Manitoba failing on Phoenix Sinclair inquiry recommendations, report says

It's been 11 years since five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair was killed by her mother and her mother's boyfriend, yet very little has been done to make sure other children in Manitoba's child welfare system don't fall through the cracks.

11 years after girl's murder and almost 3 years after report released, only 29% of recommendations implemented

Phoenix Sinclair was five years old and had been in and out of Child and Family Services care when she was murdered by her mother and her mother's boyfriend in 2005. (Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry)

It's been 11 years since five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair was killed by her mother and her mother's boyfriend, but the Manitoba government hasn't made much progress on implementing an inquiry's recommendations to make sure other children don't fall through the cracks.

Her death, hidden for nine months, led to first-degree murder sentences and prompted the provincial government to launch a $14-million inquiry — one of the biggest in Manitoba's history — to examine how the Child and Family Services system failed Phoenix.

The final report from the inquiry contains 62 recommendations for sweeping changes including reduced workloads, a new computer database and better education and training for social workers.

But nearly three years later, just 29 per cent of the recommendations have been completed and implemented, Manitoba children's advocate Darlene MacDonald says.

On Thursday, she released a status report, So Much Left to Do: Status Report on the 62 Recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry, which describes actions that are completed, those that are underway and those not progressing.

"The government has been surprisingly quiet on what action they have taken to respond to the recommendations made in the final report of the inquiry," she said.

MacDonald is calling on the province to provide updates "on a yearly basis" on the progress it's making, and to fulfil the promise to adopt all 62 of the inquiry report recommendations.

Darlene MacDonald says her Phoenix Sinclair inquiry status report is a "high level overview" of progress on the inquiry's recommendations that's intended to put some pressure on the government to get things done and keep the public informed. (John Einarson/CBC)

"We feel the public has a right to understand what improvements are being made in the wake of Phoenix's tragic death. We want to encourage a more transparent public conversation," she said. "What has changed for families and for children?"

"Upon releasing the final report of the inquiry to the public nearly three years ago, the government apologized for failing Phoenix and committed to 'immediately act' on all of the recommendations from the inquiry commission," states a news release about MacDonald's status report.

"While government announcements have mentioned actions taken as a result of the inquiry since then, there have been no publicly released documents that outline the specific progress made on the recommendations."

Phoenix spent much of her short life in CFS care but was routinely returned to her mother, eventually enduring horrific abuse and dying in a cold basement on the Fisher River Cree Nation, about 175 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Her body was then wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow, unmarked grave near the reserve's garbage dump.

According to MacDonald's status report, as of Sept. 30, 2016, only 31 (50 per cent) of the recommendations are in progress, 18 (29 per cent) are considered by government to be complete and 13 (21 per cent) are pending. 

MacDonald even disputes the number the province reports it has completed, saying some are just "quick fixes" made by adding to existing standards or policies.

"There was a huge investment in this inquiry. I think we should see more outcomes than we currently do," she said.

Some of the pending recommendations have to do with her own office, including a call for the advocate's office to be independent of government so it can speak out against policies or data it finds concerning.

MacDonald is optimistic that one could be coming soon.

Monday's government throne speech — outlining priorities for the coming year — talked about allowing the children's advocate to be more vocal in defending the rights of children and to release more information about the province's child welfare system.

That will improve accountability in Manitoba's child welfare system, MacDonald said.

For the status report, MacDonald's office examined internal government documents, including implementation plans, project plans and summaries. Publicly available documents related to the inquiry were also reviewed and meetings were held with government personnel. 

"This brief report is not intended to assess how effective the progress has been. More time is needed to understand if the changes being made by the government are improving the lives of children and families in Manitoba," MacDonald said.

"Instead, this report is meant to provide the public with some baseline indicators and to ensure the public is provided with information updates about what changes are planned and currently underway by government."

She called it a "high level overview" to bring the public up to speed and to put some pressure on the government.

"We need more action. We need more information."

Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the Progressive Conservative party had "ample opportunity" to critique the system during nearly 17 years as Official Opposition and could have done more already.

"Even though they're only six months into their term, I believe that there could have been some glimmers of hope in these last six months," she said.

She said the existing Child and Family Services system is "broken."

"I struggle with them only implementing 29 per cent of the recommendations, when they continually put more and more children into a system that they know needs improvement."

Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding said his government will implement more recommendations from the report soon, and plans to enact all 62 recommendations down the line.

"We believe that over 13 more of the recommendations will be implemented over the next number of months. So we think it's important," Fielding said.

"It's an important piece that we get it right. And so we'll continue to work as a government to ensure that a number of these recommendations are implemented."

Fielding called the work done already "good progress," but said there is "much more work that needs to be done."

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With files from The Canadian Press