A ‘vicious, vicious cycle’ continues

(This post is re-blogged from the Winnipeg Free Press “Crime Scene” blog.)

I have a dream about what I would do if I were to ever win the lottery or otherwise have the good fortune to sign my own paycheques, as it were.

I would travel the province and country for at least two full years to examine the youth justice system as only considerable time and complete, undivided focus, could allow.

I spoke last week to a great group of University of Winnipeg students who are studying the justice system, the court process and criminal law procedure in depth.

They’re looking closely at issues including disclosure, wrongful convictions and other serious systemic problems that can happen and, why.

It was only in the dying minutes of my time with them that I remembered the most important thing I wanted to tell them.

That being: When it comes to youth justice and all that entails in the true meaning of the word “justice,” I believe we’re failing and we either need to do better or find new tools and ways of doing things. I’m just being honest.

We’re not failing in the sense that there aren’t great people, from correctional officers and social workers to lawyers and judges, grinding it out every day, doing the best with the resources they have to work with. There are, and they don’t get nearly enough attention or accolades for their work.

I mean we’re failing systemically. In terms of the Youth Criminal Justice Act’s stated intent to promote a just and safe society and long-term protection of the public by focusing on rehabilitation, and not punishment, as a first principle for young offenders, who have diminished moral culpability because of their ages.

More importantly, we’re failing in how the youth criminal and child-welfare systems intersect and don’t appear to share each other’s objectives.

Well, they may in principle. But in practice, as I’ve continually seen over the years, it’s a very different reality entirely.

I’ll give you just one small example of this.

I call it the ‘how kids fall into a black hole’ scenario. Followers of my blog over the years are familiar with my coverage of this issue, how youth jails become ‘warehouses’ for child-welfare and mental health concerns

This sad drama appears in various permutations, but almost always involves a bewildering and (I say) shameful lack of communication and co-ordination between Child and Family Services and the criminal youth justice system.

Interestingly, it’s seldom that you can just point a blaming finger over this issue – and that’s not my intent here, really. But it never seems to change.

Here’s this week’s example. One where it takes a little time to tease out all the complexities at play. Apologies.

It also bears mentioning that as a member of the public, one doesn’t often get the full, fleshed-out picture in youth court.

Due to CFS privacy and YCJA access provisions, there’s no opportunity to access reports and other documentation which could provide greater detail as to what’s really happening. So you’re left sometimes with what you’re left with in terms of what the various actors put on the record.

But the lack of access to documents doesn’t mean that the issues aren’t valid, that they’re somehow just misunderstandings borne out of a lack of public disclosure.

The problems are real.

In the spring of 2013, the parents of a criminally-involved 14-year-old (‘DD’ we’ll call him here) sign a voluntary placement agreement with CFS for six months. His folks have seven other kids at home and DD’s acting out causes them to ask CFS for help. CFS – Southeast CFS to be exact – steps in to take him.

He’s the only one not living in care (save for an older sister who also came into care due to a pregnancy). He has suspected FASD and ARND, cognitive issues which make him more apt to act impulsively.

In his own words: “I do before I think.”

In May, he’s handed a year of probation for a break-and-enter, failure to appear in court and failing to comply with a bail order. The sentence, given that it’s his first-ever, is a year of probation. In June, he’s arrested again for breaching probation and given a few hours of community-service work.

In September, he pleads to more probation breaches and gets more community-service hours.

What’s important to note: The probation breaches are all because he leaves the various emergency hotel shelters CFS is routinely placing him in, often returning home because he’s upset at the fact all his siblings remain there and he’s not.

Since he came into care, he’s been shunted between eight hotel placements.

It’s not all CFS’s fault for this, however. Court hears more “stable” foster placements can’t be had for him until he gets his behaviour in check. Yes, he’s 14, but some of the responsibility has to fall on his shoulders.

But arrested again in early October, DD plummets into the black hole.

It happens like this: The Crown, rightfully, won’t consent to bail him out unless CFS comes up with a better residence plan than hotel rooms for him to live in.

And it’s pretty clear to the defence it would be a hard sell to a judge to release him if there’s nothing new in DD’s bail plan to satisfy the court it just won’t all end up with him collared again and returned to the Manitoba Youth Centre.

But at the very same time, the skimpy nature of DD’s criminal past and the current charges he’s facing makes himineligible for custody at all if he were to just plead guilty and deal with his charges. In essence, we’re criminalizing a child, largely because of systemic factors beyond his control. I see that as a big problem.

And CFS, you ask? They’re hard to track down.

Now, over the years, I’ve heard more than a few defence lawyers complain that they can’t get CFS down to court to answer questions about one of their youth clients.

Despite their complaints, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually seen a judge subpoena a social worker — no small thing — to attend and talk about what the heck is going on with a young person.

It happened this week in DD’s case. On Tuesday, the case comes up in the afternoon, and Judge Catherine Carlson is told his defence lawyer was asked by another judge to call DD’s social worker and get her to come to court and answer questions about the hotel “emergency” placement plan for him. The CFS worker, in the past, had been in court to support him.

The lawyer is candid, says she called and the worker replied, “she’s not available today — she’s not available any day this week and the earliest she could attend is Tuesday (the 12th). And so, she’s not available to the court.”

As well, there is no non-hotel plan available at this time, the lawyer says she was told.

The worker was asked if there was a day she could “squeeze into her schedule” but the lawyer was still awaiting a call back to see if that was possible.

Is there anyone else from the agency that could come? Carlson asks. This isn’t likely. Before her, Carlson has an in-depth forensic psychology report outlining the concerns with DD and CFS’s continued use of a hotel-placement plan for the future.

The Crown relays its position again. It would consent to DD’s bail if there was a “proper plan” in place, but, “we’re doing (DD) a failure because we keep returning him into the same poor circumstances,” the prosecutor says. The hotel placements are “not adequate.”

He says the court has the option of mandating CFS to attend.

“I think that what’s troubling to me is the worker did come down and express concerns, which is why the forensic (report) got ordered. But then she didn’t participate in the forensic and… it seems… that just at this point there’s more questions than answers… I guess we’re stuck.”

“Somebody’s got to come down and answer what’s going on here.”

Judge Carlson agrees: “To say that she’s unavailable till Tuesday is concerning knowing that there’s a young man in custody and needs a better plan.”

So, a subpoena ordering the worker into court for Thursday is drawn up.

That day, the worker duly appears, and hears now from Judge Carena Roller.

“There is, for whatever reason, a lack of plan… he’s remaining in custody when he’s not eligible for custody. That’s a problem for me,” Roller says.

The forensic report hints at the fact an undiagnosed medical or psychological issue is at play in DD’s situation, an issue preventing him from complying with his court orders and therefore prompting his return to custody.

“The irony is we don’t know that because there was no response from the agency, no background provided to the assessor,” Roller says.

Ah, the worker says, that’s not entirely true. She was in touch with the doctor who assessed DD. There was another report done. The other one wasn’t prepared for court purposes and looked at his needs in the community. The worker insists that second report was sent to the doctor who did the forensic evaluation.

