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This article was published 21/3/2019 (431 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Families Minister Heather Stefanson never uttered the term "sandbagged" — and yet, you can bet that's exactly what she thinks happened.
Earlier this week, Stefanson challenged the integrity of Daphne Penrose, the Manitoba advocate for children and youth. Specifically, she alleged in the legislature that, prior to releasing a special report March 12 on the Tina Fontaine case, Penrose had withheld details of 17 youth who were in immediate danger due to a combination of family dysfunction, substance abuse and sexual exploitation.
As proof, Stefanson noted that during a face-to-face meeting with Penrose on Feb. 6, there was no mention of the 17 vulnerable youth. "This is unusual, I will say, where a children's advocate will not share this kind of information," the minister said.
The inference was clear: Stefanson believed she had been sandbagged by Penrose, who had withheld details about the vulnerable youth to surprise the provincial government and maximize publicity for her office.
It was an odd moment. Stefanson looked and sounded impatient, like a parent who was just finding out one of her children had been bad and had tried to conceal it.
It was also an explosive allegation.
Penrose is an independent, who reports directly to the legislature. Suggesting she deliberately tried to embarrass the government by withholding information would be a devastating allegation that would call into question the ethics of the office.
If it were true, of course.
A deeper dive into the story reveals senior officials across multiple departments, agencies and authorities were fully briefed on the contents of the Tina report, and alerted to the 17 cases Penrose referenced, weeks before it was made public. (Tina was 15 when her body was pulled from the Red River in 2014.)
It started in early February, when Penrose's office provided draft copies of the Tina report — including evidence, analysis and recommendations — to a wide range of interested parties, including senior officials in Stefanson's department.
Two weeks later, her office held two "domain meetings" to fact-check the report and provide an opportunity to add information. The only thing missing was the final text of Penrose's executive summary, in which she makes her own commentary on the findings. That is not written until all affected departments and agencies have had a chance to respond.
The first of the two domain meetings took place on the morning of Feb. 25, and included senior officials from Child and Family Services (formerly the child protection branch), five CFS agencies and two CFS authorities. A second meeting that afternoon involved senior officials from the families, health, justice and education departments, along with representatives of the RCMP.
In addition, a complete and final copy of the Tina report was provided to all interested parties, including the minister's office, the day before it was publicly released.
What about the specific reference to 17 youth facing imminent danger? As it turns out, all of the youth Penrose referenced were known to the child-welfare system well before the Tina report was made public.
In an interview, Penrose said it was never her intention to suggest there were only 17 youth facing the same array of threats that Tina had. Or that the 17 youth were receiving no treatment.
She said there are many more in the child-welfare system and most are receiving some form of help. However, the help available for these kinds of cases is simply insufficient, particularly when it comes to addictions treatment.
Of the 17 cases referenced in the report, most have been assessed by authorities and deemed eligible to receive Level 5 funding for treatment, the highest level afforded to a vulnerable child or youth. As well, all have been in touch with a CFS agency or Street Reach, the child-protection program overseen by the Families Department.
"All of these kids are known to CFS and many of them would have, at points in time, received services from Street Reach," Penrose said. "The point in bringing these cases up is to publicize the fact that the resources that these kids need are just not there."
On one level, it's not hard to figure out why Stefanson is angry at Penrose.
Since taking over the position, Penrose has been a constant source of concern at the political level of the Progressive Conservative government. Her reports on the chronic shortage of addictions treatment for youth and children, solitary confinement for youth offenders and Tina Fontaine are exceedingly direct in their analysis and commentary. In almost all instances, these reports have forced Premier Brian Pallister and his cabinet to scramble for answers.
In other words, Penrose is not afraid to take on the government, which, in theory, is exactly the kind of approach you would want from an independent watchdog.
In reality, however, it is not unusual for governments of all stripes to grow weary of watchdogs who insist on living up to the full letter of their mandates. It is a lot easier to support accountability when it's part of an election campaign slogan; once in government, accountability can be a real drag.
That is surely a lesson Stefanson is learning the hard way.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Thursday, March 21, 2019 at 8:45 PM CDT: Fixes typos