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)

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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]

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Phoenix Inquiry: Karl McKay’s digits and the perils of old technology

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(Karl McKay, 2006)

Exactly one month before a Winnipeg CFS worker went to probe an abuse complaint at Samantha Kematch’s home and left without physically seeing her daughter, another crisis-response worker along for the ride handled an unrelated call from her boyfriend, Karl Wesley (Wes) McKay.

And just two months before the Feb 9, 2005 intake unit referral Bill Leskiw handled, CFS had been scrambling to try and uncover information about McKay, but didn’t have his proper name or correct birthdate.

But a brief review of records tabled at the inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair’s death show that if internal files had been able to be cross-referenced by phone number at the time Leskiw dealt with McKay, CFS then had another chance to connect the dots and link the real Karl McKay to Samantha Kematch and Phoenix.

But it appears the limitations of the CFS computer system — CFSIS — in 2005 wouldn’t have allowed this. (CFSIS was created in 1993)

The inability of CFS to uncover who McKay actually was has been seen as a major turning point and failing of the child-welfare system in Phoenix’s case, with one supervisor saying uncovering the information likely would have “changed everything.”

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 6.28.25 PMHe and Kematch are serving life sentences for first-degree murder in connection to Phoenix’s June 14, 2005 death by horrific abuse. McKay was considered a “high risk” domestic violence offender who had a lengthy history with CFS and a major drinking problem.

Wednesday, the inquiry briefly tabled a document showing McKay called CFS and left a phone number of 783-7516.

That phone number is the same CFS had listed for Kematch when the agency became involved in her life after the birth of her fourth child on Nov. 30, 2004.

It’s also the number Kematch gave the welfare office and Manitoba Vital Statistics when applying for benefits days after the baby’s birth.

Given conduct of the case, worker Shelley Willox (then Wiebe) initially recommended — and her supervisor agreed — the file be transferred to a separate CFS unit to fully investigate Kematch, Phoenix and their living circumstances, also to get to the bottom of who “Wes McKay” was.

But the file was instead handed back to Willox for follow up, outside the expected practice within CFS, where CRU was only to hold files for up to 48 hours before transferring or closing them. She made calls trying to get information but found little at hand. The case was closed Dec. 7, 2004 citing a lack of child-protection concerns.

Fast forward to March 9, 2005, the day Leskiw and Christopher Zalevich met with Kematch at her home and left without seeing Phoenix despite the suspected abuse. Leskiw was only along for the ride as backup and said Wednesday he had no recall of the visit.

This became the last chance Winnipeg CFS would have to intervene in Phoenix’s life before Kematch and McKay moved to the Fisher River First Nation and murdered the little girl inside a home. Zalevich and his supervisor, Diva Faria, recommended the file be closed on the same day Zalevich visited the home and didn’t see Phoenix.

In the case history Zalevich was working off of, there’s no mention of McKay nor anything referring to the December 2004 intervention. It had been omitted after the worker who took the complaint cut-and-pasted the file history from other documents — a practice now forbidden in CFS crisis-response units.

Leskiw said he didn’t remember anything about the call that day or if Zalevich told him anything about why they were going to see Kematch.

He said there was no way for him to connect his February interaction with McKay with the call Zalevich was handling. “I have to focus on my own cases, my own files,” he said. No details of why McKay called CFS were discussed.

It was later disclosed in another record (April 18, 2005) relating to McKay’s ex that she had “adopted plans” to have one of McKay’s kids “stay with his birth dad, Karl McKay for the upcoming summer.” Leskiw was also referenced in that record as the “intake/service worker” at the time, but the record related to another CFS department.

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‘Accidental’ prisoner releases: Notes towards a fix

(Walter Sanderson/Winnipeg Police Service)

Manitoba Justice officials have, quite rightly, no problem tossing the Brian Sinclair hot potato to Saskatchewan for an independent assessment of the Winnipeg Police Service probe into his death.

And when it comes to so-called ‘mistaken’ releases of prisoners from provincial jails, one would think Saskatchewan would be the logical place to start researching a fix, given their recent history.

