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Legal powers to investigate the deaths of children who’ve been involved with Manitoba’s mental health, addictions and criminal-justice systems remain in limbo.
The Manitoba advocate for children and youth has again called attention to the province’s failure to enact updated legislation that would allow its office to investigate when youth die or are seriously injured after accessing government services, including child welfare, mental health and justice.
In its most recent report on the case of a 16-year-old Winnipeg boy named Matthew — who died by suicide in November 2017 after his family made exhaustive attempts at gaining help, including sessions with a Child and Family Services support worker — the advocate is calling for the government to proclaim into force portions of legislation that were passed through the legislature more than two years ago, but have yet to come into effect.
One of eight recommendations included in the report, released Thursday, is for the province to set a proclamation date in spring 2020 for the remaining portions of the Advocate for Children and Youth Act. Until that happens, the advocate only has power to investigate deaths of children and youth who’ve been involved with the child-welfare system, and it can’t investigate any reports of serious injuries.
The office is notified of every death of a youth under age 21 in Manitoba, but it doesn’t have legal authority to investigate all of those cases.
The province has said it is waiting to see how federal child-welfare reforms will roll out before it proclaims the rest of the legislation governing the advocate’s office. The federal legislation, known as Bill C-92, came into effect at the beginning of 2020.
"This remaining piece of the legislation has nothing to do with Bill C-92. This is about the rest of the children in Manitoba, who also deserve a voice and whose family deserves answers about the services that were or were not provided to their children," advocate Daphne Penrose told reporters Thursday during the official release of the report.
"There are 300,000 children in this province, many of whom are struggling with mental health issues. They also deserve somebody to amplify their voice, and without passing that legislation, they aren’t getting that, and it has nothing to do with Bill C-92."
Families Minister Heather Stefanson’s office declined interview requests and issued a statement in response to questions about the unproclaimed legislation.
"Protecting Manitoba’s children and youth is our No. 1 priority, which is why all of our efforts are going toward preparing for the changes coming under the federal Bill C-92, which is the most significant child-welfare reform in Canadian history," the statement said. "Our government introduced and proclaimed the Advocate for Children and Youth Act in 2018 to strengthen the advocate’s oversight over the CFS system.
"Our government will continue to work toward proclamation of those sections of the act, but our priority is ensuring that no children fall through the cracks as we enter this new period of change in child welfare."
The province initially gave a different reason for delaying full implementation of the legislation. When the first portion of the new law came into effect March 2018, the province issued a news release saying the law would be rolled out in phases "to allow the advocate’s office to build capacity and develop appropriate reporting mechanisms for serious injuries."
In its report this week, the advocate’s office stated it has been ready since March 2018 to "implement the full scope" of the legislation.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.
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