“The reality has been that regardless of the political party in power, there has never been a concerted effort to look at the full requirements to make a child-welfare system that can at least reduce the problems. This should not be a partisan issue, but any (even partial) solutions take more time than the next election date, and hence are not sexy enough to warrant full commitment.”Dr. Keith Black, op-ed in WFP 05/01/2013
When someone as insightful and experienced as Winnipeg’s Keith Black*** speaks on Manitoba’s beleaguered child-welfare (CFS) system, why is it nobody with the power to change it appears to be listening?
Its pessimistic tone is perhaps justified coming from someone of his background: a veteran social worker and community leader who believes there’s a better way to do things — or at least, he says, if there’s a will, there’s a way.
The problem, Black pretty plainly states, is the will only exists to ‘fix’ CFS to the point that it won’t cost political points in a future election. He’s careful to note that this isn’t an NDP issue, but instead one that afflicts the political system as a whole.
Black references how in the ’60s he took flak from all sides for helping pen an article describing Manitoba’s child-welfare was in chaos (the exact words from the Manitoba Association of Social Workers at the time were ‘in a chaotic state,’ as far as my trip through the FP archives at the downtown library show me, and it may have been the early 70s — but I couldn’t find the specific article of which he speaks, only references to it):
Look closely at what the article says, right up top:
“I would agree to the extent that there are unmet needs, inadequate procedures and systems to meet those needs, insufficient co-ordination between the various sectors in the child welfare field,” Mitchell C. Neiman said on Dec. 1, 1971. (41923151)
The MASW, according to FP reporter Wally Dennison, had echoed virtually the same issues in its brief to a minister of the minority NDP government, headed by Ed Schreyer at the time. It was also calling for standards of child welfare to be set, as it appears there were virtually none in place.
It’s curious because a lack of inter-agency co-operation and failure and inability to adhere to standards are very much live issues in the investigations into the Phoenix Sinclair case (2000-2006) and in the Jaylene Redhead case (2007-2009), decades after the MASW’s warning.
Less than a year later, in 1972, another Dennison article speaks to the government’s plans for CFS: namely, taking over the responsibility for child welfare and doing away with the Children’s Aid Society for good. The reaction to this from workers appeared extremely negative, for a number of reasons.
Notably, the article states:
“These skeptics note that the department proceeded with its reorganization while ignoring the experiences gained by People’s Opportunity Services at 600 Main Street — A $250,000 federally-financed demonstration project initiated in 1967 and which used 21 former welfare workers as case aides to offer a series of innovative services in Winnipeg’s core area. When the Project ended March 31, it was nothing more than a regional office of government and the case aides were now in “safe” jobs throughout the departmental bureaucracy, the critics contend. A successful experiment in social service delivery had been ignored because the Manitoba government already has made up its mind about how services are to be delivered.” (44827139 PDF)
Which brings me to my first point: It may be impossible to ‘fix’ anything about CFS if politics is allowed to trump solid and intelligent policy to fuel its actions.
Sadly, we see evidence of this happening often in Manitoba.
Political/ideological interference in essential services, be they policing, corrections, education or child-welfare/family services prevents solid, evidence-based policy from being the starting point from which services flow.
While I’m not an advocate of privatization of the CFS system, I do believe there has to be a way to ‘divorce’ such services from the whims of government and insulate them from short-term tinkering [if not complete overhauls].
Critics of devolution – which at root is a well-meaning scheme to create greater fairness and client buy-in in the CFS system — will be first in line to hammer the government based on the above. The real criticism I have of it is how it appears it was rammed into place come hell or high water regardless of the internal chaos and confusion the new policy and its practicalities created.
Anyhow. I want to come back to where we started off: When Keith Black speaks, why don’t we seem to listen?
About 18 months after Phoenix Sinclair was born and not long after the NDP again took power, Black again penned an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press.
He had just retired.
On Dec. 4, 2001 he wrote (I can’t link to it directly, sorry, there’s no way to do it):
“IN the 1960s, the Manitoba Association of Social Workers wrote an article that suggested that the child welfare system in Winnipeg was in “chaos.” All hell broke loose, and there were angry denials and counter-arguments.
After 40 years of working in and around children’s services in Winnipeg, until my recent retirement, I have seen nothing to suggest that MASW was wrong then or would be wrong now. And the chaos is much wider than the specific Child and Family Services system.
… For decades the structural debates have hidden the real problem; namely that child welfare is a political rather than a therapeutic or service issue. The increase in training, understanding, even technology has been implemented, and the poor line workers struggle against immense odds just to understand their role and get through the day without anyone getting hurt. The people with whom other agencies and forces are not co-operating have doomed any of the structures to failure.
…Winnipeg is blessed with competent, hard working and dedicated people serving children and families. The shame is that their efforts have been diminished because of the distrust, suspicion, dislike or fear that lies behind the superficial smiles and handshakes at receptions, workshops and annual meetings. And as long as political agendas determine how services are to be organized, and we steadfastly refuse to learn how to work together – political left and political right and all colours – we will simply repeat the pattern of chaos that is the real world of service to Winnipeg’s most vulnerable and needy citizens.”
It’s curious to me how much of what he had to say 12 years ago mirrors nearly exactly what he told us again today.
I wish, as I’m sure he does, that we had listened or would at least begin to.
Because it appears nearly half a century has passed and a very real problem we have to tackle hasn’t gone away, maybe even isn’t seen as worth dealing with, when really, it’s fundamental.
*** In addition to his experience as a social worker and social-work official with the MASW and MIRSW, Black is a noted community leader, in 2004, the University conferred on him an honorary degree, saying:
Keith Black, BA, BSW, MSW (Class of 1960), will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws. Over a career spanning more than 40 years, Black was a social worker at the Children’s Aid Society, Executive Director of Knowles School for Boys, and Director of the Child Guidance Clinic of Winnipeg. He was a valued member of The University of Winnipeg Board of Regents for 13 years and served as chair from 1996-98.
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.
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.
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.