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This article was published 13/6/2010 (3909 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Opposition members were appalled when informed by Manitoba's children's advocate that the provincial child welfare system is in chaos. The advocate's report to the legislative assembly management committee should have said the system is still in chaos.
The number of children in the system has risen by almost a third since 2005, to 8,629. For the better part of his four years in the portfolio, Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh has been stamping out the latest crisis. Numerous reviews of cases, of the system and of individual agencies have been launched. A variety of problems, some systemic, were found to have contributed to the breakdowns, which have included the deaths of wards, those children at risk taken into care for their protection.
Front-line workers are overloaded and ill-trained, a systemic review in 2006 concluded. Aboriginal agencies were ill-prepared when the authority for child welfare passed from a centralized service to regional, culturally appropriate bodies. As more workers were hired, as agencies expanded the reach into communities, more cases of children in need or at risk were found. But children and families were often poorly served because many communities don't have the services required -- foster families, mental health or addictions counsellors.
The Office of the Children's Advocate is feeling the strain, too, the committee was told. As the primary resource for children or others who feel the agencies are mishandling a case, the office has seen its calls for help rise. In addition, when in 2008 it was given the job of investigating the deaths of children who had contact with child welfare agencies, its workload expanded again. As well as reviewing an agency's contact with a child who died, an investigator must look at the role any other provincial social service played. Such reviews can take up to a year, the report noted. That has exacerbated the case backlog it inherited.
The office -- advocate Billie Schibler is on indefinite leave -- is asking for more staff, more investigators. In the short term, it is hard to see how that is avoidable. The root of the problem is the difficulty that children and families are experiencing and the child welfare system is overly focused on responding to crises. Front-line workers are overloaded, things get missed or dropped and complaints of failed or miscommunication are frequent. A lot of this lands in the lap of the advocate's office.
Mr. Mackintosh noted the federal government is coming around to the fact that it needs to invest more money and resources to prevent family breakdown. Better social services are critical on reserves, where the province does not have jurisdiction. Ottawa must step into the funding gap. Reviews have shown, as well, that more work needs to be done to ensure strong accountability measures are in place and that agencies have staff with sufficient management skills.
The 2006 external review of Manitoba's child welfare system found numerous shortcomings and the minister vowed to implement its myriad recommendations. There is a need now, in light of the advocate's comments to the LAMC, for a progress report on the fixes suggested. The government has decided the children's advocate will report annually to a legislative committee. That follow-up report should be top of the agenda.