Children's advocate investigates 70 deaths of youth in Manitoba, annual report says

The Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth in the past year opened reviews on 70 cases involving the death of a child, says the office's first annual report since legislation passed to expand the advocate's powers.

Daphne Penrose releases 1st report since powers expanded in March

Manitoba children's advocate Daphne Penrose released her first annual report since her powers were expanded in March. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth in the past year opened reviews on 70 cases involving the death of a child, says the office's first annual report since legislation passed to expand the advocate's powers.

There were 187 deaths reported to children's advocate Daphne Penrose in 2017-18, the highest number since 2009-10, the report says. The children's advocate is notified of all deaths of all young people in Manitoba.

Under new legislation passed this spring, Penrose is now empowered to assess all deaths of people 21 and younger and may review and investigate public systems that they interacted with.

The office is doing or has completed investigations into 70 of those deaths; two were homicides, 20 were suicides and in 30, the cause of death was inconclusive.

Child and Family Services is overburdened with work it was never supposed to be responsible for, Penrose's report says.

"CFS should be mobilized in cases of child protection; however, in Manitoba, CFS workers are also expected to manage other needs outside of their expertise, including mental health, addictions, disabilities and more," the report says.

"Underfunding and other service limits in those areas create stress on the child protection system and result in large caseloads, stretched resources and the evolution of a crisis-focused modality of service delivery."

Deaths outside CFS 

New legislation came into effect in March that changed the role of Manitoba's children's advocate beyond child welfare, allowing her to examine other services provided to youth in care, such as education, health and justice, and to publicly release the findings of her office's investigations.

It also allows the office to investigate the deaths of people age 18 to 21 who were involved with CFS rather than only those under 18. 

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.

Though the legislation has passed, it comes into effect in phases, Penrose said in an interview with the CBC. 

Once it has fully rolled out, it will allow her office to investigate the deaths of children who weren't involved with CFS but accessed other youth services, such as mental health and addictions treatment, or were involved in the justice system, she said. 

For example, if a child died by suicide and had accessed mental health services within the previous year, her office could investigate once that aspect of the legislation is in place, she said. 

"A lot of families have lost their children through suicide, addictions.… They need their stories told too," she said.

"And if they are not in CFS, they are not being looked at right now."

The Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth will remain focused on suicide prevention as it continues a multi-year suicide study, a news release from Penrose's office says.

Penrose also plans to release reports on access to mental health services, detox and addiction treatment; the use of pepper spray and segregation on youth in custody; and the sexual exploitation of youth by adults.