Child maltreatment remains a “serious concern” in Manitoba, 15 years after the tragic death of Phoenix Sinclair, and seven years after the release of a public inquiry that produced 62 recommendations, according to Manitoba’s children’s advocate.
The report Still Waiting, Investigating Child Maltreatment after the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry by the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, found 16 more recommendations had been achieved since the previous update in 2016, bringing compliance to about 55 per cent.
“What you will read in this special report is that while large-scale change has occurred and continues to unfold, the needs of children and youth are not always prioritized and consistent and equitable services remain out-of-reach for too many families,” the authors write.
Strikingly, the report found 19 Manitoba children under age five were maltreated and later died between 2008 and 2020. Twelve were under age two.
The authors used these case files to examine patterns and identify gaps in the system.
Two “vital aspects” of case management emerged: assessments and reunification planning for children in agency care.
Included in the organization’s list of concerns were a lack of agency follow-up, lack of aftercare support, and case planning that was not child-focused.
In one specific case, the authors wrote “… reunification was seen by the agency as the end of a process, not the beginning of the family living together in a new dynamic they had not previously experienced.”
“A meaningful reunification plan would have been an opportunity to assess the family’s situation and provide the supports they required for a successful return home for all of the children,” they continue.
In fact, five of the 19 children featured in the report had spent time in Child and Family Services (CFS) care before being reunited with their families, but the report says none received post-reunification support afterwards, or any sort of child-specific assessment.
The children’s deaths highlight the need for an “ecological approach” to child welfare, the report says.
Read the report:
Such a model is made up of four mutually inclusive levels: system, community, organization, and direct service.
The system level sets consistent expectations across multiple jurisdictions, taking into account systemic issues such as racism, poverty, and the impacts of colonization, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop, among others.
Such issues have resulted in a disproportionate number of First Nations and Metis children in care in Manitoba, and contribute to the intergenerational trauma afflicting families.
While the report notes there has been progress in the “devolution” of the CFS system, and implementation of more culturally-appropriate services, child welfare services remain inequitable compared to those provided off-reserve.
“The child welfare system, despite changes, remains rooted in the colonial structures that ensure the continuation of structural inequities and systemic racism,” the report says.
The community level of child welfare refers to the strength and health of the community, and includes such socioeconomic factors as income, education, access to healthy food, and health care.
Here again, the authors note First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people continue to experience inequities arising from access to safe drinking water, poverty, and chronic health conditions.
Such issues compound the work of already-underfunded child welfare agencies. In some communities, the report says it’s not uncommon for children and families to visit agencies looking for basics like food and shelter.
The organizational level includes a vast number of factors specific to child welfare agencies.
This includes staff training, workload, service delivery, and community relations to name a few.
Notably, the report talks about the importance of an Internal Agency Review (IAR), which is done after a critical incident (such as the death of a child) to understand the circumstances, service delivery at the time, areas for improvement, and to make recommendations.
Of the 19 children highlighted in the report, IARs were only done for six. Alternative investigations were done for two, and an inquest was completed for one.
The direct service level deals with the actual case management of child welfare services.
Particularly damning, the authors say the same gaps identified in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry were noted in the cases highlighted in this report.
These were related to agencies’ assessment, planning, service provision, and evaluation of their work with children.
Some examples include family assessments, safety planning, having frequent contact with family/caregivers, and monitoring for changing needs.
Based on the ecological method of care, the authors make five recommendations:
- The Manitoba government implement the outstanding recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry.
- The Manitoba government work with First Nations and Metis governments and community stakeholders to ensure access to evidence-informed and culturally-safe parenting programs and resources for caregivers of children under the age of five in every community, with special attention to rural and remote communities.
- Each child and family services authority develop and provide the necessary resources to implement a culturally-appropriate reunification policy with their agencies.
- All child and family services authorities ensure their agencies complete case reviews for every child in care under age five, where reunification is planned.
- The Department of Families, through the Joint Training Team, develop and administer mandatory training for front line workers and supervisors on the risk and protective factors of child maltreatment and best practices for reunification.
Update on the status of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry recommendations
With 44 recommendations remaining since the previous update in 2016, the report rates compliance “low,” with 36 per cent — or 16 — fully compliant or solved by alternative means since then.
Of the remaining 28, 43 per cent meet some of the requirements, while the rest are listed as either limitedly compliant, non-compliant or insufficiently explained.
At this rate, the report says the recommendations won’t be completed until 2028, 14 years after the inquiry and 23 years after the death of Phoenix Sinclair.
One in five of the outstanding recommendations are related to strengthening an independent advocate for children, and this is where the province has seen the most success, with 90 per cent of the recommendations complete.
The province has the most work to do in terms of service improvements (29 per cent complete), funding (25 per cent complete), and children’s rights (0 per cent complete, however, there is only one recommendation in this category.)
Families Minister Responds
Following the release of the report, Manitoba’s Families Minister Rochelle Squires announced she had instructed her department to implement the “intent and spirit” of all recommendations from the 2014 Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, along with the five from the advocate’s report, within one year.
“We know that the loss of life of any child in this province is tragic. We need to work together to do better, and I believe the advocate’s report provides a pathway towards preventing the loss of life of children in the province of Manitoba,” Squires said.
The minister said she would provide the advocate with a progress report in six months’ time, and would assist other authorities in meeting the recommendations under their purview as well.
She noted the government had already been working on reunification strategies and training for all CFS staff, but added “obviously we can do a better job.”
“We know what can happen when devolution is rushed and the supports are not in place,” Squires said.
“So our government is committed to working with Indigenous governing bodies, with the authorities, and with the federal government as we create a better child welfare system in the province.”