May 21, 2019

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'These kids need action today'

Child advocate pushes province for increased services as mandate expands

Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth will gain new responsibilities and – she hopes – new resources this year, as the provincial government introduces legislation allowing the office to investigate more deaths and serious injuries.

In a meeting with the legislative affairs committee Wednesday, Daphne Penrose answered a number of questions from MLAs about her two most-recent annual reports. She also discussed how her office is handling its widened mandate, and how she believes government is handling serious issues facing youth (such as sexual exploitation, addictions and mental health problems).

On the latter topic, Penrose didn’t mince words. Echoing comments she made in open letters and public reports throughout 2018, the advocate told committee members it is time to act.

“I will continue to talk about the increased need for mental health and addictions services and the fact that, again, the time for discussion and strategies and future tasks and actions is passed. These kids need action today,” she said.

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Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth will gain new responsibilities and – she hopes – new resources this year, as the provincial government introduces legislation allowing the office to investigate more deaths and serious injuries.

In a meeting with the legislative affairs committee Wednesday, Daphne Penrose answered a number of questions from MLAs about her two most-recent annual reports. She also discussed how her office is handling its widened mandate, and how she believes government is handling serious issues facing youth (such as sexual exploitation, addictions and mental health problems).

Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth, Daphne Penrose, answers questions about her annual report from members of the legislative assembly at the Legislative Building, Wednesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth, Daphne Penrose, answers questions about her annual report from members of the legislative assembly at the Legislative Building, Wednesday.

On the latter topic, Penrose didn’t mince words. Echoing comments she made in open letters and public reports throughout 2018, the advocate told committee members it is time to act.

"I will continue to talk about the increased need for mental health and addictions services and the fact that, again, the time for discussion and strategies and future tasks and actions is passed. These kids need action today," she said.

The advocate’s office, which is an independent body of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, is now able to make policy recommendations to departments beyond Child and Family Services, including areas such as health, justice and education.

StreetReach program being reviewed

The Manitoba government is gearing up to review the efficiency of its StreetReach program, which helps find missing youth and tries to prevent sexual exploitation.

The province issued a request for proposal in December looking for Indigenous consultants to evaluate StreetReach's goals and see whether there's room for improvement. The RFP listed a maximum $30,000 price-point. The deadline for applications was Jan. 2.

The Manitoba government is gearing up to review the efficiency of its StreetReach program, which helps find missing youth and tries to prevent sexual exploitation.

The province issued a request for proposal in December looking for Indigenous consultants to evaluate StreetReach's goals and see whether there's room for improvement. The RFP listed a maximum $30,000 price-point. The deadline for applications was Jan. 2.

A government spokesperson said Wednesday no decisions have been made yet on a potential winning bid.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson said the program, like many other government initiatives, is being reviewed.

As tactics around sexual exploitation change, so too must the programs designed to fight the problem, she said.

"No longer do you see (exploitation) right in front of us in the communities. A lot of this activity is taking place online, and so to the extent that things are moving with technology and everything else, we need to make sure that our programs are meeting those standards as well," Stefanson said.

Daphne Penrose, Manitoba's advocate for children and youth, praised the StreetReach program after a legislative affairs committee Wednesday, calling the value of the group "profound."

"If a review will help them to understand what it is they’re doing well and help them to understand areas where they can improve, then absolutely a review is a positive thing for anybody," she said of the RFP.

-- Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

In an October Free Press article, provincial Health Minister Cameron Friesen took issue with some of Penrose's critiques, accusing her of "finger-pointing" rather than working collaboratively to solve problems.

In her opening remarks Wednesday, Penrose alluded to some of the pushback she’s gotten since her office’s scope of duties expanded in March 2018.

"I’m committed to using my time in this office to advance and amplify the voices and opinions of young people, and to do so even when what I’m saying is very difficult and sometimes politically unpopular," she said.

NDP MLA Andrew Swan asked Penrose whether criticisms like Friesen’s are part of a learning process for government officials who now fall under her scrutiny.

"Yeah, it is… Whether those statements are made or not doesn’t change the fact that I feel very, very strongly about the fact that children in our province need mental health and addictions services," Penrose said.

"What they need is action and they need treatment and they need services – now. We have children who are at imminent risk of death and dying, who cannot access (services)."

Penrose spoke of growing numbers of children and youth who are being sexually exploited and who are addicted to drugs such as methamphetamine. Often the two issues go hand in hand, she said, as children are exploited while trying to feed their addictions.

'I’m committed to using my time in this office to advance and amplify the voices and opinions of young people, and to do so even when what I’m saying is very difficult and sometimes politically unpopular' – Daphne Penrose

The advocate said the province needs more safe spaces to bring sexually-exploited youth, and better training for foster parents to spot signs of abuse.

Her office's mandate will widen again this year, as government rolls out Phases 2 and 3 of the Child and Family Services Amendment Act.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson said Phase 2 – which will allow the advocate to investigate deaths of children who interacted with justice, mental health or addictions services in the year prior to their death – should come into effect this spring. (Currently, the advocate's office can only look into deaths of children who were involved with CFS in the year before their deaths.)

Phase 3 – which will let the advocate investigate serious injuries, including sexual assaults – should be rolled out by fall, the minister said.

"I think we have, through the legislation and changes in legislation, have empowered (Penrose) to do a little bit more digging on behalf of children and youth in our province, and I think that that’s a very important thing, and we’re supportive of her in those efforts," Stefanson said.

The minister also confirmed a youth mental health and addictions strategy is in the works.

After the committee, Penrose said her office is ready for the rollout of Phase 2 of the legislation, but will need more resources for Phase 3. She pointed to other provinces with similar frameworks already in place and advocates investigating between 150 and 200 serious injuries per month.

"We will certainly need additional resources to complete that work," she said, though she wasn’t able to comment on how many "additional resources" yet.

"When the time comes, and we begin to work with the government, we will talk to them about that."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Legislature reporter

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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