Regardless, DD’s impulse control is “severely impaired,” the worker says. It’s possible medication may help calm him — but doctors won’t prescribe it until they’ve had up to three weeks to observe his behaviour. That’s been a problem because DD goes AWOL, she says.

As for where he’ll live upon release, the worker says as follows: “Placement is determined on the day of release based on what beds are available in the system. I can tell you what’s available today, but I couldn’t tell you what would be available on a different day.”

What’s available today, Roller asks.

“An emergency shelter.”

Is that 24-hour supervision?

“No. The shelter we’re talking about is a 16-bed emergency shelter where he would be expected to attend the day program (school)… we haven’t been able to register (DD) in school because he tends to be AWOL before we can stabilize a program,” the worker says.

Why aren’t we talking about a locked setting then?

“For that to happen, we need a social history and approval for that level of funding,” says the worker. “We haven’t had that yet. Now, with these reports, we’re more able to support that application. And that is definitely a plan underway.”

When asked, the worker couldn’t say what date DD’s six-month voluntary placement with CFS expires. “Probably” in the next couple of months, she says.

Roller is curious (as we maybe all should be about a child in care): Why doesn’t CFS already have a social history on DD?

The worker’s answer is evasive. “In order to apply for locked facility… we have to be able to support it by behaviours,” she says.

The hearing is then stood down for a few minutes. A behind-the-scenes discussion results in DD pleading guilty to a handful of breaches and being sentenced to a few extra hours of community service work.

In his sentencing submissions, the Crown sounds unconvinced anything will change. Some of DD’s issues are systemic, he says. Candidly, some are also his as an individual, he says.

“Best we can hope is he goes on his way and starts to listen to his probation officer.”

DD’s defence lawyer tells Roller the youth is confused and upset at the fact he’s not allowed to be at home with his family and that’s why he flees from his hotel placements.

“He thinks that if he acts out and leaves these shelters they’ll give in and let him go home – that’s not the case,” she says.

By now, he’s spent three weeks of his life in custody. The lawyer questions how it appears the CFS position on finding a proper placement is somewhat incumbent on him, based on what the social worker has said. It shouldn’t be “all on him” to prove his way out of the emergency hotel shelter situation, the lawyer says.

“It’s turning out to be… a vicious, vicious cycle.”

In addressing DD, Roller seemed to agree.

“I know that you haven’t had a stable placement since you came into agency care,” she told him. “And I’m convinced that the people who are working with you aren’t talking to each other like we need them to do. We need you to have a team in place to work together and I hope that’s what’s going to happen going forward. Because we need your behaviour to improve,” she said.

She also reminded him of his CFS worker’s implicit promise to the court to get moving on finding a more palatable solution for him, to find him at least a place, “where you can unpack.”

“And she’s going to do all of that right away because we don’t want you bouncing around,” said Roller.

———————–

If you’re still with me by now, you’ll have perhaps noted some of the questions DD’s case — but one of many hundreds of youth court cases in Manitoba — raises.

At the top of my mind are:

  • How can a child be taken into agency care and the agency doesn’t have a “social history” on him months into his stay?
  • What exactly is a “social history?” It was clear his parents called in CFS, so why don’t they have such information at hand?
  • How can a social worker be subpoenaed into court and not have exact answers (like the date of expiry of DD’s placement agreement) at hand about the case she’s there to talk about?
  • Is a hotel room for a potentially mentally challenged and certainly confused teen boy really the best we can do for him? It personally strikes me as disingenuous to say it’s somewhat incumbent on DD, given the circumstances as presented, to “earn” his way out of the emergency shelter system. If it’s the case that it is, then isn’t that a problem? It strikes me DD was stopped into care by way of a voluntary agreement with no case planning as to what to do with him once he was there.
  • What prevented the two systems from “talking” to each other in this case and perhaps finding a better — or at least more expedient — outcome here? Resources? Stubbornness?

We can say “justice” has been served in the sense that a sentence was meted out, but I think we all know it wasn’t here. I fully expect to see DD back on the court docket in the coming months.

There’s many, many more questions, obviously. Finding answers without taking a long and focused look will be impossible.

The “vicious, vicious cycle” will continue until there’s pressure enough to end it.

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Hot-potato girl (part three) and our measures of ‘success’

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 10.56.14 PMWhen it comes to Manitoba’s youth justice system — and the unbelievably sad kids it often has to try and “fix” — I’ve learned one should take small successes and trumpet them.

And it dawns on me today that the case of K. falls into that category.

I wrote about K. — a high-needs permanent ward of CFS — a few months back. (It’s not her real initial).

Her tale triggered some consternation from regular readers of this blog (one commenter called the process of her case ‘disgusting’).

In a nutshell, K’s story was about what happens sometimes in our youth justice system — and the failures of systemic  concerns outside the court process to live up to the wishes and requirements of the court; that the youth justice act specifically states the criminal justice system is not to be a proxy for child-welfare concerns.

(And her concerns are immense. A short list goes like this: Violent history, FASD diagnosis, ARND, high suicide risk, broken family which “basically abandoned” her, mental illness, anxiety disorder).

You can read what little I know of K’s heartbreaking and concerning story here. And a follow up from a few days later here.

And it didn’t surprise me to learn last week that really, despite all this, nothing changed right away.

K. (remember, she’s 13 and an abuse survivor) was still released from the youth centre to go and live in a downtown Winnipeg hotel as Child and Family Services had no other placement for her.

(It’s partially her fault because her conduct had caused chaos at other bona fide foster placements, at another she was sexually abused and she was removed).

But the fact is the fact. Judge Mary Kate Harvie ordered specifically late last year K. was not to be placed by CFS or the provincial corrections department in a hotel and yet it continued to happen.

Another veteran judge, Marvin Garfinkel, lambasted lawyers and CFS over this continuing to happen in the spring and still, K. gets placed back in a hotel.

And again, this “plan” for her, however temporary the intention was for it to be, just didn’t work.

May 9, 2013: K. is at her latest hotel placement in downtown Winnipeg and a fracas breaks out with a worker over a perceived unfairness involving a cellphone. She lashes out, tosses a glass and hits the worker with it. After heading out of the hotel room, K. smashes a safety window, picks up a fire extinguisher and discharges it at another worker who tries to intervene in the hotel hallway.

Cops are called. She’s hauled off back to the youth centre and held in custody for what was termed a “freak out.” It seemed the cycle was simply doomed to repeat.

But then, something changed. Island Lake CFS came through with a placement on a rural farm. There’s animals there K.’s learning to bond with. She’s given structure and support and monitoring. The plan is she may actually return to school in the fall.

That’s some success you can hang your hat — however cautiously — on. But another success I noted was in how Judge Cynthia Devine treated K.

The relatively new judge, who also says grew up on a farm, spoke to this girl — noticed her, and noticed how this young offender with a horrific background replete with social (not criminal) problems spent two further months in custody till the placement came through.

Devine described this development, rightfully, as appalling. Because it is.

Devine saw how K. could barely utter a squeak, and hunched herself over in a defensive posture in the witness box throughout the hearing.