In 2007-08, our banjo-pickin’, ‘have province’ neighbours faced a number of their own embarrassing problems with prisoners sent packing from jail by accident. And, to be fair, they still do.

Two full reviews (Full, detailed PDFs of investigation breakdown are attached) were conducted that identified communications errors to be largely behind the problem and led to reporting improvements — including those to the public at large — as a stepping stone to address the issue.

In the case of last week’s accidental release of convicted killer Wally Sanderson from Headlingley, there’s been much gnashing of teeth, resulting in a slew of ink about the problem we face.

An editorial in today’s WFP, however, was probably the most salient I’ve seen yet, and I link to it here. (Other pieces, including comments from Justice officials etc. also linked.)

Given what the WFP called today the “opaque and unhelpful” response from a Manitoba Justice spokesperson about what may have led to Sanderson’s release, I offer this observation based on a hunch from what I’ve seen in the courts over the past few years:

The issue is likely the same as Saskatchewan faced, that being, one of communication breakdowns.

Why? Because of outdated technology and how data is shared between public-safety departments, I humbly submit.

Winnipeg Police, naturally, use their own records management system (NICHE) to document their work and is necessarily separate and independent of the Justice department’s systems. RCMP also use a similar, but different system (PROS).

Provincial courts use a system called, correct me on the acronym, CAIN, to track the progress of charges, dates and dispositions, and Manitoba Corrections uses a system called COMS. There’s also likely another used by Crown attorneys to case-manage their files. Not to mention the probation department.

In any event, that’s at least three or four separate electronic database systems used to make the justice system go.

Without ever having had a chance to tool around with the systems myself (ha!), I can say from a user-interface perspective that all three are ugly, difficult for staff to navigate and slow.

Watching a Crown lawyer wrestle with systems challenges or lags in the middle of a court appearance is not an uncommon site.

Waiting for the provincial court systems to update is also a frequent occurrence.

To get to the point: It’s my belief that if we’re going to fix communications errors in local public-safety departments, likely the easiest way to start is by contemplating an overhaul of the IT infrastructure in Manitoba Justice. And no, it won’t be cheap.

Consider one of the main points of court reform advanced by the Manitoba Bar Association that fell on deaf ears during the recent election:

In terms of process, it was noted that courts have been slow to adopt new technologies and continue to rely too heavily upon a paper based system. It was noted that Manitoba lags behind other jurisdictions in that electronic filing of documents is not permitted, and court documents cannot be accessed online. This is an issue of particular concern to rural lawyers in communities that are not Court centres.

In other words: outdated infrastructure is letting the system fall behind. And in this day and age of simple-to-use but powerful tech, that’s inexcusable.

As Winnipeg’s mayor has often implied of late, if the infrastructure is broke, everything else suffers too.

It’s an independent Alberta consultant conducting the review Justice Minister Andrew Swan says will provide directions to correct the prisoner-release problem.

At the same time, work on Alberta police’s controversial TALON data-sharing system continues. While issues around TALON continue to be debated, it’s impossible to ignore the root sentiment behind calls for its existence:

Innovate or perish.

OTHER NOTES:

As I commented on the Free Press editorial, I remain hopeful — perhaps naively so — that officials will do the right thing and release the full consultant’s review of mistaken releases to the public as Saskatchewan appears to have done in 2008.

I concede it would be out of character for the government to do this, crime — and possible solutions to it — being completely over-politicized and all.

For an example of this: All one needs to do is look at the way in which news of Sanderson’s accidental release came out.

  • FRIDAY: OCTOBER 14: Sanderson is released by mistake from Headlingley.
  • SUNDAY, OCTOBER 16: Sanderson is accused of an assault and failing to abide by conditions of probation (Yes, court documents list the offence dates as this day — two days after he was mistakenly sprung).
  • MONDAY OCTOBER 17: Police issue a notice to the public saying Sanderson is wanted for the above allegations. They do not mention the accidental release. The initial stories back this up.
  • TUESDAY, OCTOBER 18: Manitoba Justice confirms Sanderson’s mistaken release, not by sending out a notice to the media, but by responding to reporters’ queries.
  • THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19: Sanderson is arrested by RCMP near Rosser.

