The Manitoba government is pledging to overhaul the province's child welfare system to keep more children, including aboriginal children, with their families and home communities rather than taking them into foster care.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says the government will boost support services in communities, in an effort to reduce the number of children in care.

She made the announcement on Tuesday as she released a report by AMR Planning and Consulting on implementing recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.

Led by commissioner Ted Hughes, the $14-million public inquiry — one of the biggest in Manitoba's history — the public inquiry examined how Manitoba's child and family services (CFS) system failed five-year-old Phoenix before she was murdered by her mother and stepfather in 2005.

"Phoenix's legacy will continue to shift the child welfare system's focus from protection to a more holistic system that will stress prevention and early intervention services. We want all children to grow up in strong, healthy families," Irvin-Ross told reporters in Winnipeg.

Hughes's report contains 62 recommendations for improving the child welfare system and is a call out to address what he called "deeply rooted" issues.

Phoenix Sinclair

The inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair laid bare the failures of Manitoba's child-welfare system. (Inquiry photo) (Inquiry photo)

"Based on the work of the Hughes Commission and AMR Planning and Consulting, we are going to strengthen supports for families and create healthier communities for children," Irvin-Ross stated in a news release.

"We're shifting our emphasis from protection to prevention. Prevention is the best protection."

Irvin-Ross said an increased focus on early supports for families will be phased in as quickly as possible.

The funding model for CFS agencies will see a 60 per cent increase for family supports, in order to allow agencies to deal with complex family situations.

"If, you know, Mom has a medical crisis and rather than taking the child into care because of the medical crisis, if we can put some support services around that family and keep them intact, that's what we'll do," Irvin-Ross said.

87% of children in care are aboriginal

As well, the province will hire an indigenous associate child advocate "to work on behalf of aboriginal families and children, ensuring they are treated fairly in all dealings with the CFS system," Irvin-Ross said.

The minister noted that 87 per cent of children in CFS care are aboriginal, up from the previous estimate of 70 per cent.

Kerri Irvin-Ross

Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross recently released the recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. (CBC)

"The root cause is poverty and ... around the issues of residential schools, the '60s scoop, and colonization," she said. "We need to start healing, supporting families along that journey of healing."

The government will create a pilot project called Circle of Care at Sagkeeng First Nation. This project will assist families "in working their way through difficult issues while respecting cultural needs and focusing on families first, rather than the system," Irvin-Ross said.

"We want families who are struggling to know where to go for help and be sure the help is accessible," she said.

"The child welfare system must be a response to a larger issue that affects the fastest growing population in our province."

Terry Nelson, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, agreed that extreme poverty in First Nations communities is a key issue in the child welfare debate.

"Unless the poverty issue is tackled, there is no long term solution to CFS," Nelson said in a news release, adding that many First Nations face unemployment rates of 60 to 95 per cent.

"The creation of urban reserves, natural resource development, hydro development, BiPole [III transmission line], etc. need to be addressed if a solution to the poverty of First Nations is a priority."

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which presented its own proposal last year for changing the child welfare system, says it has invited Irvin-Ross to a special assembly on Feb. 25 to discuss solutions.

Critics raise concerns

Meanwhile, critics took aim at the government for what it has not been doing since the Hughes report came out just over a year ago.

Kim Edwards, one of Sinclair's former caregivers, said important recommendations from last year's report still have yet to be implemented, and she isn't particularly hopeful the province will act on things in the new report either.

"I've been out there in the political circle and tried to talk about the child care system and 'that's not a political [issue] we need to talk about.' The children are not important to Manitoba," said Edwards. 

"We've got the human rights museum in our city and children's rights are being broke every single day by every single member of society."

Ian Wishart, the Progressive Conservatives' family services critic, says while he can support many of the changes outlined in the new report, he's worried about other recommendations from the Hughes report, such as reducing social workers' caseloads down to 20 cases.

"We're very concerned. I think ratios are very important, even when you move beyond just focusing on the individual child and look at the family," he said.

"The ratio is still important. It's support to the family, which is something we've been saying all along."

Wishart admits there are not enough social work graduates in Manitoba to reduce case loads at this time.

Manitoba Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald says the new report had been in the works for a year since the Hughes report came out, and she's disappointed that it's "soft on timelines" and "absent of clear recommendations."

The Hughes report called on the province to give the Office of the Children's Advocate a stronger mandate to hold public services accountable, but MacDonald said that won't likely happen soon.

"I am pleased that the government has gone on record saying they intend to introduce independent legislation for the Children's Advocate," she said in a news release.

"But instead of clear timelines, the government is now calling for more consultations and more committees on a long-studied and well analyzed gap in the system. Are we going to be sitting in the same place in another year from today?"

Read the full report

Read Options for Action: An implementation report for the legacy of Phoenix Sinclair, by AMR Planning and Consulting below.