“It is absolutely no wonder that she comes before the court today having armed herself trying to protect her interests … little wonder that she freaked out. It is sad that she was in custody for so long on these charges,” Devine said.

“I’m appalled that this young girl was in custody for two months.”

Devine saw that the whole proceeding was likely just a bunch of gibberish to K., saying it was probably a “lot of noise” to her.

Devine saw K. And I got the sense her soft-touch approach might have made an impression.

To me, given some of the things I’ve seen over the years in youth court, that’s a success.

*[Edited slightly for typos on July 25 at 9:30 p.m. JST]

Bits at the end of a long, newsy week Part 1 — Phoenix

Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 8.13.14 PMFrom the stunning turns of events in Boston and Texas to, locally, the provincial budget and the government’s plan to hike of the PST as of July, it’s been a hell of a week for news.

(Great blog on the budget here, BTW. h/t Cherenkov. I appreciate honesty too.)

But on top of emerging craziness, the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry resumed witness testimony after several weeks off, partly due to the delay caused by perceptions of conflict.

And while the evidence heard this week was at times disturbing and concerning (Cpl. Rob Baker’s testimony, along Alison Kakewash’s hit me personally like a ton of bricks), I’ve been turning my mind more often lately to what Commissioner Hughes could be making of it all.

As we approach what’s sure to be the gloomy end of Phase 1 on Tuesday or Wednesday, it strikes me there are two nuts-and-bolts recommendations Hughes could make today to fulfil his mandate to help better protect Manitoba kids.

Technology

This been a frequent underlying issue at the hearings so far. An old Child and Family Services database (CFSIS) limping along. Lack of consistent Internet access for CFS agencies outside major centres. That lack of infrastructure leading to a ‘why bother’ kind of attitude from workers, leading, in turn, to a lack of due diligence in doing things like Prior Contact Checks — the very thing which could have “changed everything” in Phoenix’s case. I’m reasonably sure Hughes has turned his mind several times now to the technology issue. There’s no reason in this day and age all communities shouldn’t have proper access to the CFS computer system. We can put infrastructure in remote areas to ensure VLT/Casino data is accessed daily. Surely we can do the same for child-welfare services.

Last fall, the Auditor General specifically noted that the province has been slow to implement a number of key recommendations dating back to a 2006 CFS audit — and electronic case management and tracking was among them. So obviously the powers that be are aware of the problem.

The Auditor General noted a plan to completely replace the CFSIS system stalled in 2009 and by time of writing hadn’t had an update:

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(From Fall 2012 AG followup report)

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 6.35.06 PM

Inter-departmental and external agency information sharing

This is a fundamental issue. And when you have a veteran cop like Cpl. Baker saying sharing between various government agencies — such as CFS, Employment and Income Assistance, Health and police — could be better, it probably could be better.

Instead, we’ve heard several times now how people’s fears at violating privacy and health privacy legislation has led to slowdowns in the investigative process. Baker said RCMP, his police service, has no issues quickly sharing certain information with agencies conducting “like minded” investigations — but found when investigating Phoenix’s homicide there was pushback from CFS when he hoped to access sealed “child in care” files held by a CFS agency. Luckily, EI investigators were ready and willing to co-operate and set up the ultimate “sting” which exposed Kematch and McKay — and Phoenix’s death — nine months after it happened.

Workers investigating a child-protection case shouldn’t be hamstrung by having to invoke “magic words” to glean information quickly out of other agencies who may have valuable data, and vice versa. Any abuses could be ferreted out with a strong quality-assurance program. Information is like oxygen to investigators of all stripes. If we believe they are working towards valuable goals [like the safety of at-risk kids], they shouldn’t have to fight for information.

But it’s a contentious issue, for sure. Even police agencies can’t figure out a way to co-operate when it comes to data sharing, as this (to my mind, sad) report out of Alberta suggests.

Queensland, Australia child-welfare inquiry

Interesting (350-page) read below:

A massive child-welfare inquiry in Australia is about to wrap up with a final report from its commissioner by June, likely earlier. What’s relevant is how many issues there are echoed over here, particulary the concerning rise in the number of kids being taken into care, largely because of neglect, not abuse.

The website is a model for future inquiries, I feel. It’s easy to find the disclosure, they took it on themselves to live-stream it, and staff even communicate with the public via social media. As well, people are encouraged to participate by sending submissions to the commissioner.

While I’m not knocking the effort for Phoenix’s inquiry — communications staff have bent over backwards at times to ensure media have been given proper access — but perhaps a few more of the $9.6 million we’re currently spending could have gone into making the proceedings and website more accessible to the public, virtually all of whom can’t make it to take in the hearings during working hours.

The design is a bit dated — and it’s very difficult to navigate the disclosure which has been presented, unless you note page numbers as you go along.

Here’s the recent discussion paper from the Australian affair. I’d love to foster a discussion about it with readers, so chime in in the comments and we’ll make it happen somehow. Perhaps through a live blog of some kind.

[Part two of this post will look at a few other non-PSI things I dug up this week, including an interesting tale about the infamous Darrell Ackman, AKA Mr. JetzTV]

——–

Late edit: I just wanted to point out some things which have been picking at me, relating to the internal CFS documents tabled at the inquiry.

Look closely at this, for one example:

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 8.05.15 PM

This was the file closing of Shelly Wiebe from December 2004.

Notice how her surname is typed one way — IE —

But her signature states it’s EI.

That’s odd, no? Who misspells their name in their signature?

Here’s another oddity, from this week’s report from Intertribal CFS.

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 8

Why is it that it’s the same report  — just one page apart (you can see the page break) — but the formatting in terms of spacing is so different? It’s weird.

There’s been a few other instances of documentary oddness. I’ll add them as I come across them.

-30-

A further example of youth jails as child-welfare warehouses, or the girl who became a hot potato PART II

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 10.56.14 PM “It’s not recommended. It’s not a polite term. It’s not a recommendation —  It’s an order!” — Provincial Court Judge Marvin Garfinkel

Last Thursday, I wrote about this girl (do read before continuing further) — who’s being held at the Manitoba Youth Centre because no suitable Child and Family Services placement can be found for her.

This, despite the fact Canada’s youth justice laws prohibit young people being detained for child-welfare concerns. The girl isn’t an ordinary case. She requires a specialized placement because of her behavioural and other issues.

Again, she’s just 13 and a permanent ward of CFS.

A few readers contacted me via email and other means to express their concern and, in some cases, disgust, that this was happening.

The case, as the previous post made clear, drew Judge Marvin Garfinkel’s ire, largely because it was clear the powers that be in the CFS or justice system were either unable or unwilling to follow a court’s order regarding her placement, one issued months ago.

Her probation order specifically prohibits her from being placed in a hotel room by CFS or any other agency.

But yet, one of the reasons she was back in custody at a jail is because she was placed in a hotel room after the probation order — a legal document setting out supervision requirements as determined by a judge, not CFS or the province — was issued.

[More on this below. However, note carefully the bolded section of the Crown’s statement to the court].

Thursday, her regular lawyer isn’t in court, but an experienced associate of his is.

