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Inter-agency conflict harming children

Differences must be set aside for the sake of vulnerable kids

Soon after Jaylene Redhead was found beaten and suffocated to death at the age of 20 months inside her mom's room at a city transition home for women, the blame game began.

Child and Family Services -- specifically, the Awasis CFS agency -- was raked over the coals for allowing Jaylene to be reclaimed by her mother, Nicole Sanderson-Redhead, a deeply troubled and damaged young woman who ultimately admitted to killing Jaylene and is now serving prison time for manslaughter.

The Native Women's Transition Centre was sharply criticized for an apparent lack of supervision over clients, especially high-risk ones such as Sanderson-Redhead, who was in the midst of her third stay there and was able to resume using crack cocaine without anyone either noticing or caring.

The system and its various parts failed Jaylene.

Jaylene's own mother failed her.

Manitobans have heard these horrific things before. Perhaps too often in recent years.

So we hold an inquest to examine what happened, to find clues to the hardest aspect of all in cases like this: the why.

We take Larry Allen -- one of the province's most experienced provincial judges when it comes to child-welfare issues -- and some of the best legal minds in the province, put them in a room and, in hearings spread out over more than a year, dissect why such horrors happen.

And how we could prevent the same systemic cracks from appearing anew -- for the sake of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable kids.

The problem, as I see it, is we already know the real answers.

It came as no surprise to me in the dying days of Jaylene's inquest (it wrapped up Dec. 19), two clear themes had emerged that go far beyond rejigging policy and procedures, enhancing supervision, offering new programs or focusing on cultural sensitivities.

They amount to this: If we're truly going to make our best efforts to protect our most vulnerable, it will take far greater collaboration among those we entrust with doing this vital job.

And it will take trust.

But don't just take it from me. This comes straight from the lips of the man who marshalled the evidence in Jaylene's sad case and the judge now tasked with deciding what he could recommend that might make a difference in the future.

A day before the inquest wrapped for good, Judge Allen noted how a theme of greater collaboration among government, CFS, secondary service providers and others invested in child-welfare had emerged in the case.

He referenced the testimony of CFS General Authority CEO Jay Rodgers, saying his testimony was an indication a "new dawn" of co-operation may be at hand in CFS. And maybe not a moment too soon.

Allen said he remembered his days of working in child welfare when an "us versus them" mentality between actors was prevalent. "I think we're all realizing that we can't indulge that anymore," Allen said.

"This problem of keeping Manitoba's children safe is too big for that. And we just can't allow that to continue... everybody has to remember, we're all in this together."

Crown attorney Bruce Sychuk spoke about trust, or specifically the lack of it that seemed to infect and influence Jaylene's tragic case from the get-go.

Because at root, he suggested, Sanderson-Redhead's own distrust of systems meant to help her -- likely grown out of a lifetime of seeing that trust shattered, by family, boyfriends, the social-welfare system -- had to be accounted for when looking at the overall circumstances of Jaylene's death.

Without "buy-in" from clients, efforts the system makes -- no matter how intense or well-meaning -- likely won't work. But, Sychuk said, it was clear from Rodger's evidence CFS is starting to shift its focus toward trying what it can to build up a measure of trust with clients.

Manitobans heard similar evidence at the parallel Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, about how distrust of CFS led some who had information and concerns about the little girl's life with Samantha Kematch to mislead or misdirect workers.

Kematch herself was said to have employed a tactic of "disguised compliance" with social workers to keep them at bay, so deep was her distrust of CFS.

It should strike nobody as a secret. These issues are fundamental. They're also deeply philosophical and challenging.

Solving them goes far, far deeper than tweaking legislation, crafting recommendations or inventing new intervention strategies. It matters more than funding models and jurisdictional issues.

Until we work faithfully to eradicate distrust and adversarial positions in Manitoba's child-welfare system, we'll see more Jaylenes and more Phoenixes. More blaming and more inquests.

And it doesn't have to be this way.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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