Phoenix Inquiry: The Trigg memo and a history lesson

Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 8.13.14 PMThe inquiry this week is moving further into its exploration of what was going on behind the scenes within Winnipeg CFS from 2001-2004.

We’ve already heard a bit of evidence from Dr. Linda Trigg, who at the time was the CEO of the agency at a time of massive systemic change, coming on the heels of a separate restructuring which was never fully completed from the late 90s.

Trigg has already told us of a loss of community contact between front-line social workers as well as talked about how funding was in short supply — or that willingness to hike funding to operations as they were in the wake of the incoming ‘devolution’ wasn’t on the table.

Workloads were very high, as was anxiety and uncertainty about the changes underway.

The inquiry was shown a memo she wrote to familiarize the new interim Winnipeg CFS board with what was going on internally. I present what’s available here.

Pay close attention in it to her comments on the troubles within the intake unit and how it is to be restructured as part of the devolution process.

Also, note the following chart on levels of experience within the units and the relative youth and inexperience on the “key and front-line” family service positions. Staring down massive uncertainty, workers with experience appeared to find “safe haven” in other areas of CFS. Seniority was the main means of transferring, meaning Trigg was unable — as she says she was told — to simply “move” people to suit the agency’s needs.

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When you’re done with that, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with this 2003 expert review of the process — and more importantly — the history of the devolution (AJI-CWI) implementation process. The history provides the context.

Keep your eye on passages referencing funding and expectations.

“However, the critical issue is funding. There is an expectation among service providers that new funding will be needed in order toenable more than a tokenistic gesture towards the development of a new service paradigm for child and family services. At present, the Province expects such a shift in services to occur through the reallocation of existing resources.”

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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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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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