Garfinkel, sitting again, is told the two advocates spent the afternoon Wednesday working on a motion which was prepped and ready to file — ostensibly trying to get the ‘provincial director’ to act — and more discussion with Crown.

Also in court this day are a lawyer for the Island Lake CFS agency and a worker, and also a representative from Winnipeg’s B&L Resources for Children, Youth and Families.

There’s still no placement for her, Garfinkel is told.

Still, the Crown is ready to consent to her release.

Garfinkel is told the agency has made attempts, but there is no placement — they are looking into a number of issues.

But, there’s no grounds to keep her in custody as far as I’m concerned, her defence lawyer says.

The lawyer for CFS then steps to the podium and fills the judge in on what’s now happening.

Here’s the bulk of the exchange, verbatim.

CFS Lawyer (CFS): The agency has been working quite a bit on trying to find a suitable placement for [girl] — obviously there’s some high needs involved here.

Garfinkel: Is the child for whom there is an existing order of judge Harvie?

CFS: Yes. I’ll just give Your Honour some more background.

Garfinkel: I recall this.

CFS: This was the matter where Judge Harvie ordered there was to be no placement in a hotel room.

Garfinkel: Yes.

CFS: And you brought to [Lawyer’s] attention. Just so your honour knows the full story, [The defence lawyer] also spoke with … the provincial director yesterday, and brought this to his attention and he’s working to find a placement as well — he’s now aware that she’s not to be placed in a hotel. We also spoke with Corey La Berge from the Child Advocate’s office and [the office] has a worker assigned … and Mr. La Berge is making attempts to assist with a placement at well.

[The worker] has thoroughly exhausted institutional placements. All of them advise that either they don’t have room or they’ll be able to meet her criteria. However, As indicated, there is a case manager here from B&L and a possible foster placement. I’ve been speaking with them this morning. It is anticipated a timeline of about a week to transition [the girl] to that home should that be a suitable placement. It sounds like a good plan is in place there. Of course, the issue we’re faced with today is [the girl’s] imminent release today. [Another person] has made some inquiries to [a program], which is also a placement — they advise they have a place available but they’re, as we speak, reviewing [the girl’s] application, which I should point out was actually made a couple of months ago and no response was ever received from them. So they are re-reviewing that to determine if that spot can be taken by [the girl]. And we are also waiting back to hear if any possible Places of Safety can possibly take her today.

Obviously we don’t want her to remain in custody anymore than anybody else. At the same time, we want to make sure she has a suitable placement to go to. So that is where we are today. My hope is that we can find at least a temporary placement as soon as possible today so that she can then be transitioned into the other home.

Garfinkel: OK. Thank you for your comments.

Crown: With respect to the matter on the docket … it involves three counts from a date of Jan. 24th of this year [assault with weapon and two breaches]. The Crown will be entering a stay of proceedings. It’s because of what’s already been touched upon by my learned friend. The order of Judge Harvie specifically stated that a residence was supposed to be found and not a hotel placement. This incident occurred while [the girl] was a resident at [a downtown hotel]. After my read of the file yesterday, based on that fact alone, I decided that a stay of proceedings will be entered on that matter. And for that reason.

They then proceed with a consent release hearing — she’s officially ordered freed on an undertaking. The undertaking says she must reside as directed by CFS but not be a hotel placement [but the probation order indicates it’s the provincial director’s responsibility].

Garfinkel: I want to thank you all for coming.

Yesterday, we were a little disturbed by circumstances that existed. Quite candidly we didn’t have the information that we have now. And I think you have to remember that this facility is a criminal justice facility. It no longer is a place of shelter under the old Child Welfare Act and the Juvenile Delinquent’s Act. Parliament has made a clear-cut distinction between criminal proceedings and child-protection proceedings. Now, many times, the people involved have both child-protection issues and criminal justice issues. But we have to try and delineate what’s what and what’s what. In this instance, we have this young person accused of committing crimes. She is absolutely presumed to be innocent. She is not to be detained unless the Crown can show cause why detention is necessary. Moreover — she is bound by a probation order which requires her to reside in a certain place. That place is a positive with a negative attachment.

The positive is: she is to reside where directed by the provincial director. The provincial director is a criminal justice official whose office is created by federal legislation. The negative is, that place of residence is not to be a hotel. If she doesn’t like that order, she can instruct her lawyer to appeal it. But until it’s appealed — that order is valid and it must be complied with. None of you here, as I understand it, are representing the provincial director. But each of you may have some conversation with a provincial director and should tell that official that you’re now aware of the order. And the provincial director shouldn’t try to convince you or persuade you to disobey the order …

Defence lawyer: The no-hotel clause came from a [forensic psychologist] as part of a forensic assessment.

Garfinkel: I’m not arguing. Judge Harvie put it into the order. It’s a valid order until it’s repealed or reversed. It must be … if I — let’s say I wanted to do something silly, like say, ‘all of you are in contempt, you’re going to jail,’ – You go to jail. The Sheriff’s officers will physically take you there until the order has changed. 

Lawyer: I just want to make it clear to the agency that that’s not likely to change — even if it comes before a judge because it’s been recommended, it’s be ordered. ..

Garfinkel: It’s not recommended. It’s not a polite term. It’s not a recommendation — [bangs fist down] It’s an order. It’s terrible! (obviously referring to how the probation order hasn’t been obeyed). 

Lawyer: … I’m just saying if anybody thinks there’s going to be a variation to the probation order, everybody needs to keep in mind that there were very good reasons for Judge Harvie ordering that. And it’s not likely that she would change that is what I’m saying.

—-

So there you have it. For weeks, this girl has been languishing in jail, and suddenly, everyone’s now on board trying to find a solution.

I can’t speak to what caused the dramatic turnaround in attention the girl’s case suddenly received, but it’s heartening to see.

That said, it was clear her ethically and legally-questionable jail stint wasn’t likely coming to a quick end at the end of Thursday’s hearing. Efforts were being made, but no placement was available yet.

Now, what I hadn’t realized when I wrote the original piece about this case was that she was in jail partly because of breaches and other charges stemming from an illegal placement in a hotel room taking place more than a month after Judge Harvie’s original order forbid the provincial director (and by virtue of the order, CFS) from placing her in a hotel.

Nothing’s perfect in this world. I get it. And I suspect that the high needs of the girl’s case played a major role in CFS or the provincial director just trying to find her somewhere to stay in the interim.

But the fact is, this case sends a number of concerning messages to the general public.

Not least of those being: If the powers in place to enforce court orders can’t or won’t obey them for whatever reason, then how can we expect anyone else — like offenders — to follow them either?

It’s a black mark on the administration of justice, in my view.

The courts and offenders often wear blame directed at them from the public and the media when people placed on probation reoffend.

I think it’s clear from this one small case that the blame may lie elsewhere, sometimes.

And, more troubling: the above shows how for some of Manitoba’s roughly 10,000 kids in the care of the state, it’s not all that difficult to fall into black holes not of their making.

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“There is no damned degree that will ever teach you humanity.” A dialogue on CFS

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People. From all walks of life. In one room. Talking about Child and Family Services in Manitoba.

