It's been five years since Manitoba's child-welfare system started spending more to prevent family breakdown instead of apprehending children, but the province can't say how many families are being helped by the new approach.

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It's been five years since Manitoba's child-welfare system started spending more to prevent family breakdown instead of apprehending children, but the province can't say how many families are being helped by the new approach.

Critics say child welfare's focus on reducing the number of children in care by catching problems early has waned.

Cora Morgan

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cora Morgan

In 2010, the province earmarked $29 million a year for what's called family enhancement -- a stream of child-welfare cases in which social workers help struggling families with everything from housing to respite to parenting classes before any abuse or neglect forces CFS to apprehend a child.

'We haven't had a case yet where CFS said, "Well, how can we support you?" They say, "Well, all you have is juice and a couple cookies in the house. That's not acceptable. We're going to take your child." '‐ Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs children's advocate Cora Morgan on the 200 intake cases she's reviewed in her six months on the job

Five years ago, that money was budgeted based on the assumption it would help 3,000 families and hire as many as 150 special caseworkers. The province says that target has not yet been reached. But it cannot say how many family-enhancement cases there are, how many case workers have been hired or how the figures have changed in the last five years. That's in part because its central database makes it difficult to track the numbers and because each of the 23 front-line agencies has a different definition of family enhancement.

Lorna Hanson, the child-protection branch's acting director of centralized services, said family enhancement is clearly being done in more fluid ways by front-line social workers who prevent problems from escalating even in child-protection cases. She said the province has earned some optimism from new data that show the number of children in care has stabilized.

The Family Services Department's newly released annual report shows there were 10,295 children in care as of March 31. That's down by two from the previous year. In First Nations agencies, there were 35 fewer children in care at the end of the last fiscal year than in 2013-14. Still, about 87 per cent of children in care are indigenous.

"When we look at family enhancement, it's severely underfunded," said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs children's advocate Cora Morgan.

Morgan called on the province to launch a case review to see how many child-protection cases could really be shifted to the family-enhancement stream, with children returned and families supported.

She said she spoke recently with a social worker who is the only family-enhancement worker at one of the biggest First Nations agencies in the province. The worker had 20 files, the ideal cap for a prevention worker, but said other social workers were reluctant to transfer protection cases to her -- not because the children faced ongoing safety issues, but because the paperwork is so onerous.

"We haven't had a case yet where CFS said, 'Well, how can we support you?' " said Morgan of the 200 intake cases she's reviewed in her six months on the job. "They say, 'Well, all you have is juice and a couple cookies in the house. That's not acceptable. We're going to take your child.' "

In reviews, policy documents, press releases and funding models, family enhancement has been repeatedly touted as a culture shift that would finally curb the number of aboriginal children coming into foster care, a way to help families rather than tear them apart. But the model has repeatedly collided with another trend in child welfare -- a profound risk-aversion, many new rules and standards as well as increased control by the province's child protection branch in the wake of several high-profile deaths of children in care.

A senior child-welfare source said the province was very supportive of family enhancement in the first few years following the death of Phoenix Sinclair, whose death at the hands of her mother and stepfather jolted the system.

Then, funding and administrative rules kicked in that still worked against family enhancement, maintaining a model that still rewarded an agency with more funding for taking a child into care than doing prevention.

It was also not clear what counted as a family-enhancement case. The agencies wanted a broader, more generous definition, in part because it meant funding more workers. Out of an abundance of caution, the branch tended to label any case where there were safety issues a child-protection case, instead of a family-enhancement case where the child could be left at home.

More recently, the focus on keeping families intact has been trumped by a flurry of new funding for foster homes, group homes and emergency placements, said the source. That followed another round of uproar over the number of foster children being kept in hotel rooms, watched by underpaid, undertrained private staff.

The death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine last year, along with the sexual assault of a child in care in a downtown parkade, forced the province to again pledge to end the use of hotels as temporary placements.

Two weeks ago, the province touted the addition of 55 emergency shelter beds and 114 emergency foster beds throughout Manitoba since April 1 and 119 new child-protection support workers to staff those homes.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca