Many of the issues that make families vulnerable reach beyond the scope of child welfare, according to Child and Family Services of Western Manitoba.
Poverty, inadequate housing and parental mental health issues are just some of the key factors that put children and families at risk in the first place, CEO Dave McGregor told the Sun.
“The whole community has to come together to address those issues — not just child welfare,” McGregor said.
Last month, inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes released a 900-page report, dissecting the failures of front-line social workers and the system as a whole including gaps in training, protocols and paperwork that allowed Phoenix Sinclair to suffer months of violence at the hands of her mother and stepfather.
The five-year-old’s death in 2005 shed light on a child-welfare system in crisis due to overworked staff, and highlighted the dramatic over-representation of aboriginal children in care and the root causes of family failures, such as poverty, generations of abuse and addiction.
Her death has prompted a half-dozen reviews and nearly 300 recommendations to reform the system that failed her.
The commissioner’s report includes more than 60 key recommendations that will serve to change the ways child welfare agencies operate across Manitoba. Some of the recommendations include easing social workers’ cases to a maximum of 20 cases apiece, better record keeping, requiring social work degrees and a key theme throughout was putting more preventative measures in place.
McGregor said capping the number of caseloads at 20 is “a really good recommendation to see.” Currently social workers across western Manitoba on average have around 25 cases at one time, he said.
“But a worker can’t have 25 high-needs cases at once,” he said. “Many of the recommendations, we believe, support the way this agency has been able to develop its service delivery model.”
Billie Schibler, Manitoba’s Métis Child and Family Services CEO, said she agrees it’s important to lessen the number of cases social workers are assigned in order to provide better care for families.
“We need to be able to establish relationships with the families that we’re working with and you can’t do that if you’re working with really high case loads,” Schibler said.
She added that there needs to be a greater focus on what’s bringing families into the child welfare system in the first place.
“We know that families are coming in for all sorts of social issues,” she said. “We know that some of the highest levels of the intakes are in the areas of addiction, family violence and mental health issues.”
While McGregor agrees with the majority of the recommendations, ultimately, he said, it will come down to resource issues and will require the community to become actively involved in local poverty and mental health issues.
“A lot of those big societal recommendations are going to take a long time to get to but hopefully the legacy of this inquiry is that there will be change,” he said. “This is nothing new ... so it will be interesting how the community responds.”
Another key recommendation is extending services to the age of 25 to support children in care who are transitioning into adulthood. When kids turn 18 or 21, provincial rules say child-welfare services must be withdrawn. The commissioner’s report recommends extending the “aging out” limit to 25 so kids who need help as they move toward independence get it.
“A lot of these youth require ongoing supports and it’s critical to helping them obtain success,” McGregor pointed out.
He added that the government has already issued a statement accepting all of the recommendations and is in the process of putting together an implementation team.
“I would imagine they are going to be consulting and working with community agencies to put some meat on these recommendations in terms of how to move forward.”
McGregor said staff are already putting the recommendations into practice.
Some preventative measures offered locally include support groups for parents as well as parenting, family strengthening and early childhood development courses at Brandon’s Elspeth Reid Family Resource Centre.
“Our agency has really tried to fulfil many of the recommendations already ... and that includes reaching out to support and strengthen families before children are in need of protection.”
» email@example.com, with files from the Winnipeg Free Press