I leave it to you readers, to consider the timeline carefully and draw your own conclusions.

I will leave you with this exerpt from the Paul Turenne’s story (Winnipeg Sun) on Tuesday, October 18:

The Manitoba Justice spokeswoman said the government notifies police immediately when an accidental release occurs, then leaves it up to police whether they feel it’s necessary to notify the public.

“It is the police who have the difficult and unenviable task of having to look for and re-arrest the person, and the police release the information to the public they feel is needed to accomplish that most important task. We wouldn’t want to do anything or say anything that could interfere with a police investigation,” the spokeswoman said.

Winnipeg police issued a notification Monday asking for help in locating Walter Sanderson, but the release didn’t mention Sanderson had been released accidentally.

A spokesman for Winnipeg police said the service wasn’t trying to be secretive; they just didn’t feel it was necessary to say why he was on the loose.

“He was wanted and that’s the bottom line. We just wanted to focus on the job at hand,” the spokesman said.

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Pushing the dreaded ‘red dot’ around

(Winnipeg Police Service)

Maps depict incidents of: Assault, Asst. w/ weapon, sexual assault, fighting, gun seen, gun known, shots fired, gunshot wound, robberies and stabbing reports

(Assumption is the demarcation colours hold true today)

Violent Crime Hotspots March 29, 2008 to March 28, 2009 (1 year)

High intensity (over 1,400 dispatched events) zones along Main near Burrows and In the Central Park Area (that disperses in all directions)

Zones of Concern (no fewer than 1,100 dispatched events) at Higgins and Main and along Portage near Portage Place Mall.

Map 2: 

Violent Crime Hotspots March 29, 2009 to March 28, 2010 (1 year)

– High intensity  zones at Main and Henry, and along Portage near Portage Place Mall.

Zones of Concern in Central Park and along Main to about Euclid and Main at Henry.

What do the maps appear to say?

  • Police-reported violence in Central Park appears to be on the wane
  • The area around Portage Place has become more violent
  • Suggests there’s a contradiction in the current of opinion that states safety downtown is a matter of perception, not reality
  • Some of the violence plaguing north main past the Higgins underpass appears to have migrated south to the area near the Sally Ann and the new WRHA building
  • The CCTV camera at Main and Henry appears to be to one most likely to catch criminal activity
  • There’s a growing pocket of crime a block or so south of Salter near Manitoba and Magnus

These maps were embedded in a report on the effectiveness of the WPS’ crime camera pilot project. You can read about what it says here.

The precis version is that technological hiccups may have limited how effective the cameras can be, and there’s [apparently] no conviction results yet (from 2009? really?) to measure if the footage is holding up in court.

The tech. problems prompted State of the City to sagely ask: ” I also don’t get how (police) became responsible for tech risk & maintenance costs in the 1st place.”

Why details are important, or: get with the times

(National Post)

Yesterday’s post about Graham James’s bail release inferred that there was something hinky going on in terms of how the system worked in this case.

It’s my belief today that there was, but not solely related to James’s case as I (and many others) incorrectly implied yesterday.

Instead, the issue is more of a systemic one relating to how the media and public are often left in the dark in a criminal justice system that’s supposed to be open to a fault, according to countless judges.

But in Manitoba, there’s nagging issues with the system that point to it lagging far behind the times.

To her credit, the Crown on the case, Colleen McDuff, was forthright in her explanation of why things happened the way they did, best explained by CP and a few lines from Mike McIntyre’s story in today’s FP.

