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No action on important recommendations to protect kids: Manitoba Children's Advocate report logo 2023-01-17 Rachel Bergen

Manitoba's children and youth advocate says the province has still not fulfilled some key recommendations made nearly a decade ago aimed at protecting vulnerable young people.

In a progress report published Tuesday morning by her office, Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Sherry Gott says the government has made progress in the number of recommendations that have been partially or fully implemented.

But some are still outstanding, including ideas from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry report delivered nine years ago.

The five-year-old girl died after years of neglect and abuse. Her death was concealed from social workers for nine months.

A recommendation that child welfare workers have a maximum of 20 cases at a time has yet to be fulfilled, according to Tuesday's report from the advocate's office.

A recommendation to extend youth supports in the child welfare system to people up to age 25 has also not been fulfilled.

They are among 19 recommendations from that inquiry still need to be fully completed, the report says.

"We encourage an all-of-government approach to enhance compliance with recommendations by diligently working to implement each of the outstanding recommendations," the advocate's report says.

Families Minister Rochelle Squires said in an interview on Tuesday that the provincial government is working to ensure Indigenous groups have greater jurisdiction over the child welfare agencies under their purview, and trying to ensure families are supported better so their children can stay with them.

Manitoba Families Minister Rochelle Squires says the province is focused on trying to keep families together. © Ian Froese/CBC Manitoba Families Minister Rochelle Squires says the province is focused on trying to keep families together.

"Our focus and our emphasis is on preventative — keeping families together, reunifying families — and that has been the significant bulk of the work that we're aggressively moving forward on," she said.

Squires adds that her department has spent roughly $7 million over the last two years to ensure kids aren't aging out of care before they're ready.

The advocate also casts doubt on the province's "single envelope" (block) funding of Child and Family Services agencies.

That system, established in 2019, gives a sum of money to the four authorities that oversee Manitoba's Child and Family Services agencies. The authorities then decide how to allocate the money to the 24 child welfare agencies that deliver services to children and families.

The advocate says the Northern and Southern authorities have expressed concerns that the amount of funding they receive isn't appropriate to cover the range of services they provide for the large areas they cover.

Squires says a review of that system is being done to ensure it's efficacy.

Gott says a 2020 recommendation to develop and implement a plan to ensure that no infant in a Manitoba First Nation community lacks a safe sleeping surface has not been acted on, and the number of sleep-related deaths among infants appears to be rising.

Approved surfaces include a crib or bassinet where a baby can lie on their back alone and without obstruction.

"Based on the information available, it appears that at least 50 additional infants have died unexpectedly in their sleep, before they were two years old, since our special report and its recommendations were issued in 2020," the report from Gott's office says.

Education is being offered to caregivers, and child welfare agencies have been told to ask social workers to screen for potential hazards in babies' beds, Squires says.

Gott's report also says the province has yet to act on a recommendation to develop a mental health and addictions strategy specific for young people.

"Deficiencies in the child and youth mental health and addictions system … have been obvious and well known for many years," she said in the report.

Gott says the government has shown some action on implementing 88 per cent of recommendations from various reports in recent years, and 18 per cent have been fully implemented.

The provincial Health Department, which had the lowest rate of compliance, said the COVID-19 pandemic affected how quickly it could act, Gott's report said.

"With the removal of all COVID-19 health measures and restrictions this past spring, the Department of Health must begin to prioritize action on recommendations," the report states.

"By delaying service improvements for a few years, children and youth have essentially been asked to wait until the pandemic is over before vital and life-saving improvements could be made to their health services.

"Frankly, kids cannot wait."

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