POLITICS

Manitoba's child advocate says changes to welfare system don't go far enough

06/10/2015 03:24 EDT | Updated 06/10/2016 05:59 EDT
WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government is moving to implement some recommendations from an inquiry into the province's troubled child-welfare system, but the children's advocate says the changes don't go far enough.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross introduced a bill Wednesday that would make the children's advocate more independent from government with more authority to issue public reports on cases where the system failed to protect children.

But she pushed back other key recommendations that include giving the advocate authority to act on behalf of kids who are not in provincial care but who need help with education, justice or other government services.

"Every department within government is different," she said.

"We need to ensure that we are consulting with the health professionals, as well as the teachers and as well as the folks in justice."

The Office of the Children's Advocate said it was not pleased with the delay.

"The new act introduced today makes small provisions for our office to provide some information to the public, but still comes with many restrictions on what we can say and when we can say it," read a written statement.

The recommendations were made 18 months ago following an inquiry about Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year old girl who was beaten to death after social workers closed her file.

Sinclair had frequently fallen through the cracks of child welfare. Social workers failed to realize she and her mother had moved in with a man with a long history of violence and domestic assault.

Phoenix died in 2005 and her killing went undetected for nine months, while the family continued to collect welfare payments with the girl listed as a dependent.

The inquiry report from retired judge Ted Hughes recommended sweeping changes and called on the Manitoba government to grant more powers to the Office of the Children's Advocate, which has been under the Family Services Department. The suggestions included:

— Making the office an independent body of the legislature.

— Allowing the office to issue broader reports about systemic problems in child welfare.

— Expanding the office's mandate beyond child welfare to deal with health, education and other services provided to children.

— Allowing the office to investigate not only the deaths of children in care, but also cases where children are critically injured.

The bill introduced by Irvin-Ross follows through on the first two ideas, but puts off the other two, along with others, until consultations are done.

Irvin-Ross said one important factor in the decision is the need to talk with aboriginals groups. Manitoba has about 10,000 children in care and about 90 per are aboriginal.

The bill commits the government to report back in 15 months on how the remaining recommendations can be implemented.