Tuesday, April 30
The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry has moved a little farther away from the little girl at the centre of the commission and a little closer to the systemic problems that played a role in her eventual demise.
Phase II of the inquiry offers a smattering of officialdom and the people who -- through some of the reports written on Phoenix Sinclair's tumultuous journey through CFS -- took officialdom to task.
Government, First Nations groups, and child and family services (CFS) agencies take the stand along with academics and analysts of the child welfare system.
Phase II has only been sitting for four days, but some major heavyweights have already weighed in, including Manitoba's auditor general, a former children's advocate, and the chief executive officer of CFS's massive Southern Authority.
When Carol Bellringer first started her term as auditor general, the office had already prepared a report on the child welfare system.
Bellringer delivered it to the minister in 2006, even though she told the inquiry she felt it was too early to perform an assessment of CFS. Six years later, her office reviewed 29 of the 86 recommendations in that original report.
Bellringer found that most of the recommendations were either implemented or being followed up on by government, but the auditor general was still dissatisfied with CFSIS, the child welfare agency's central database for children in care.
Bellringer stated that the system was dated in 2006. At that time, she had recommended the province look into either proving CFSIS was the right choice or start pricing out a more suitable system.
Six years later, Bellringer told the inquiry there didn't appear to be any progress on that front.
Bellringer acknowledged that computer systems aren't exactly cheap for cash-strapped governments. However, she also wryly noted, "If Manitoba Lotteries can track every dime, why can't CFS track every child?"
Bellringer was followed on Thursday by another major player, Billie
Schibler. The former children's advocate is now the CEO of Metis Child
and Family Services.
Schibler didn't hold back, asking several times to take the floor and address key points she felt needed to go on the record.
Among those points: child welfare isn't a "one size fits all" service, there is still a lack of funding for front-line family support services, and the high caseloads that plagued the system when Phoenix Sinclair was in care continue to this day.
"You can't expect a child welfare system to provide those good assessments those good therapeutic supports" she opined, "if they are just running from putting out fire and fire and fire."
Schibler also took aim at the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) and devolution. The AJI report challenged the province to improve how the child welfare system dealt with First Nations families.
Devolution was the response -- a years-long process of restructuring the chilld welfare system with the goal of delivering better and more culturally appropriate services to children in care.
Schibler told the inquiry devolution and the recommendations made in the AJI needed to be reviewed.
"I don't see that it has actually unfolded the way it was intended to," she stated, "because it still remains as a very patriarchal system, which is not the way it was intended."
But Schibler wasn't done yet, telling the inquiry, "There needs to be a Truth and Reconciliation of the child welfare system, just as there has been with the residential school system."
Schibler testified it is her belief that the children who came through the residential school system and the children who come through the child welfare system "come away with the same wounds."
Today, it was Elsie Flette's turn to weigh in on the child welfare system. Flette has been at the helm of the Southern Authority since 2003. She oversees 10 First Nations agencies including ANCR -- the All Nations Coordinated Response Unit.
Flette told the inquiry there have been a number of positive changes in the last few years. There is more training on standards and expectations among social workers, the authority has trained hundreds of workers on CFSIS, and internet connectivity problems on First Nations are being addressed.
But there are still hiccups. The new provincial-federal funding formula, introduced in 2010, is flawed. It is based upon the assumption that only seven per cent of children on reserve require child welfare services.
"We have in the south right now three agencies that are above the seven per cent," Flette told the Inquiry, "One in particular that is at 14% , so what this model does for them is half their cases are unfunded."
The federal government agreed to make up the shortfall for the affected agencies, but Flette called it a short-term solution.
Flette also took a few minutes to address some of the root causes of the over-representation of First Nations children in the system.
"First Nations families and communities have been under assault for a long time with colonization, residential schools, et cetera, and we know from research that there are many generational effects of those experiences."
Flette pointed to poverty, housing, addiction, and gangs. She spoke of the importance of education and options for children in care.
Flette also talked about her firm belief that the welfare of children and families isn't just CFS's job: "A community has to come around its children," she said, "particularly when we have vulnerable children and vulnerable families."
Flette's musings on the troubles that continue to choke the system are much more complicated than the decidedly more pragmatic ones raised by Bellringer.
A new computer database for CFS will -- no matter what its price tag -- be an easier fix than the generational hamster wheel of poverty, addiction, and despair confronting families locked in the system.
With CBC's Katie Nicholson where an inquiry is trying to figure out how a little girl fell through the cracks.