CP:

A Manitoba Crown attorney says there was no secrecy involved in releasing convicted sex offender Graham James on bail.
Colleen McDuff says it is “just how the nature of his release
played out.”
McDuff says most of the conditions had been fixed in court last
week and there were only a few details to be worked out.
One was the address where he would be reporting to police in
Montreal.
James was expected to be in a Winnipeg court yesterday to
finalize his bail conditions.
But documents indicate that a justice of the peace signed off on
his release late Friday afternoon after James posted 10-thousand dollars in cash.

But, crucially, there’s more: From Mike Mac:

Crown attorney Colleen McDuff said there was nothing “sneaky” about how James was released.

“There was no conspiracy here. He was treated the same way as everyone else who gets bail,” McDuff told the Free Press.

Pollack originally granted bail to James on Dec. 7, despite objections by the Crown. A court-ordered ban prevents specific details of the hearing from being published. James didn’t get out that day because lawyers still had to draft the various terms of his release, which Pollack asked to be sent to him in chambers for final approval.

James was never required to make a further court appearance on the bail.

Once Pollack received the conditions, he drew up the order and it became official. James then had to wait until Friday to come up with a $10,000 surety he is required to post. Once the money was in, James was free to go.

His case was put on Monday afternoon’s docket but simply as a way to keep track of it. He is not required to make personal appearances unless ordered by a judge.

While I’m still a little unclear about the distinction ‘justice of the peace’ versus Judge Pollack himself signing off on bail conditions in chambers, this explanation makes more sense in terms of process.

It’s weird, and to be honest, I hadn’t ever encountered things being done this way, but whatever — I’m not the most experienced or smart courts reporter in the world.

We already knew James was getting out.

The problem is, the Crown could have expected the public to be confused by the process as it unfolded and taken easy steps to correct it.

When reporters left the courthouse on Dec. 7, they were under the understanding that the hearing would continue yesterday, a bail order would be signed off on in open court and it would be publicly put on the record.

Yes, reporters would be there to witness it. Yes, TV cameras would be camped outside the Law Courts, yes, there would be questions and requests for interviews.

Forgive us. That’s our job, and justice system participants like it enough when they need something to reach the public’s eyes and ears. We’re part of the landscape and ignoring that reality just won’t work. That much is clear.

But in the case of James’s release, the system didn’t work as the public was led to expect it would —Instead, it went the other way, resulting in the suspicion that something was going on in the shadows, that maybe James was getting special treatment.

Given the ever-increasing roadblocks put up in the media’s way in modern times, it’s only natural — and should have been expected — that there’d be some headscratching and a few questions for how his release came together in the end.

It’s not surprising, or a stretch for the Prosecutions Division to have seen that there was/is immense public interest in this case and responded accordingly on Friday by issuing a news release to media outlets that James had met his bail conditions ahead of the perceived schedule and what those conditions were.

It really would have been that simple.

And not without precedent: When the Crown applies for a publication ban in high-profile cases, they’re often quick to send a fax off to newsrooms to notify them of what’s being sought — likely for the reason they could oppose it should they choose.

It happened just the other day in connection to the Mark Stobbe murder case.

When the charges against James were formally laid recently, the Crown faxed the court informations (public charging documents) over to newsrooms explaining clearly what was happening and the restrictions on publishing certain information (the names of two of the complainants).

The media, and therefore the public, knew what was happening, it was a clear signal from the Crown that it wanted to get in front of what was certain to be a highly-publicized case and make sure nothing incorrect or prejudicial to the case or alleged victims got out.

So, from this, it would have been a simple matter of following through to keep everybody in the loop.

I get that Crowns are overworked and don’t have time to be worrying about the media’s needs, which, I admit could be perceived as overwhelming in some cases.

But how much time did McDuff have to spend on Monday giving interviews to clarify a situation that could have been easily cleared up with an emailed or faxed statement regarding what happened?

It’s not rocket science.

And — in the absence of keeping the public in the loop by some other means — is it inconceivable that the Crown, faced with a request to deal with James’s conditions and release on Friday, could have said ‘not today, see you in court as scheduled’?

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Recommended Reading: National Post article on Digitizing the Law.

Come on. Even the Queen (sometimes known as the Crown) is on Facebook now.