Setting aside the fact Sunday’s meeting of minds at the River Heights Community Centre was sponsored by Manitoba Liberal Leader Dr. Jon Gerrard — he’s been one of the NDP government’s harshest critics on the CFS portfolio — I couldn’t help but be struck by the event just because it was happening at all.

Again: People. From all walks of life. In a room. Talking about CFS in Manitoba.

No intervening high-minded lawyers, no awful tragic child’s death anchoring it all and (virtually) no ranting and raving, or for that matter, much finger-pointing.

If there were one thing I could say I took away from the discussion (aside from the oddity that people rationally discussing a very live and vital issue in our society is somehow a marvel to behold), it would be this: People — the average Joe and Jane citizen — feel completely in the dark about CFS, how it works and what it does. But they care. 

To many, it’s a gigantic government machine — “the feared child police” — which operates largely in secret and appears completely unaccountable for the decisions it makes — and that it make decisions about the lives of others which don’t appear to be working in a long-term sense. It bears remembering that many people touched by CFS aren’t the most sophisticated to start with.

Navigating complex legal and bureaucratic systems, for them, is unthinkable. And there’s not a whole host of advocacy routes to travel.

But let’s face facts: We have a terrible problem in Manitoba.

There’s an overwhelming number of kids in CFS care (many, if not most, aboriginal) and most they’re there not because of “abuse” — a nebulous and shifty term as set out in the CFS Act — but because of parental neglect.

No food in the fridge, mom and or dad or both drinking or splitting up, a shaky housing situation. These are just some of the instances of neglect which could move CFS to pull a child from his or her family and into care, and the parental issue triggering the apprehension may or may not get attended to.

It can’t be overstated: pulling a child from its family is no small thing. The aftershocks of that broken bond could last an entire lifetime. We have evidence in droves, including that unearthed by a years-long public inquiry, that the foster care and child-welfare systems is a feeder for youth jails, addictions and gang-involvement and, later, adult prisons.

[Two quick, but admittedly extreme examples: A 19-year-old man who lit a guy on fire in the north end and killed him? He had nearly 20 different foster placements in his short lifetime. Another man, who torched his Sherbrook Street apartment block around Christmas — he had 36 different CFS placements as a youth. The mass rejection a developing mind would feel from the constant shakeups is staggering.]

So, what do we do? Blaming the government won’t help. Blaming social workers won’t help.

But being given information and ideas to contemplate and question the status quo is a start.

And that’s what we should be doing.

Sunday’s meeting was an excellent example of this.

There were five speakers, and I’ll summarize a few of their views [as I understood them], briefly. This is not exhaustive.

First was Bernice Cyr, executive director of the Native Women’s Transition Centre and former CEO of Metis Child and Family Services.

Cyr spoke of several key areas, including the problem the system has in terms of dealing with the competing concepts of ‘safety’ and ‘risk’ assessments.

While it’s pretty apparent what constitutes ‘safety,’ for kids — the concept of ‘risk’ (in the long-term sense) to a child is one that’s harder to get a grasp on. Because of new risk-assessment tools used by CFS (the Structured Decision Making computer risk evaluation, sarcastically dubbed the “cover your ass tool” by some), Cyr suggested that long-term risk can’t be addressed through apprehension of kids into care (because of the later “desperate outcomes” many of them encounter in other systems: health, criminal justice) and advocated for a greater use of what she described as “safety networks” for families in crisis.

Ultimately, Cyr believes child-welfare is a public concern to be addressed by the community/public agencies as a whole and not simply left to the ‘system’ to deal with in isolation.

Key point: in northern isolated communities, CFS is often the only resource available. The presence of health and other agencies can be skimpy or non-existent to meet people’s basic needs and protection centres for kids aren’t there, but CFS is, so a lot of burden is placed on the system.

Cyr also said the definition of ‘abuse’ in the CFS Act needs to be narrowed because it prevents social workers from developing more progressive practice habits. She also called for the expansion of the mandate of the Children’s Advocate office and the redirection of already-existing funding for family support interventions.

Next — and most interesting to me — was Lore Mirwaldt, a child protection and family support lawyer who practices up north.

In frank terms, she argued the CFS system as exists today is one that’s been thrust into isolation because of legislation and a hierarchical management/government system which operates in “crisis management” mode brought on by fear of making mistakes which become public controversies (Phoenix, Gage Guimond etc.).

“The name of the game is, ‘keep your cases off the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press,'” Mirwaldt said.

She took the 40 or so people gathered through the genesis of the so-called ‘devolution’ of the system as advanced by the AJI in 1991 and talked in depth about the problems which came out of the so-called “master agreement” the province signed with aboriginal leaders in 2000. While the principles of the agreement were to be lauded, Mirwaldt suggested the implementation was where it all went awry. As a result, the CFS system continues to wrestle with the problems that arose from the transfer of cases to aboriginal-run agencies years after the May 2005 ‘go-live’ of the new system.

“The problem is the government lost its nerve — they got scared,” she said. “They didn’t want to see any more dead children.”

In the north, some social workers handle astronomical caseloads of 70, whereas the recommended maximum caseloads are about a third of that.

As for the SDM tool, the standardized risk assessment questions (often called ‘probability of future harm’) that social workers must use in a case are often biased against northern kids, where ‘risk’ can be determined by the lack of a community store or other resources. Northern kids routinely come out of the computer-generated tool as “medium to high risk” and the solution for the worker is to apprehend, Mirwaldt said.

Overwhelmed by the soaring caseloads, workers on the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation were encouraged by the director of their agency to “think outside the box.”

So they did, by moving to a philosophy Mirwald, tongue in cheek, called “apprehend the parent.” Through a band resolution passed by the NCN chief and council, parents who were creating unsafe atmospheres for their kids were removed from homes (remember, its the band who owns the property) and replaced by grandmothers and other appropriate caregivers to look after the kids. When parents protested, they were told to go work on their issues before they could return.

Most parents “eventually see the light,” she said, prompting the CFS agency to implement supervision orders to reunite the families with conditions.

The child stays in the home with relatives and is safe. The parent deals with the presenting problem or can’t return.

As a result of this “circle of care” strategy, Mirwald said Child Protection dockets in Thompson court have shrunk from 70 cases to as low as 22.

The problem is, she says, “bean counters” at CFS don’t know how to pay for the increase in in-home supports.

In the question/answer portion towards the end, Mirwaldt made an interesting point: Our priorities seem out of whack when a child can die in care and nobody gets fired, but if it was questionable spending a person is caught doing, they’d likely be turfed in a heartbeat.

She also said a worry is that declining caseloads will trigger a funding issue.

“We’re really afraid we’re going to lose our funding because our numbers are down,” she said.

Next to speak (and the last I’ll discuss in this post) was Bertha Traverse, a member of Little Saskatchewan First Nation and former long-term child welfare worker who specialized in working with at-risk youth.

She’s a staunch advocate of finding means to prevent apprehensions.

“Apprehension doesn’t work,” she said. “The bond that you have with family is broken the minute you’re taken out of your home — it’s irreparable,” she said.

