Manitoba slow to implement new mental health supports for children and youth: advocate

Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth says the province is dragging its feet when it comes to youth mental health and addiction supports.

Daphne Penrose made 23 recommendations to the province between March 2018 and December 2019

Daphne Penrose is Manitoba’s children’s advocate. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Manitoba's advocate for children and youth says the province is dragging its feet when it comes to youth mental health and addiction supports.

Daphne Penrose said Manitoba's Health, Seniors and Active Living department — which is responsible for delivering youth mental health and addictions services — had made the least progress implementing any of the 23 recommendations she made of the province between March 2018 and the end of December 2019.

"Some of those movements were very, very small," said Penrose. 

The report released on November 10, titled 'Are they listening', found only 43 per cent of Penrose's 23 recommendations issued in 2018-19 have seen progress so far. Just two of the recommendations have been adopted in full by Manitoba Justice.

The 23 recommendations stemmed from several of advocate's other reports, including 'Documenting the Decline: The Dangerous Space Between Good Intentions and Meaningful Interventions', 'In Need of Protection: Angel's Story', 'Learning from Nelson Mandela: A Report on the Use of Solitary Confinement and Pepper Spray in Manitoba Youth Custody Facilities', and 'A Place Where it Feels Like Home: The Story of Tina Fontaine'.

"Just as important as the reports themselves are what's happening with the reports," said Penrose. "We often hear about reports being completed and sitting on a shelf and the compliance model that we have developed and implemented really speaks to in an informed way about how the government is doing with the implementation of those recommendations."

Health department had lowest compliance

Penrose found Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living had the lowest compliance rate, with an average of 25 per cent of her recommendations seeing action. 

The department's compliance on recommendations to improve mental health and addiction services lags behind and has not progressed significantly since the recommendations were issued, she said. 

On the contrast — Penrose said Manitoba Justice had the highest compliance levels, after making significant improvements to oversee pepper spray use and communicate victim services benefits to eligible children, youth, and families.

Justice implements 2 full recommendations 

The Justice department has an average compliance rate of 50 per cent, according to Penrose.

"I will say there's still some work to do within justice with respect to the use of solitary confinement and segregation. And so we continue to work with them on that," she said. 

The Manitoba government faced criticism this spring for keeping youth locked in solitary confinement at the Winnipeg Remand Centre while they wait for bail hearing. The province said at the time that youth had access to mental health supports and counselors with specialized training. 

Manitoba Education and Training and Manitoba Families had compliance rates at 38 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively and 70 per cent of recommendations showed some movement over the last year from 2019 to 2020, Penrose said.

"The goal of the recommendations is to speak in a way that reflects the child's experience and an evidentiary way about how do we prevent kids from having those similar circumstances and having the same outcomes. And so when you start to look at it that way, 43 per cent isn't enough for kids," Penrose said.

The province announced more than $4 million in new funding last year aimed at increasing access and services for youth who seek mental health treatment.

In a statement provided to CBC, a spokesperson for the department of health, seniors and active living said it is working closely with the advocate's newly assigned liaison "to ensure the department can improve its performance."

The spokesperson said the government is working to implement several initiatives to improve mental health and addiction service for children and youth:

  • Investment in NorWest Youth Hub to increase the number of youth who receive mental health and addiction counselling.
  • Expansion of trauma services at Klinic Community Health Centre and The Laurel Centre.
  • Establishment of an inter-disciplinary team led by Aurora Family Therapy Centre to provide longer-term services for newcomers and refugees suffering from moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Enhancing access to mental health assessments and treatment for children and youth at Children's Hospital.

Mental health plan needed

"I think one of the most immediate needs is the need for a very comprehensive plan on the implementation of mental health services across the province," Penrose said, noting that the province has released an implementation plan for adult services, but it does not include a child and youth specific plan.

Penrose said she also hopes to see some movement implementing more rigid standards at CFS. 

"Children matter," she said. "And when the system has experienced children who have died while receiving government services, there's an obligation of all of us to sit down and look at what we can do better." 

"These recommendations are part of that. And listening to the voices of children and making sure that people are just as interested in the change as the report is critical, it's critical for our province with respect to children."