CFS: If we won’t learn from history, we’ll just repeat it

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

“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?

Black’s article today speaks for itself, and I encourage all to read it closely.

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):

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 3.21.06 PMLook 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:

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 3.33.07 PM“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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 4.11.45 PMOn 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.

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*** 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.

Policing, (internal) politics and public policy

(Arne Peltz is the arbitrator overseeing a police Sergeant's labour dispute)
News flash: The Winnipeg Police Service — with roughly 2,000 employees and multiple divisions, mandates and priorities — is a large bureaucratic work environment that experiences human-resource headaches, policy-wonkery and management-employee conflicts.

Anyone else find the above statement a bit of a truism?

Because, at the end of the day, that’s really what’s being revealed at a Manitoba Labour Board hearing into a dispute between Sgt. James Jewell and WPS management over the so-called “1+1+1” transfer policy brought in a couple of years ago (see footnote).

Jewell’s stated concern — up until recently a supervising officer in the homicide unit — is that a policy of transferring people out of the “high-stakes” unit after a maximum of three years doesn’t meet the needs the complex cases require.

He feels he’s been unfairly punished by being transferred out of the unit for taking his concerns over the heads of his supervisors to the police brass.

His supervisors deny this is the case.

Anyone who has seen a homicide cop undergo cross-examination in a murder trial will understand: Jewell’s point is sound. You have to know your stuff or risk getting torn to shreds.

Some (but not all) homicide cases are complex and require focus, dedication and — as Jewell asserts — experience in homicide investigation to investigate and prosecute successfully.

His superiors suggest that’s not necessarily the case.

“To get good at homicide, you’ve got to know homicide, correct?,” Jewell’s lawyer, Keith LaBossiere asked Staff Sgt. Mike Stephens on Friday.

“I don’t draw the parallel, I’m sorry,” Stephens replied.

I won’t go into much greater detail about the Labour Board hearing so far, as it’s really Mike McIntyre and the Free Press’ baby (Links here, here, here and here).

I attended yesterday afternoon strictly out of interest as a private citizen (but reserved the right to blog on what I took away from it).

I wrote about the transfer policy for the Free Press in 2009, when the service was drafting it.

Much of what’s been revealed at the current hearing echoes concerns raised by the police union (actually a bargaining association) at the time.

But setting aside the stated concerns about the policy  for just a sec, there is another side to it.

My limited understanding of the need for the term limits (from the executive’s perspective) was that it was to ensure front-line, street level operations and officers have veteran guidance as new officers come on to the force and do their mandatory general patrol time.

From a core public-safety position, that seems and sounds reasonable.

But at issue really here is how, (as stated above), there’s a steep learning curve for murder police, and it’s not much of a leap to believe having them come and go from the unit too quickly can reduce institutional knowledge and case continuity as well as the mentoring of new investigators. That can be said to have a negative influence on the goal: public safety and enforcement of the law. Nobody wants murderers walking the streets.

A thought experiment: Imagine if the Free Press decided to move McIntyre out of the courthouse and put a GA reporter (not an inexperienced one, but one lacking systemic knowledge) there. There’s no doubt that over time, the newbie would ‘get it,’ but you hire a McIntyre, see his skills and keep him there for a reason. Simply put: He’s learned the ropes, produces original stuff and it just seemingly wouldn’t make sense to lose his experience in that genre in a high-stakes media landscape.

[UPDATE, Monday July 11: After thinking about this further, a glaring omission struck me that I should have mentioned — The key difference is that reporters don’t solve serious violent crimes, nor typically risk their lives. There are naturally rare exceptions, but…]

But — a conjunction which segues into the point I wish to make: like it or lump it, there’s a caveat when you don’t sign your own paycheques.

Management reserves the right to…

There’s two competing sides that I can articulate at this time: One faction says the WPS brass is hampering its core public-safety goal through its own internal policy. The other suggests new direction is needed; that other priorities — AKA building for the future — are at play here, that like any corporation or bureaucracy, those who run it have to have the discretion to make changes as they see fit.

In other words, a rock and a hard place. For all involved. No matter how this plays out, it’s hard to say if there’s a way of seeing if there will be a clear “winner” or “loser.”

Naturally, at issue in Jewell’s case is whether he was treated fairly in the circumstances.

A final note:

I’d suspect there’s an uneasy feeling on the fifth floor of the PSB given the details about the internal operations of homicide and HR activities being revealed at the MLB hearing.

For years, the force has taken great lengths to try and ensure the internal operations of the WPS stay on the down-low, that its public messaging stays focused. And yes, that access to such internal information often be denied.

But what we’ve seen over the last week is that there’s been no great calamity because the public got a glimpse of how the quote-unquote elite homicide unit operates, that there’s fraction and friction and internal conflict and politics at play.

In my personal view, it has served as a reminder that the cop you see on the street, the one that may be your neighbour or fishing buddy, faces the same workplace frustrations as virtually all citizens who work for someone else do.

In effect, it’s been terribly humanizing.

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Footnote:

In Division 40 – WPS policy states there are maximum assignment lengths of:

Constable — three years (one year guaranteed and each of the other two years reviewable each year)

Det. Sergeants — four years maximum.

Most if not all, when assigned to the division, stay for the maximum allotment without being transferred out at the direction of the management.