POLITICS

Manitoba promises help for child welfare but backs away from inquiry suggestions

01/27/2015 12:22 EST | Updated 03/29/2015 05:59 EDT
WINNIPEG - Manitoba is promising more support for families in danger of losing their children to government care, but the province is backing away from key recommendations in a $14-million inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said some of the suggestions from the final report into the five-year-old's death at the hands of her mother and the woman's boyfriend may not be feasible.

She said the province may not be able to extend care to all child welfare wards until the age of 25, as recommended by Commissioner Ted Hughes. It also may not be realistic to reduce caseloads to 20 families per social worker, she added.

"I wish there was one way, there was a magic bullet, but there isn't," Irvin-Ross said Tuesday after releasing a consultant's 200-page report into how to implement the inquiry's 62 recommendations.

"I have had ongoing conversations with Commissioner Hughes. He knows that some recommendations may not be implemented as he has recorded them. He accepts that and knows that we're working towards improving a better system."

Phoenix bounced in and out of care and was horribly abused by Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay before she died from her injuries in 2005. The couple managed to conceal the girl's death for nine months and Kematch continued to collect child-subsidy cheques. The pair was eventually arrested and later convicted of first-degree murder.

The inquiry into her death, which was the most expensive in Manitoba's history, found the child-welfare system fundamentally failed to protect the girl or support her family. The inquiry heard Winnipeg Child and Family Services frequently lost track of the girl or closed her file, deciding she was fine, without laying eyes on her.

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

While the government promised to implement all of the report's urgings a year ago, on Tuesday Irvin-Ross called the recommendation to provide extended care to age 25 "an option that is on the table."

"What I'm saying is we're going to review the recommendation and come up with a plan that is balanced."

Almost half of the recommendations are being addressed, Irvin-Ross said. The province is shifting its focus to prevention and is boosting funding by 60 per cent for in-home support services by social workers. A family is now to get $2,100 for support — up from $1,300.

The province's children's advocate is to be given more independence and an associate indigenous advocate is to be hired.

Sherri Walsh, commission counsel for the Sinclair inquiry, said it's encouraging the government seems to understand the "critical aspects" of the final report. But she said it's up to the province to figure out how to follow through.

"The recommendations were made after many days of hearings and careful consideration, so it would be (Hughes's) hope that the recommendations would be implemented," Walsh said.

Although Phoenix's murder prompted major changes to child welfare in the province and a doubling of the social services budget, Manitoba continues to have a tragic history of children who have died while in the care of social services.

Tina Fontaine was in foster care for less than two months when she ran away from the Winnipeg hotel she had been taken to temporarily last August. The 15-year-old's body was found wrapped in a bag in the Red River nine days later.

Manitoba has around 10,000 children in care — the highest proportion in the country — and 87 per cent of them are aboriginal. Aboriginal leaders said the inquiry's recommendations and the consultant's report don't address the real reasons why so many native children are being apprehended.

Grand Chief Terrance Nelson with the Southern Chiefs' Organization said the child-welfare system just continues the tradition started by Indian residential schools.

The province spends around $550 million on child welfare each year, Nelson said. Aboriginal communities should get some of that money to take care of their own children rather than allow them to be taken away, he said.

"If we haven't learned our lesson from the residential school era then what's the problem with us?" Nelson said. "No immigrant government has the right to come into our communities and rip our children away. It is termed genocide."

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents northern First Nations, said tackling poverty is the first step to reducing the number of aboriginal kids in care.

"We cannot wait any longer," he said. "It's time the government looks at the whole process."