Traverse spoke in scenes of realism — pointing out how on the 4th floor of the law courts building in Winnipeg, outside room 410 (where child-protection docket court is held), the vast majority of people there are aboriginal young mothers.

She also talked of how the government’s standards for social workers’ educations don’t always mean the workers are invested in the work.

There is no damned degree that will ever teach you humanity,” she said.

Speaking of humanity, several in the audience offered insight into their personal predicaments and thoughts on the CFS system as a whole.

One of the most touching moments came from the undertaker who buried Gage Guimond.

He seemed to be questioning the entire philosophy of the social-welfare system and wondered what role “corruption” [his word] played in our society being unable to find solutions.

“The more you keep people poor, the more you keep them just running — the worse problems you have,” he said.

Another man spoke of the fear people have of CFS, and called for more advocacy resources for people to be able to navigate the system.

But it was one woman — an adoptee — who really gave me pause.

What the real problem is, she says, is how society has changed so much from when she was a child, when she would walk home from school and people would inquire of her if they hadn’t seen her sister or father that day.

We don’t look out for each other or even know each other any more, she said.

If we simply stuck together more, paid attention and cared, we’d be able to find solutions for the long-term benefit.

Maybe she’s right. But the cynic in me says we’ve come too far afield now to get back there.

I stand to be corrected, because ideally, I think she’s probably bang-on in her assessment.

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Phoenix Inquiry: What CFS had on Karl (Carl?) ‘Wes’ (Wesley?) McKay and — when

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(Phoenix was murdered by Karl McKay and Samantha Kematch in 2005, months after CFS last had contact with her)

The last couple of days of testimony have delved into and exposed — to some decent degree — the fact CFS workers never searched out Karl Wesley McKay’s background or did a “prior contact check”  in the CFS database. Nor, it must be said — did CFS even ask for his full name when they discovered he was staying with Samantha Kematch and Phoenix in July 2004.

I’ve done stories here, and here on this vital issue. I don’t use the word vital lightly.

Here’s how it was put by former Winnipeg CFS intake supervisor Carolyn Parsons today of what happened when McKay’s name surfaced for the second time in 2004 on Dec. 1.

“I think if in this time we had been able to determine Mr. McKay’s history — that certainly would have changed everything and I think that’s something that every person who’s been involved with this situation wishes had happened.”

At that time, they entered the name they had in the CFSIS database and gave it a Jan. 1, 1980 date of birth — a typical practice when a person’s actual birthdate couldn’t be located.

Today, inquiry staff released an exhibit from the province as to what CFS workers would have found if they had been able to track his name in the system. It’s apparent there was confusion — and the issue exposes what was an apparent limitation of the computer system at the time.

Sometimes the first name McKay used was Carl, other times Wesley, sometimes Wesley Carl,  Wes and finally, Karl. Seems the only time in 2004 his real name appeared was on May 28, 2004 after he marched into a welfare office and tried to claim Phoenix on his budget.

Sadly, his name wouldn’t be conclusively linked to Kematch’s case in the CFS database until March 15, 2006 — five days after RCMP announced Phoenix’s death had been uncovered and McKay and Kematch arrested. I note with interest that RCMP at the time spelled his first name as “Carl.”

It was also around the very day RCMP laid first-degree murder charges against the despicable pair for the murder of Phoenix through abuse and confinement in a cold basement.

If CFS had dug into his background in 2004, they would have found him referenced in eight separate files dating back from March 1996 to fall 2000 when his partner’s two kids (one of them was his) were made permanent wards of CFS.

Here’s a just few lowlights of the disclosed files — and this is certainly not exhaustive:

  • April 1998: CFS informed McKay had (again) beaten up on his partner at the time, breaking her nose. Investigators felt neither he nor she had “any insight into the impact this was having on the two children and the potential risk to them … Probation services later advised of the severity of the assaults on ** by Carl McKay. These included him having taken the supporting leg off the bathroom sink and beating her with it.”
  • June 1998: One of the kids is found wearing only a diaper and a sweatshirt on the corner of William Avenue and Isabel Street in the company of a drunk male. “She was immediately apprehended,” the agency said.
  • Sept. 25 2008: “Wesley left a phone message stating (his partner) was an alcoholic and had problems. Wesley sounded as though he was intoxicated. He appeared to be very vindictive and left the message out of revenge.”
  • Early 1999: McKay fails to follow through in family violence programming and a “better fathering group” … “he failed to internalize his violent offending behaviour and had persisted in denying and/or minimizing the problem. It was apparent to probation services that Carl was only complying with the order minimally because he felt forced to do so.”
  • February 1999: His then partner heads to a shelter but is stays only a few days before going back to McKay. “It was her contention that the reasons she reconciled with him was that she had nowhere else to go.”
  • March 1999: “Report comes in through CFS that … (she) had been assaulted by Carl McKay.”
  • 1999: McKay is described as being “uncooperative” the agency.

Under a section called “identified problems,” a worker in September 2000 — the same month Kematch regained custody of Phoenix — wrote: “Carl Wesley McKay poses a threat to the children both directly and indirectly in terms of his propensity for violence,” and that he has little or “any insight into the impact … lifestyles have had on the two children. ”

Under ‘interventions,’ the worker says both McKay and his then-partner were “directed to participate in programming to address addictions issues, domestic violence, anger management, issues of victimization only to be met with failure.”

“My own contact with Mr. McKay has been non-existent in spite of several attempts. On several occasions I attended to his residence at (redacted) in order to serve him with court documents but without any success. In co-operation with probation services. I attended to the Law Courts building on the date of one of his court appearances for Breach of Probation. However he failed to appear in court.”

In June 2000, a worker wrote McKay was “identified by probation services as an extremely high offender re: domestic assault”

Like I said above, this was not exhaustive of what the files contain. But it spells out a little further what a risk McKay was.

McKay on the record in 2003, but not on CFS radar

That said — It hasn’t been mentioned yet that McKay’s name actually surfaced much earlier than 2004 — a year earlier in fact, and still no one appeared to ask who he was.

Note the date: This was right after Phoenix was taken into care a second time and Kematch suddenly surfaced after nearly two years expressing an interest in parenting her.

Most importantly: Note how McKay’s name is spelled . Odd, isn’t it? Odd because that’s the correct spelling.

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Now: here’s what the worker present — Laura Forrest had to say in her testimony about McKay’s appearance in court that day:

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“I asked her the name and she gave me the name and I believe a date of birth,” Laura Forrest said. It’s in my addendum, she said.

Here’s the relevant section of that addendum:

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“Worker learned that Samantha has been in a relationship with (redacted) DUB- October 12, 1974 – for two years. has met Phoenix and has some knowledge about the situation, but Samantha did not feel comfortable discussing all the issues in front of him. (redacted) companied Samantha to court.”

It’s Karl McKay’s name on the court transcript.

But his actual birthdate is March 28, 1962, not October ’74. Was it him? Or just another of Kematch’s lies to CFS?

Note how Forrest phrased this in her testimony: “I asked her his name and she gave me the name and I believe a date of birth.”

