Manitoba

In their silence, support workers failed boy who died at 17, Manitoba children's advocate says

Only one person knew the extent to which a spiralling drug addiction was derailing the life of an Indigenous teenager in southern Manitoba — but that person never spoke up, the Manitoba children's advocate says.

Agencies didn't work together to help troubled teen, says Daphne Penrose

Manitoba children's advocate Daphne Penrose at a news conference Friday, where she spoke about her office's first investigation into a child's death that could be made public. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Only one person knew the extent to which a spiralling drug addiction was derailing the life of an Indigenous teenager in child and family services care in southern Manitoba — but that person never spoke up, the Manitoba children's advocate says.

In the agency's first public investigation into a child's death, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth concluded supporting agencies tried to help the boy, who died in 2016, but they worked in isolation from each other.

He was identified in the report as Circling Star, which is his spirit name. 

"They weren't talking with each other and working with each other in a way that was actually meaningful for him," children's advocate Daphne Penrose said at a news conference Friday morning.

In one example, the report says nobody but an addictions counsellor appeared to know about and address the suicidal thoughts the teenager expressed.

His story is not uncommon. He was a young Indigenous youth who lived in a First Nation community and the service equity wasn't there.- Daphne  Penrose

The worker referred Circling Star to other agencies for general help, but did not think the boy's worsening drug addictions — a threat to his health and safety — should be explained to his parents, the report said.

"It is unacceptable that Circling Star's parents were never afforded any meaningful opportunities to be brought into the treatment plan that was being used with their son," the report read, which said his mother never knew how bad it got.

Unsafe placements

Unaware of the depths of the boy's despair, Child and Family Services closed their file on him three times. He was placed in unsafe homes and no CFS worker appeared to follow up after hearing the boy's father was reportedly abusive. They repeatedly failed to meet minimum standards of care, Penrose said.

The report said Circling Star's school did not appear invested in the root causes of his struggles, his parents never knew why he was discharged from a mental health facility after only a day and probation workers did not ensure he followed court orders. 

Time and again, support workers should have intervened but didn't, Penrose said.

"His story is not uncommon. He was a young Indigenous youth who lived in a First Nation community and the service equity wasn't there."

Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, said the silence between agencies is putting lives at risk.

"People really need to start saying, 'I need to take responsibility,'" he said.

The teen died in summer 2016 after his vehicle skidded off the road. He was driving and was impaired at the time, according to authorities.

His personal details could not be revealed in the report because he was involved in the youth criminal justice system due to a 2013 arson conviction.

Circling Star became involved with a CFS agency under the Southern First Nations Network of Care when he ran away from home at 13, after learning his dad was not his biological father. The children's advocate believes the boy, who prior to that had a happy childhood, never recovered from that disclosure.

In the following years, CFS workers saw no role for themselves when Circling Star's family arrangements broke down and he was bounced from home to home. 

When CFS eventually intervened, workers complied with Circling Star's wishes and agreed to housing placements that weren't in his best interests, Penrose said. 

Interventions too late

"The CFS agency provided services which were reactive to what was happening in the moment, with no demonstrated vision of a longer-term plan," says the 104-page report.

In the last four years of his life, the teen struggled with significant drug and alcohol misuse. 

He began acting out at 14, when he started attending high school in a new community. His behaviour worsened and he started to attend school while intoxicated, threatening school staff and carrying a weapon.

The school's course of action, rather than investigating why he was rebelling, was to suspend him.

The report concluded his high school made no demonstrated efforts to mediate peace between Circling Star and the teacher who often reprimanded him, and made little investment in improving his academic standing.

"The school's approach to suspensions was to lay all of the blame at Circling Star's feet," the report said.

Penrose made six recommendations in her report:

  • A provincial strategy to train service providers to share information across systems.
  • Limiting, reducing or phasing out school suspensions or expulsions, except in cases where public safety is at risk.
  • Easier access to mental health supports for young people.
  • A youth addiction action strategy.
  • Better communication in the Department of Justice.
  • Training CFS workers on minimum standards. 

Penrose said a progress report on the status of the recommendations would be released in six months.

A provincial spokesperson said the government acknowledges the lack of communication and introduced legislation last year to ensure agencies working with at-risk kids can share information more effectively

Authority to disclose

This is the first review into the death of a child in care that Manitoba's children advocate has been able to release after the independent body's powers were expanded earlier this year.   

The additional powers were recommended in 2013 by the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her mother and her mother's boyfriend after social workers closed her file.

Penrose is expecting to release eight to nine more reports by next spring. One of those investigations will be a review into the death of Tina Fontaine. The discovery of her body in the Red River in 2014 spurred the push for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.