(Jaylene Sanderson-Redhead)
(Jaylene Sanderson-Redhead)

Through the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, among the things which have become well-established by now is that Child and Family Services — for all its perceived faults and obvious bungling of the little girl’s case for various reasons — is damned if it takes action, and damned if it doesn’t.

And the public backlash against the child-welfare system each time the death of a CFS-involved child is reported may go further than other reasons to explain why there’s so many kids in care today.

Wanting to avoid that backlash, the system appears today to be more inclined to act using the iron fist of apprehension over the velvet glove approach of family intervention and support as a first response.

But to apprehend a child into care — especially forever — is no small matter, either from a societal or legal standpoint.

And while acting in the safety, security and well-being of children is the highest principle of our CFS legislation, the concept of supporting and preserving families follows a close second.

I’ve written before about how those principles can be interpreted as contradictory, especially in light of the immense social problems some of our provincial communities face.

But if the concept of ‘hope’ didn’t exist in CFS — hope that social welfare systems and programming can heal people enough to make families (no matter the makeup) safe enough to leave kids in, the system would be not only more distrusted by many than it seems to be today but it would also be a black hole of despair and lost souls.

The moral question is where does the system draw the line? Where does the need to protect and apprehend trump reunification, support and preservation of families?

In his testimony this week at the inquest into the death of toddler Jaylene Redhead, psychologist Dr. Dell Ducharme allows us some insight into this.

Ducharme conducted an extensive assessment on Jaylene’s mother, Nicole Redhead, for Awasis CFS soon after she came to stay for the third time at a residential treatment centre in Winnipeg.

Redhead’s background as a child is beyond alarming, marred by violence, neglect and trauma unimaginable by virtually anyone.

Her dysfunction spilled into her adult years, winding up a crack addicted survivor of terrible domestic abuse at the hands of men described as “leeches” in testimony.

She had virtually no education or IQ to speak of really.

But — despite this, Redhead was trying to get clean and stable and “trying to heal,” Ducharme said.

Ducharme offered this response when asked what kind of future he saw for Nicole and Jaylene after surveying and contemplating her history:

“If I was a brand-new psychologist coming from a highly-rich white neighbourhood without any experience with first nation, I would probably look at this and be very afraid … you wouldn’t see any hope. You’d want to close the book right away — but that’s not the case based on my experience with family and also first nation — I’ve been going up to communities for over 15 years — her history, unfortunately, is not inconsistent with many of the other … young men and women that I see up north and do assessments on, where I do see individuals with backgrounds like Nicole being able to go on — based on presentation and support and healing — to go on and parent.

So what I’m seeing them within that larger context is somebody who was stable, was again coming back (to the treatment centre) … I assessed somebody that went and did it on the 15th time. (In Redhead) we see somebody who is coming back, wants to get better, is able to talk about her history of abuse and not fall apart – so she’s able to regulate, which is important — somebody who wants to heal and look after her children.”

In his conclusions, Ducharme only recommended a gradual and tightly supervised reunification of Jaylene and her mom for several reasons, including her inability to withstand stress, potential for relapse into addiction and other “red flags.” He described it as a “let’s see what we can do here” approach.

But hope for Redhead becoming a fit parent in late May 2008 was there, it’s clear. It was a start.

The problem — as it appears to have sadly been in Phoenix’s case as well — was oversight and follow-through.

It appears no one from Awasis CFS called Ducharme to discuss his findings, Redhead’s case switched hands and his report didn’t make its way into the hands of the treatment centre until he personally “broke protocol” and faxed it over to them five months later when Redhead’s case worker grew more and more concerned she hadn’t seen it.

By December 2008, CFS and Redhead entered into a supervisory order where it agreed to provide her with in-house supports as she began trying to care for Jaylene. She was smoking crack again by January 2009 and Jaylene was dead inside Redhead’s room at the treatment centre by late June of that year.

I trust Ducharme’s considerable experience that people – even severely damaged souls — can change. I believe that.

I also believe that it would be a lie to say our child-welfare system and the people brave enough to work in it haven’t done some good for many of its thousands and thousands of its clients over the decades.

But CFS, today, regardless of the fact both these horrific cases are years old, must find a way to demonstrate to the public it acts in a consistent and professional fashion in every case it touches in the province.

It must find a way to engage the general public in a realistic and understandable way to show the system is worthy of its trust.

And better yet: that we too can justify having hope.


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