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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Phoenix Sinclair Report recommendations go over all too familiar ground

The inquiry headed by Justice Ted Hughes into the death of Phoenix Sinclair has now issues its report. It turned out to be the most expensive inquiry in Manitoba's history but it covers territory that is all too familiar. Mistakes by social workers that should never have been made in a system that ought to have prevented the death. This is part of a long line of inquiries that reach very similar conclusions.

The full report can be read here.

Phoenix Sinclair

The report does make some very valuable suggestions such as all child protection workers should be trained social workers who are registered with the Manitoba social work association; case loads be kept manageable; records be well maintained; better communication with others involved including when transferring a case; the system be more transparent and that more effort be put into prevention.

The big idea that Hughes came up with is that child protection requires a national conversation. He suggests that the issue belongs on the agenda of the next Premier's conference which the Manitoba premier has asked be done. The notion of a cross country conversation makes a great deal of sense. I recently attended a roundtable on child protection here in Alberta which was organized by Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar. In his opening comments, the Minister noted that there have been over 50 reports on child protection problems across Canada. I have read them. They have a numbing familiarity raising problems about caseloads, funding, the decision making environment, poor communication between agencies, poor record keeping, the need for better training, missing cues and so on.

What so many reports do not address is the very human nature of child protection work. Social workers are rarely invited into families. Most often, they arrive because there has been an allegation of abuse or neglect which requires investigation. Families are very understandably defensive and sometimes downright resistant. This is so much an issue that last year Siobhan Laird wrote a text on managing conflict, hostility and aggression in child protection. It is in that environment that a worker must try to determine the safety and risks for a child.

The information is always (and I use that word very consciously) incomplete. No social worker ever knows everything that is relevant. Thus, the decision making is done with an information set that is changing constantly. Decisions often need to be revisited. There is no way (again I use that phrase consciously) that a worker can predict with absolute certainty the risks. There is probability. We are still faced with the fact that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour in the absence of a compelling story of change.

Part of the challenge with child protection is that there is an expectation of perfection. There is a zero tolerance in the public's mind regarding a death of a children. But there is a reality that no system anywhere can guarantee that. We do have an obligation to provide the best system we can and to really understand how we can reduce risks.

There is also an obligation by society at large to fund prevention which is best done by poverty reduction. The majority of children brought to child protection attention are related to neglect - which is very strongly rooted in poverty. Reducing poverty reduces children in care which increases the attention that can be paid to the higher risk cases.

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