14 children died slipping through CFS cracks

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OTTAWA — Families who were supposed to be routinely monitored by Child and Family Services workers sometimes went months or years without a single visit, and in other cases, files were closed without the agency addressing the problems families faced, a report obtained by the Free Press shows.

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This article was published 27/03/2017 (2140 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Families who were supposed to be routinely monitored by Child and Family Services workers sometimes went months or years without a single visit, and in other cases, files were closed without the agency addressing the problems families faced, a report obtained by the Free Press shows.

The special investigation report was done by the Manitoba children’s advocate over a two-year period from March 2012 to March 2014, to look at services provided by the Island Lake First Nations Family Services agency to the families of 14 children who died.

The 14 children died from 2009 to 2013, within a year of having an open file with the agency. None of the children was in care at the time of their deaths. Four died of suicide, six died in accidents, including two drownings, two died of infections and two of sudden unexplained infant death.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Manitoba Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald

Children’s advocate Darlene MacDonald wrote in the report that examining the services the children and their families received together, rather than in individual investigations, would be more helpful to understanding the communities they lived in and to address systemic issues affecting the agency.

The 136-page report looks at the case files of all 14 children. It uncovered significant gaps in services, the lack of followup care, and in many cases a lack of any programs to address the high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence the families faced.

In one case, a child and his family were supposed to be monitored daily, but staff had no contact with them for more than a year before the child died of an infection.

In another case, a mom asked for assistance for her suicidal daughter, but she never received it. The daughter took her own life a few months later.

The report was given to the former minister of family services more than three years ago but wasn’t made public. In addition to the gaps in service and lack of followup, the report documented the high rates of substance abuse and family violence in the four communities served by the agency.

Power struggle exacerbates problems

Now, the agency is in further turmoil because of a power struggle between the community’s chiefs and the northern child welfare authority.

On March 23, the First Nations of Northern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority and the board of directors of the Island Lake First Nations Family Services agency signed an agreement to co-manage the agency. Two co-executive directors will be appointed by the end of the week. The agreement comes a month after the chiefs of the four communities in the Island Lake region ordered the board to suspend the agency’s executive director and conduct a review of the administration within 30 days. The chiefs are not part of the agreement, which is to remain in place for a minimum of six months.

In a news release, the northern authority says the co-management agreement includes a plan to address everything from service provision to fiscal management. A work plan will be developed within 30 days and the co-managers will provide monthly progress reports to both the authority and the board.

It’s believed complaints from community members about the executive director overhauling the agency led to the chiefs’ order. The suspended executive director was hired in November 2015, and since then a number of agency staff were let go and the rate of apprehension of children in the communities went up.

Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding told the Free Press Friday he has been assured “all the children are safe.”

“There is a review going forward looking at the scenarios brought up,” he said.

It is unclear what role the report by the children’s advocate played in any of the latest problems.

Children’s advocate Darlene MacDonald was livid the report was leaked to the Free Press.

“Child death reports are strictly confidential because the death of a child should not carry an assumption that the public has a right to examine the histories of each family affected by such tragedy,” she wrote in a statement.

Heavy caseloads, lack of training

The Free Press is not revealing information that would identify the families. The children ranged in age from infancy to late teens. In all but one of the 14 cases, substance abuse was among the reasons child welfare workers got involved. Domestic violence was a problem in at least six of the families, and housing concerns were named as a reason for intervention in at least four files.

The report concluded workers had heavy caseloads, and a lack of training made providing services difficult. In some of the offices — the agency had one in each of the four communities and one in Winnipeg — workers cited operating in “crisis” mode. Some carried caseloads in excess of 40 families.

The 2014 inquiry report into the 2005 slaying of Phoenix Sinclair recommended workers oversee no more than 20 files at a time. The five-year old was killed by her mother and stepdad after she had been returned to them by social workers. Her case launched an inquiry into Manitoba’s child welfare system.

The children’s advocate report into the Island Lake agency notes there were significant challenges to providing services to families. There was a lack of programming to address domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse. In many cases, workers said parents were sent to Winnipeg to undergo alcohol treatment but would relapse immediately upon returning to their northern homes.

Programs that included cultural teachings were far better, but there was little funding to expand them.

Case-management issues, such as gaps in service or lack of followup, occurred in 11 of the 14 files.

Sometimes children were taken from their parents and returned without any effort to address the reasons they had been apprehended. Another family was told CFS would monitor them but then had no contact with any CFS worker for more than two years. Their file was closed and nothing in the file suggests the family received any services to address the substance abuse that caused the agency to get involved.

MacDonald wrote in the report there was nothing in any of the files to indicate effective intervention to address domestic violence took place.

MacDonald made nine recommendations. She told the Free Press Friday that six have been completed and three are in progress. The recommendations include developing strategies to address substance abuse, family violence and suicide in the communities, a safe sleep strategy so parents get information to prevent crib deaths, and more provincial money to add workers and cut down on case files.

The report notes agency workers were being trained to improve their skills, and new workers were hired in many of the offices to reduce caseloads.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, March 27, 2017 10:28 AM CDT: Corrects typo, adds subheads

Updated on Monday, March 27, 2017 11:50 AM CDT: Adds photo

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