POLITICS

Manitoba government says it's making progress on child- welfare recommendations

10/08/2014 12:55 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government says it will take years to implement some of the recommendations from a public inquiry into Manitoba's troubled child-welfare system and the tragic death of Phoenix Sinclair.

Half of 62 recommendations from last year's inquiry report have been put into effect or are works in progress, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Wednesday. Among them is a call for an improved centralized database to ensure more children are properly monitored and don't slip through the cracks.

"We're doing a project scope for the technology and ... it will take a number of years in order to get the technology implemented," she said.

Another key recommendation to ease the load of social workers so they handle no more than 20 files at any time is still being dealt with through the hiring of more staff, she added.

Other inquiry recommendations, such as improved training for social workers and a regulatory body for them similar to those for doctors and nurses, is to be fulfilled next year.

The minister's comments come 10 months after the government received the final report from the $14-million inquiry into Phoenix's beating death in 2005. The five-year-old girl spent much of her life in care and was horrifically abused after being returned to her mother, Samantha Kematch. The child was beaten to death by Kematch and Kematch's boyfriend, Karl McKay.

The inquiry was told Winnipeg Child and Family Services received tips that Phoenix was in danger on 13 separate occasions. The agency frequently lost track of the girl or closed her file, deciding she was fine, without laying eyes on her.

Kematch and McKay managed to conceal the girl's death for nine months before they were apprehended and later convicted of first-degree murder.

The inquiry heard that social workers were often overwhelmed. There was so much staff turnover that 27 different workers dealt with Phoenix during her short life.

Social workers failed to identify Karl McKay when he entered the girl's life in 2004. McKay had a history of severe domestic abuse laid out in a family services information system, but social workers only knew him as "Wes."

The Manitoba government is committed to all 62 recommendations and plans to release a progress report early next year, Irvin-Ross said.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives accused the government of dragging its heels and said some of the problems highlighted in the inquiry report were first raised in internal investigations in 2006.

"It's been quite awhile in process and we are looking at at least a year before any real action is taken on many of the recommendations," family services critic Ian Wishart said.

Manitoba child welfare has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years due to several deaths, including that of Tina Fontaine, 15, in August.

Fontaine's body was pulled from the Red River one week after she disappeared. She was in the care of Family Services, but was a frequent runaway. Her great-aunt, Thelma Favel, said social workers failed to keep track of Tina and lost her hours before she was last seen.

Irvin-Ross announced Wednesday the province will soon open a six-bed shelter in Winnipeg, with heightened security, for high-risk girls.

The number of children in care has almost doubled in the last decade to 10,000. More than 70 per cent are aboriginal.