Province unfairly plays wait and see with youth advocate

When it comes to the welfare of Manitoba children and youth, just about everyone agrees the main goal is to ensure "no one falls through the cracks" of a system geared to ensure their safety and well-being.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2019 (1110 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When it comes to the welfare of Manitoba children and youth, just about everyone agrees the main goal is to ensure “no one falls through the cracks” of a system geared to ensure their safety and well-being.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of all involved, sometimes those with their hands on the levers of power end up making those cracks bigger.

That is certainly a risk in the most recent dispute between the provincial government and Manitoba advocate for children and youth Daphne Penrose, which is threatening to leave hundreds of children without oversight from the advocate’s office.

Manitoba advocate for children and youth, Daphne Penrose. (John Woods / The Canadian Press file)

Based on recommendations from the commission report into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair, the Progressive Conservative government drafted legislation in 2017 to greatly expand the powers of the advocate’s office to investigate, study and report on the welfare of children and youth.

However, when it was proclaimed in March 2018, two sections were left in limbo: one would expand the advocate’s ability to investigate deaths of children who are not in the care of the Child and Family Services system; the second would empower the advocate to investigate serious injuries of children who have had contact with the mental health, addictions and justice systems.

Although those sections were to be proclaimed in spring 2019, the Tory government balked, and now there are legitimate concerns they may never be brought into force.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson said her department cannot enact the remaining sections of the child and youth advocate legislation until it gauges the impacts of C-92, a soon-to-be activated federal law that will give Indigenous peoples jurisdiction over child welfare in their communities.

In an interview, Stefanson said the federal legislation could have a huge impact on child welfare in Manitoba, given the number of Indigenous children in care of the provincial system. As a result, it is essential Manitoba wait to see how the new federal Indigenous child welfare system will work before expanding the scope of the provincial advocate.

When asked if there was a possibility those remaining sections would not be enacted, Stefanson said repeatedly it was the province’s “intention” to do so, but, “For right now, all of our focus has to be on C-92.”

Penrose said she has discussed the impact of C-92 with Stefanson’s department; however, she has been firm there is nothing in it that precludes the enactment of the remaining parts of the provincial law.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson said her department has to wait to learn how a federal law giving Indigenous peoples jurisdiction over child welfare in their communities will affect the province. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Of the 32 child and youth suicides in Manitoba last year, Penrose noted her office was only able to investigate 19. The advocate also remains locked out of investigating any seriously injured child or youth involved in the mental health, addictions or justice system.

“The government has consistently talked about the need to get this right, but in waiting (to enact sections of the provincial law) we’re compromising the here and now. The lessons that are in these deaths and injuries that we are not investigating will be lost forever if we wait,” Penrose said.

Penrose makes an excellent point: although there will no doubt be jurisdictional issues arising from C-92, the two remaining sections of the Manitoba law deal largely with children who are not in the existing child welfare system.

There is also a real possibility that, in lieu of establishing a national Indigenous child and youth advocate, something not mentioned in the existing federal legislation, Indigenous communities and agencies will continue to make use of the resources of the provincial advocate to investigate deaths of children in care.

The bigger concern for Stefanson and the government is the reluctance to fully activate the expanded role looks like a response to what has been a fairly prickly relationship with Penrose over the past two years.

Both Stefanson and her predecessors have accused Penrose of deliberately embarrassing the government by withholding information that was later released in public reports. Although those allegations were largely unfounded, Penrose has frequently challenged the current provincial government for a failure to expand mental health and addictions services for children and youth.

Stefanson said she shares Penrose’s interest of ensuring “no child falls between the cracks,” but in failing to fully proclaim a law the provincial government designed and passed, Stefanson is allowing hundreds of children to go without adequate oversight.

Daphne Penrose wrote the special report on the life and death of Tina Fontaine. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Blaming the delay in implementing provincial law on C-92 is curious and, on some levels, rather unflattering.

Stefanson and her department should have the capacity to manage changes prompted by the new federal law, while also extending protection for Manitoba children not currently in the child welfare system.

If not, there’s a good chance the cracks in the system are broader and deeper than any of us thought.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

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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