Our Children (left), by Justice Ted Hughes, suggests improvements to Manitoba’s child-welfare system in light of Phoenix’s death.

This was certainly the experience for those who have reported on wrongful convictions. After the Free Press reported extensively in the mid-2000s on the wrongful conviction of James Driskell, the province ordered a judicial inquiry. That inquiry confirmed a pattern of systemic corruption and manipulation by police and prosecutors in the case that was first suggested by a Free Press investigation.

Following the inquiry, the province paid Driskell $4 million in compensation, and pledged to make a more sincere effort to support the re-examination of a backlog of other cases of possible wrongful conviction, some involving the same prosecutor.

Unfortunately, lawyers and other advocates for the wrongly convicted would be hard-pressed to identify any changes in culture or attitude in the provincial Justice Department. In fact, the prosecutions branch appears for all intents and purposes to be less co-operative, and more hostile, to those who have followed in Driskell’s footsteps.

This mirrors the trends we are seeing now in the child-welfare system.

The inquiry into Phoenix’s case was no doubt a torturous experience for the people on the front lines who have to make life-and-death decisions on when to remove children from their families, and when they should be returned. So torturous, it seems, that no one is interested in going through that experience again, despite the fact many of the problems identified in Phoenix’s case seem to be persisting.

The Free Press recently reported on a special report from Manitoba children’s advocate, Darlene MacDonald, that documented the death of 14 children who had been monitored by the Island Lake First Nation Family Services. Of the cases studied, four of the children died of suicide, six in accidents, two by drowning, two from infections and two were categorized as unexplained infant deaths.

However, in 11 of the 14 cases, MacDonald found significant shortcomings in the performance of the agency involved, including gaps in service, an absence of routine monitoring and followup care and a lack of programming to address the family dysfunction that had put the children at risk. In publishing the details of the report, the Free Press kept confidential any information that would have identified the identity of the children or their families.

Remarkably, when the report was obtained by the Free Press, the children’s advocate demanded we not publish any of its details. In an email to reporter Mia Rabson, MacDonald suggested any use of the details of the report would further “violate” the lives of the families involved. She further suggested it was wrong to assume “the public has a right to examine the histories of each family affected by such tragedy.”

John Woods / The Canadian Press The Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry Report was released at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg Friday, January 31, 2014. Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross acknowledged the failure of the child welfare system to protect Phoenix Sinclair and will act on the recommendations of Commissioner Ted Hughes' inquiry.

It might be possible to explain this as a mistake in judgment by the children’s advocate. In fact, it is a profound abuse of her power, a misguided attempt to console the families involved in these tragedies with confidentiality.

MacDonald, and others who are trying to keep the details of this most recent case from public view, are using the families involved in these cases as human shields to conceal the shortcomings of the child-welfare system.

Vulnerable children deserve better treatment. It will not come from a process that is left to fester in the darkness of secrecy. For progress to be made, it must be exposed to the light.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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