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Province orders probe into CFS agency

THE province is offering emergency staffing assistance to Sagkeeng Child and Family Services in light of reports suggesting the agency is in crisis.

Former and current staff at the agency told the CBC five case workers have quit, been dismissed or gone on stress leave in the past two months. Caseloads for remaining staff have skyrocketed and cases involving high-risk children and youth are being neglected, they alleged.

Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard ordered an investigation into the allegations Tuesday. In an interview Wednesday, she called them "alarming."

Howard wrote to Elsie Flette, chief executive officer of the Southern First Nations Network of Care, asking her to confirm that the children referred to in media reports "have been seen and are safe." Flette's organization, also known as the Southern Authority, is responsible for supervising Sagkeeng and nine other aboriginal CFS agencies.

In her letter, the minister also sought assurances that Sagkeeng "has the tools needed to provide the quality of service we both expect from our system."

Howard said the government is mobilizing staff from the General CFS Authority to assist Sagkeeng.

"We're letting the authority know we can work with other agencies who have staff, who can help out in the short term, to make sure that Sagkeeng is able to do its job," the minister said.

Sagkeeng CFS referred a reporter's call for comment on Wednesday to the Southern Authority.

Flette could not be reached. A spokesman for the authority said the organization was still getting to the bottom of the situation and Flette would be in a better position to comment next week.

"We don't know that these concerns or these allegations... are valid or not. We've got to find out," he said.

Sagkeeng CFS has been under the spotlight before. An investigation was launched after a two-year-old in its care, Gage Guimond, died in 2007 after being placed with a relative. Shirley Caroline Guimond later pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm.

A report into the toddler's death made more than 80 recommendations for improvements to the CFS agency and the system at large. Among them were limits on social worker caseloads.

Leanne Rowat (Riding Mountain), the Progressive Conservative family services critic, said the buck stops with Howard.

"Ultimately, the minister is responsible. I find it rather concerning that we're in the middle of the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry and then we come across another situation with another agency who is running into some serious difficulties. We need some answers," Rowat said.

Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Donavan Fontaine said CFS agency staff are "trying to do as much as they can" within their budget.

"They're trying to do what they're supposed to do -- look after children, look after families," he said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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It's funny that there were all these people jumping ship just before the Inquiry resumes.
I think it's about time the spotlight is shone on the dark, mysterious underworld of Manitoba's various Child and Family Services.

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