One thing’s apparent: It’s too bad questions weren’t posed directly to McKay himself.

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Just for the heck of it, here’s a letter Probation Services wrote to CFS in 1999 about McKay.

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Page 2:

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Redhead Inquest: CFS, damaged people and the concept of hope

(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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Phoenix Inquiry: It’s the conflict of values

(Samantha Kematch had the discretion to not murder her child.)

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” — Milton Friedman

A few weeks back, prior to the resumption of testimony in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, the University of Manitoba’s law school held a morning-long public session on public inquiries and their genesis, largely looking at the Sophonow inquiry held many years ago.

Among the four speakers was former deputy Attorney General Bruce MacFarlane.

As I’ve been pondering the inquiry at length, an off-hand comment MacFarlane made keeps coming back to me.

The thing about public inquiries when you’re in government, MacFarlane said, is you never know what you’re going to get.

His words resonate today, because in the drab downtown Winnipeg convention room where Ted Hughes presides over the increasingly contentious and costly proceedings into the role CFS played in Phoenix’s life up until shortly before her 2005 murder, we’re hearing things which, seen in the right light, could shake our Manitoba reality to its core.

And that may not be a bad thing — in fact, this examination of an exceedingly secretive system might ultimately be just what the ER doctor ordered.

But I suspect confronting what needs to be confronted will be anything but easy.

Let’s start with a fairly well-accepted premise about political power and its legitimacy: A government and the systems it uses to exercise its power (policing, taxation and, yes, child-protection for example) are essentially rendered toothless and ineffective if the citizens those systems serve don’t ‘buy into’ them and accept their actions as proper, justifiable and fair.

(To put it more concretely, even the most garden variety city cop reporter will tell you the ‘f**k the police, f**k the courts’ sentiment in Manitoba is not only prevalent but has grown considerably in the last 20 years. Disrespect for police authority and the justice system is high.)

So, let’s recap just a few salient truths we’ve heard so far about Phoenix and her circumstances, and some of the circumstances of CFS from 2000-2004.

  • Mom and dad, both young and disadvantaged, were each products of the CFS system.
  • Phoenix was taken into the custody of CFS same child-welfare system at birth.
  • Dad was considered a “passive resistant” CFS client who wanted to raise Phoenix himself in order to spare her his own childhood experiences of the system.
  • When dad was offered CFS services in a time of heavy grief, he rejected them for ones he could access from and in his own community.
  • The CFS system set rules and goals (case plans) for her parents to reclaim Phoenix, but didn’t follow them to the letter.
  • CFS committed itself to following up with the family, but couldn’t seem to do it in a uniform or consistent manner.
  • There was confusion of whether the CFS client was Phoenix, her mom, her dad, both or all three at the same time.
  • The family lived in a severely challenged community where the need for CFS services was always stretched thin.
  • The personal ‘values’ workers brought to cases directly influenced important aspects of it, including assessments of risk children faced.
  • Any actions taken by the CFS system’s actors (largely based on presenting circumstances) were hemmed in by legislation requiring that families and kids were to be dealt with in the “least intrusive” manner possible.
  • CFS agents — namely social workers — were rebuffed, misdirected or outright lied to in many of their efforts to look out for Phoenix when she was not in care (though at the same time, CFS appeared to do little to verify much of the information it was receiving.)

We could take apart and debate and analyze each and every one of the above.

But for today, anyways, lets just start by looking at the concept of ‘values.’

Why did Rohan Stephenson lie to CFS? Because, he says, from his value system he believed he was doing the right thing for Phoenix.

Consider his clearly stated perspective from his past brushes with the system:

“I was coming from a marginalized group of society: low income, partying lifestyle, general distrust of police and the establishment. …  “I had no positive experience with police in my youth certainly, or with CFS. I had only known CFS taking children away. Not fixing families only breaking them.”

Also consider another example, the mistrust and resistance to the agency implied in Steve Sinclair’s statement to social worker Laura Forrest after she came knocking on his door in early 2003. He refused to tell her where Phoenix was.

“Then she would have went down there and got up all in their face. I knew she was safe. That’s all that mattered to me. They would have made a different judgment call in their eyes, right?”

“We’ll see about that,” was Sinclair’s resistant reply to Forrest when she told him she’d return and had to see the little girl.

What the above directly implies is the values and work the CFS system performs clashed with those of its clients. Not all of them, for sure, but likely many.

Also interesting is how in Stephenson’s case, CFS and police are linked as being similar entities — as illegitimate actors of the state whose interference is perceived as an intrusive threat and not a benefit, based on past experiences.

But the quandary is very clear: What is CFS to do if the heart of its work — the children and families it’s mandated to serve — don’t believe in what you’re doing and don’t support your right to do it?

How does the system, looking forward, get past the entrenched ‘us versus them’ mentality? Was this also a goal of the devolution process?

It’s a fundamental, if not foundational question. One Hughes will have to investigate if he’s going to recommend realistic ways to better protect children.

In Phoenix’s lifetime anyways, CFS clearly appeared to be a mess.

And today, we’re told the need for CFS has grown, not abated.

The government — where the buck ultimately stops regardless of the bureaucratic CFS authorities system it uses to deflect that reality — has and will likely continue to throw millions of dollars, discretion-regulating technology and staffers at the system.

That ‘solution’ will continue, I suspect, until the point we’re willing to do what may seem impossible: Confront our issues and prejudices, settle long-standing scores we have with each other and move past them already. Find a better way.

But to reiterate where we started off: We don’t know what we’re gonna get. 

The death of any child, no matter the circumstances is horrible, and to see one murdered, simply unspeakable and intolerable. We can all agree to that.

From that baseline, we have our work cut out for us.

That’s clear, and will become even more so in the hard days ahead.

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‘I never had that kind of power!’

‘I never had that kind of power!’

Pissed off at their gang pal being maced and mugged by a rival banger, five people — all relatively young — elect to get revenge.

Their chosen method of retribution?

Storm out of their Furby Street safehouse armed with hockey sticks, head into a basement suite at a nearby Sherbrook Street apartment block and torch the place by stuffing paper, sheets, blankets — whatever — onto the hot stove. And then run.

“Gonzos,” a co-accused is reported as saying as he put stuff over the hot stove. “Everything’s on fire.” The entire building was destroyed. Many lost everything except the clothes on their backs.

“As soon as I saw the fire, I ran,” the youth said. “I couldn’t believe the smoke.”

What proof did the Bloodz gang have to show this apartment should be targeted?

They once saw a Mad Cowz member hanging out in there. So, nothing conclusive. Basically just a hunch.

One result: a $1-million dollar devastation, 40 people left homeless, 19 of those people [including a bunch of kids] hospitalized, a pregnant woman’s miscarriage, and a whole whack of terror and fear for innocents who to this day still have trouble sleeping lest they not get out alive again.

Another result? A 17-year-old ‘kid’ now entertaining the option of being able to run his own gang crew because of the notoriety his despicable act of arson gained him.

Another result: Three adult suspects likely to skate easy in court because it’s going to be difficult to prove who actually did what and when.

