Manitoba

Gap in addictions, mental health services placing kids in care at risk: Manitoba children's advocate

Shortcomings in the sytem mean kids in the care of Child and Family Services are at "imminent risk of death and dying" from addictions, mental health issues and suicide, Manitoba's children's advocate said at the legislature on Wednesday.

Daphne Penrose calls for action from government to help kids in CFS care facing addiction, sexual exploitation

Daphne Penrose answers questions about her work as Manitoba's children's advocate during her first meeting with members of the standing committee on legislative affairs on Wednesday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Manitoba's children's advocate says a lack of resources in the Child and Family Services system means kids are at "imminent risk of death and dying" from addictions, mental health issues and suicide.

"The time for discussing strategies and future tasks and actions is past and these kids need action today," Daphne Penrose told MLAs on the provincial standing committee on legislative affairs Wednesday.

"There's been an increase in the drug use and there hasn't been an increase in the resources."

It was the first time Penrose has appeared before the committee since her office received expanded powers last March through the Advocate for Children and Youth Act.

The committee discussed her office's previously released annual reports for 2016-17 and 2017-18, which detailed issues facing kids and youth in CFS care, including youth safety, suicide rates, meth addiction and sexual exploitation.

The 2017-18 report noted 44 per cent of concerns related to case-planning concerns, while 22 per cent of complaints  related to a quality of care in CFS.

"You've got lack of appropriate care resources, lack of education, lack of clothing, lack of health care, lack of food," Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said, pointing to the complaints cited in the report.

"That's about children in care. That's not the reason you're taking a child out of the house."

3-phase roll out

The first of three phases of the expanded mandate for the children's advocate's office allows Penrose to publicly release reports on the deaths of children who had involvement with CFS within 12 months of dying.

She said her office stands to get much busier this spring as the second phase of the legislation rolls out. That will allow her to investigate deaths of kids who didn't have any contact with CFS in the year before they died.

Phase 3, which Families Minister Heather Stefanson said may come into effect this fall, will give the children's advocate the ability to investigate any serious injuries of youth.

Penrose said her office will need more resources once that change takes effect. The new powers will lead to greater transparency, she said, adding she plans to hold government accountable. 

"I hope she does, because that's her role and we respect her role," said Stefanson.

"We know that the status quo is not an option in many of these areas and we recognize that she needs the tools to be able to advocate for children and youth."

Mental health and addiction

Last fall, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the province was looking to fund a treatment centre for people with severe addictions. But NDP MLA Andrew Swan criticized the government for not doing enough to specifically help youth in care who are in the grip of substance use crises.

Penrose stressed that's why a continuum of care is needed that prioritizes harm reduction and a multi-department response.

"Every day [that] there isn't an action for a child out there is another day a child is at risk and/or very vulnerable," Penrose said. "Sometimes children end up taking their own lives, or getting hurt or dying of accidental overdose."

Penrose said apart from short-term detox services, there aren't any recovery programs taking in kids with the most severe substance use disorders, including addiction to methamphetamine.

She said her office has heard complaints about policies in place with organizations such as the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba that effectively mean those hit hardest by drugs such as meth aren't eligble for services, or policies that won't accomodate their unique needs.

"Those barriers are things that really you can start to see where kids leave, because it's not really meeting their needs — it's not about them," said Penrose. 

Secure environments needed

Penrose also said the problem of sexual exploitation of youth is also increasingly hard to fight, as much of the activity is now "invisible" because it's online. With exploitation comes drugs, violence and mental health challenges, she said.

One thing that could help victims is better access to safe and secure environments, said Penrose.

Without adequate preventative and early intervention resources overall, Penrose said youth can end up stuck in care longer than they need to be, or land in the already over-taxed justice system.

In addition to the coming legislative changes that will giver her office more investigative powers, Penrose said she is looking forward to the opening of a new children's advocate office in Thompson, which will be devoted to helping vulnerable youth in northern Manitoba.

It's the first time Daphne Penrose has appeared at a legislative committee hearing since the office got expanded powers to investigate youth services and child deaths. 2:18

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

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Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Sean Kavanagh