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Pay now or pay later.
That's the warning of commissioner Ted Hughes' exhaustive report from the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair.
"To truly honour Phoenix, we need to provide all of Manitoba's children with a good start to life and offer to the most vulnerable an escape from the cycle of poverty and vulnerability that trapped Phoenix and her family."
His 62 recommendations start with helping families so they can avoid contact with the child-welfare system.
"The cost of keeping children safe at home is far less than the cost of maintaining children in care," Hughes said.
Until Manitobans demand all kids get a good start in life in a safe home, more children will end up in care or dead like Phoenix, the report warned.
"Despite all the steps that have already been taken in Manitoba, the number of children coming into the child-welfare system, particularly aboriginal children, continues to rise."
The province says it's acting on, or looking into, all of his recommendations, such as making sure family-enhancement services are in place and available, that family service workers are more accessible by placing them in schools and housing developments, and increasing social assistance housing rates to 75 per cent of the median market rate so kids can stay in decent homes.
Still, most dollars are still being spent coping with crises, not preventing them, said Billie Schibler, the former children's advocate who now heads the Metis Child and Family Services Authority.
"The way our child-welfare system operates now is not the way we want to see it go in the future," she said. That means transforming child welfare from a system lurching from one immediate and dangerous crisis to another. Instead, the system should focus on preventing abuse, keeping families together and shrinking the number of kids who need to be placed in foster care.
Already, the province's four authorities have begun moving toward a prevention or family support model. But Schibler said the transformation exists mostly in theory. The idea may be to help struggling families, but the programs and funding aren't in place for aspects such as cultural healing, parenting classes, addiction counselling, respite and even help with the huge stress of poverty and poor housing.
She said Manitoba is about 20 per cent toward a prevention model, and that's on an optimistic day.
Hughes made recommendations for building better relationships with families and restoring trust in the child-welfare system. He called for continuity — with just one worker providing services to a family throughout its involvement with the agency. To ensure accountability, he recommended anyone who practises social work in Manitoba register with the Manitoba College of Social Work and have a bachelor's degree in social work. The province said a report on registering social workers is expected by June 30.
The province is acting on one of its own recommendations — creating legislation for critical-incident reporting in child welfare so major mistakes get reported and investigated.
"We want to move away from a culture of secrecy and blame," Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Friday. Manitoba introduced no-blame critical-incident reporting in the health system in 2006 "to encourage reporting and full, open participation in the investigation by health-care providers" when a critical, unintended incident occurs.
Critical-incident investigations in the health-care system are kept confidential to encourage people to speak frankly and openly about what occurred so ways of preventing it from happening again can be found. Irvin-Ross said she would consider making reports on child-welfare critical incidents public.
Half of Hughes' 62 recommendations are being acted on and the other half are being looked into by a team of aboriginals and non-aboriginals appointed by Irvin-Ross. The team is supposed to report back to her by Sept. 30.
She was asked how much all the recommendations would cost, but she said she hadn't figured out the total price tag.
"We'll connect with people who work within the child-welfare system and community members who've used the services of child welfare to see what can be done," said Barbara Bruce, an aboriginal consultant who's heading the team.
The question of "what can be done?" depends mainly on money, say child-welfare officials who were dealt a four per cent, $3.1-million cut to salaries and benefits made quietly over Christmas.
"Are they going to be able to find the adequate resources?" asked Jay Rodgers, the CEO of the General Authority and Winnipeg Child and Family Services.
"The commissioner has some fairly significant recommendations regarding licensing requirements — that could be a challenge for the government."
Licensing social workers and requiring them to have social work degrees could be a big problem for remote northern communities, he said.
"The big recommendations that call for multi-system collaboration and concerning early childhood education — those will be challenging," said Rodgers.
"The easier ones are the ones we can do within CFS (if they have the money)."
A top priority would be getting a new computer information system.
Hughes said the province should finish scoping out a new system within the fiscal year and get on with implementing it "without delay."
Rodgers said he expects it will cost tens of millions of dollars and take three to five years to implement, but the benefits would be huge and immediate.
"We really need a tool that provides assistance to front-line and case-management practices," said Rodgers, who oversees agencies responsible for more than 6,000 kids in care on any given day.
A computer system can track children but also help social workers manage their cases by offering easy reference to standards they have to follow, as well as prompts on practice techniques, he said.
The province said Friday it's working on it.
Hughes recommended the province make sure social workers are reaching out to community members and existing groups and agencies to help families keep kids safe.
Those organizations that help kids — especially aboriginal-led ones — should get sustained, long-term funding so they can deliver ongoing holistic services, Hughes said.
The inquiry heard Phoenix's young parents early on visited the Boys and Girls Club where a worker took them under her wing. They stopped going to the club, but that's the kind of community support Hughes said is needed to protect Manitoba's vulnerable kids. Rodgers said many agencies are reaching out to community groups already.
"Each agency is in various stages," said Rodgers. "What we specifically train our workers on are safety networks — how our workers can work with neighbours, schools and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club."
It's voluntary and privacy issues aren't a problem.
"We get consent from the parents and acknowledgement from the network that they won't reveal confidential information."
Hughes said privacy legislation may have to be amended so there is greater information-sharing between social assistance, health and child-welfare agencies when necessary for the protection of the child. The implementation team will be looking into that and 30 other recommendations made by Hughes the province hasn't started on.
In 2006, after Phoenix's death was discovered, six reviews were conducted and made 295 recommendations. The province said Friday it's followed up on 95 per cent of them. It doubled child-welfare funding, added more than 280 jobs to front-line child-protection services and risk-assessment tools and training to help workers. More funds are going to community programs and housing, it says.
"We have to stop the trauma as quickly as we can," said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.
He said aboriginal people have to re-examine how they want to see child welfare operate in this province and their participation in it. He pointed to a practice in Nelson House in which officials remove a troubled parent from the home, rather than uprooting the child, and then provided the necessary supports.
"The child is already damaged and hurt when an incident happens in a home. Why do we multiply that by taking the kid out of the house? What actually needs to happen, I think, is a recognition that the solutions are in our communities already."
— with files from Bruce Owen and Mary Agnes Welch
Read more by Carol Sanders.