Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Family minister's foster care review instructions leave no paper trail

The instructions for a Child and Family Services review into the safety of and well-being of 407 children in foster homes run by a for-profit agency were never written down, according to information obtained through a freedom-of-information request.

B & L review communicated strictly in face-to-face meetings

Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson took questions from journalists last week, but refused to talk about the review she ordered into the safety of children in B & L-managed foster homes. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The instructions for a Child and Family Services review into the safety of and well-being of 409 children in foster homes run by a for-profit agency were never written down, according to information obtained through a freedom-of-information request.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson ordered the probe into B & L Resources for Children, Youth and Families in November after a CBC investigation revealed children in one of the homes it manages had been left with their abuser.  

Review expectations "were clearly communicated in face-to-face meetings" between the deputy minister, acting assistant deputy minister and the CEOs of the four child and family services authorities, according to a response to a Freedom of Information request.

All children in B & L-managed foster homes were interviewed within 10 days of the review being called, according to a families department spokesperson. 

Records related to those interviews "would be held by the [CFS] agencies (not the province) and include case-specific information that could not be shared as the information falls under [the confidentiality section] of the Child and Family Services Act," the families department spokesperson wrote. 

She did not answer how the province-led review would conduct its probe without records of the interviews but she did say the department continues "to work co-operatively with our authority partners and B & L in reviewing the findings of the first review phase." 

No sexual abuse disclosures

"No children disclosed concerns of sexual abuse as part of the interviews conducted," she said adding the moratorium on any further placements with B & L remains in place. 

"I don't think it's acceptable for public bodies ever to operate in this way," said Kevin Walby, associate professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. He has filed hundreds of freedom of information requests for his academic research.

"The government is failing in that duty to produce records to make themselves open to accountability," Walby said. "I've never seen something quite like this, where a government office is basically admitting they're not keeping records that they should."

You can't leave it to  wisps  of conversations that went on and fade into the ether. There's got to be a trail.- Paul Thomas,  University of Manitoba professor emeritus 

The CFS portfolio has always been explosive, emotional and politically risky for the minister, says University of Manitoba professor emeritus Paul Thomas.

He says he's noticed a trend among governments of all stripes to find ways to avoid political damage by resisting freedom-of-information requests.

"If you create a document trail that people can then ask for, and look at, it creates problems for the minister," Thomas said.

He's also noticed the Manitoba government has frequently called reviews when problems arise.

"When you insist on investigations being conducted to respond to unfortunate events that take place then you've got to ensure that there's a trail laid down so you can hold people accountable," Thomas said.

"You can't leave it to wisps of conversations that went on and fade into the ether. There's got to be a trail."

Last week, Stefanson refused to answer questions about the lack of a paper trail at a news conference, saying she would address them at a later time. 

Early this week, a spokesperson for the minister said she doesn't have any further information to provide while the review is underway. 

B & L said it did not want to comment. 

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