And the final result: A suspect on the lam for nearly a year now because family members are choosing to hide him from police on some reserve instead of doing the right thing and hauling him into the nearest police detachment to face justice.

Yes. Oh yes. There have been very few crimes in Winnipeg of late that have both intrigued me, sickened me and infuriated me like the gang-retribution arson at 577 Sherbrook St. — perpetrated Jan. 14 in the early morning hours when many of the children, women and men peacefully living out their lives there were likely sleeping and had to run like hell to save their skins.

I wonder how they’d feel today knowing one of the people who caused their misery — he’s 17 today — now stands to gain from it if he so chooses.

From the Crown, referencing the psych report conducted for the youth’s benefit after he pleaded guilty:

“I think the most jarring part of this is his gang membership and how he feels about it … when asked about his future plans regarding gang association, he states he’s not certain what else he wants to do. On one hand, he says he’s considering quitting the gang association. However on the other hand now he could be a leader, have his own gang or crew,” Ericka Dolcetti, quoting from the report.

“And he added as an exclamation: ‘I never had that kind of power!,’

“He’s not learned from this at all. In fact, maybe this has given him some street cred,” Dolcetti said.

“… He is absolutely a danger to the public,” Dolcetti said today. “He uses his fists and he doesn’t use his words.”

When the group fled the scene, they returned to the safe house and continued partying.

“Yeah, we got them!,” “I lit up the kitchen!,” and “I lit up the couch,” were their happy cries.

When cops arrived a few minutes later, the officers themselves heard though the door:

“I burnt the whole fucking place down — go check it out!,”

The party ended when cops came through the door at gunpoint. The jig was up.

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Since the age of 6, the offender in question has been bounced from CFS foster placement to CFS foster placement — as many as 15 times in a decade.

He drinks, yes, but weed is his daily drug of choice (although he’s experimented with cocaine, morphine, ecstasy and Restoril).

“Weed is my best friend … I can’t answer if I’d ever stop,” he told a probation officer.

In recent years, he’s had several family members die. That’s been hard on him.

Due to the constant shuffling around, he has major attachment issues, feels “frequently worthless and has been diagnosed with PTSD due to his upbringing. He lives “vividly in the moment of past trauma,” a leading youth psychotherapist says. He has an “overreaction to threats, real or imagined.”

He says it was a female cousin who “pressured” him into tagging along with the group that morning — pushed him out the door, telling him to go back up his brothers.

“He is remorseful,” his lawyer says.

The youth gave an oddly-worded apology for his actions in court. Odd in the sense his words seemed so careful and structured that one couldn’t help but question their sincerity.

“[I] take responsibility on my part — [I] burned down that apartment building. I know it’s irreversible what I’ve done. I’m very remorseful for the people I hurt, the pain I caused  and damage I caused [to] people in that apartment building.

Alcohol and drugs had a really bad effect on me that night. I plan to work on that during my stay at the Agassiz Youth Centre. I also plan to work on my social skills, my employment skills and other skills that are available to me at the Agassiz Youth Centre.

I’ve suffered lots, lots of deaths in my life — losing my mom and dad [is a] big problem for me … depression, overwhelmed with anger … I still have major thinking errors.”

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At the time of the arson, the youth was on probation and had been AWOL from his latest group home for just shy of a month.

Prior to that, he breached conditions of his probation on Dec. 5, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. It wasn’t stated in court why he wasn’t breached and put back in lockup after he came back on the 6th.

Prior to that, between October 21-29, he also breached by not returning to his group home.

Prior to that, on Aug 22-23, he didn’t check in as directed to do so. He was arrested for this and got bail.

There’s no real point of presenting any of the above, except a certain professional satisfaction that there will be a record of this somewhere — a record beyond the basic newspaper retelling of what happened, and how such a major crime was dealt with by the system.

This kid is a mess, and you could with a straight face make the argument he never really had a chance to be anything but.

At the end of the day however, he’ll be free 27 months from now. And I hope, sincerely, we’ve seen the last of the worst he’s capable of doing.

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Judge Lismer just says ‘no’

(ChrisD.ca)If you’re a young offender who frequently thumbs his or her nose at court orders, the last place you wanted to be today was in front of Judge Ted Lismer in an effort to get out on bail for the weekend.

Without any speeches, remonstrations or soft-handed explanations, Lismer wasn’t giving any breaks today.

There were two cases that stood out.

Exhibit one: The Level-4 offender

At 17, he was once considered one of the city’s worst candidates for stealing cars, driving them dangerously and endangering the public.

Police the gang-involved youth consider him to be an extremely high-risk to reoffend.

But in recent months, he’s been making somewhat of a turnaround and attending mandatory daily meetings with a program meant to try and help these kids turn their lives around.

His lawyer says he’s suffered as a byproduct of Manitoba’s devolution policy regarding kids in care — apprehended by CFS at age three after his mother couldn’t cope with her substance-abuse issues — he was placed with his two brothers in a foster home after the trio ran away and were found by RCMP.

By age nine, CFS officials decided to break up the siblings in an effort to place him in a more “culturally sensitive” home (his words). Since then, he’s been “shuffled through CFS for the last number of years.”

(Aside: every kid in court today (a docket of 10 or so) was involved in the child-welfare system.)

From there, the wheels fell off the bus, and crime, gangs and a disrespect for authority set in.

He’s amassed 17 convictions for court-order breaches, 16 of them for breaching conditions of youth sentences.

The latest allegations involve even more. The facts are “technical” and virtually innocuous. He didn’t show up for a curfew, was given a break, was arrested again on a breach, took the conviction and soon breached curfew again, the Crown said.

Prosecutors said there was no reason to trust him if he was let go. Lismer agreed and dismissed him from the courtroom, saying he agreed completely.

Again, no hand-holding. “In total, he just has too many non-compliances,” Lismer said.

Exhibit two: “In need of protection”

She’s 16, a ward of CFS and goes missing at will, triggering a police search to find her. She’ll vanish for a few days and turn up at homeless shelters or missions before turning herself in to police. Where she goes, it’s hard to say.

The Crown says she’s “a high-risk victim at high risk of being exploited.”

She’s got a long record of meltdowns, which have lead to convictions for assaulting police officers and uttering threats. Those convictions have led to many, many breaches in less than four years.

Thirteen in all — five for breaking the terms of prior sentences. She’s facing more breach allegations now.

She’s also on charge for an incident at her group home where she threatened to stab the staff, set the place on fire and lock all the doors as she left them inside.

Why? She wanted some Kraft Dinner, the Crown said in opposing her bail plan.

Instead of bloodshed or arson, the girl took off and played cat and mouse with CFS staff and police for about two weeks before turning herself in.

“It was not a serious threat … there was no real confrontation,” her lawyer told Lismer.

“Her issues are largely social-welfare welfare issues,” he said.

She lashes out at people trying to help her, he added.

The plan for her bail was to have her go live in a locked facility where she wouldn’t be able to get out unless escorted by staff. She’d also have access to programming that would help her graduate from a help-program.

Lismer, again, wasn’t buying it.

“I remain unsatisfied,” he said, simply, and dismissed her from the court.

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