An ounce of prevention: Phoenix’s social worker, in-depth

Phoenix Sinclair

To say it’s disheartening hearing the evidence that’s coming out at the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry would be beyond an understatement.

But among the litany of facts painting the picture of major systemic breakdown — a portrait of ignominy becoming clearer each passing day — there are moments of fascinating clarity.

One of them came today, in the testimony of veteran CFS caseworker Laura Forrest, who, like many of her colleagues, was asked towards the end of her time on the stand to comment on the nature of the CFS system in general and improvements which could be made to it to better protect Manitoba kids.

Forrest handled Phoenix’s case for a few months, and despite her failure to physically see and visit the child in following up what was considered to be a low-risk potential maltreatment claim, it was Forrest who finally put together all the available information to determine the little girl’s background equalled nothing less than a high-risk situation.

And her parents’ negative attitude and disregard for CFS and its work was a huge factor in her finding, which a review noted was largely ignored a few weeks after she came to this conclusion.

Fast forward to today, and Forrest is no longer an intake worker with CFS, handling crises and complex cases as they poured in by the bucketsful.

She now works delivering services to families as a case worker — a step removed from the process of initial contact and assessment of cases by CFS. (EDIT: she’s actually doing foster-care placements, but left intake in 2009 to move to a family service position with CFS till recently).

Off the top, Forrest readily admitted her workload was high — if not huge — in her time in intake, and that continued till she left that unit in 2009. By then, several reviews of Phoenix’s case had been done, and changes implemented by officials to try and ensure no similar situation ever happened again.

“My practice was to do the best I could with what I had,” she said.

Forrest says she was never consulted or interviewed about any of the reviews that were done or findings made, something she says she would have liked to have seen happen just because the investigations analyzed her work. It also may have been educational for her, she said.

“What’s the answer to workload issues?,” Commission lawyer Sherri Walsh asked her today — toward the end of Forrest’s lengthy testimony.

She paused a while before speaking.

“I guess, it’s a big answer. Because it’s not as simple as telling a system, ‘these are all these standards you should be following and that will take care of everything. We deal with really complex family situations. And depending on where they’re coming from, lack of community resources, increased issues with respect to addictions, mental health, which makes things much more complicated – families placing their children into care at much more, much higher numbers.

The system can try and change as much as it can sometimes, but if everything else around, in our community is also escalating in terms of their needs and their problems that they’re trying to deal with, I don’t know how we can keep up, to be honest.”

“In my experience — over 20 years — things have changed. It’s not easier to do my job.

Not withstanding changes in the system?

“Yeah. I mean, I think that we all try to do the very best that we can, whether people can believe that or not. We have a lot of hope, we have a lot of belief that people can make changes, that families can make changes. Sometimes I find if I didn’t have those, that would be very very difficult, because sometimes that’s all you have with a family.

So, is very simply one answer to the workload concerns reducing the need? Prevention?

“Well, prevention would be helpful. So if you could look at some prevention programs that could be in place even within [the] system, we had those — we had a couple of them — and they were helpful in terms of dealing with families that had teenagers out of control. But those programs were changed and something else came about as a result of that. So I think that it would be helpful if we found practical interventions that would actually really, adequately meet family needs in a realistic fashion.

We can tell them what we think we need them to do, but if they can’t do it because they don’t have enough food, they don’t — they’re struggling maintaining the three or four or two kids in their home because they’re a single parent and they don’t have a lot of resources  — I think we have to be fair and mindful that these are people that are working hard to do the best they can.

We have to come up with better solutions as to what we can offer them for intervention. So that could be helpful — some practical intervention, some more practical and more available resources. I always hope for that and I know other people do. And I know the community resources try as much as they can as well with what they have. But, you know, to say that one system has to make all the change and that will take care of everything and no child will be harmed again — I don’t know if that’s going to happen by just looking at one system.

You say that protecting children can’t just be put on the shoulders of the child-welfare system. 

“We have that burden. But it would be helpful if we had other supports and resources. Not for us, but for the families.

We talked about community resources and addressing issues of poverty, employment, education, child care — those are all things that would help, ultimately, with workload?

“Yeah. These are all the things that our families struggle with and we have to try and help them overcome those. Sometimes it’s very difficult.

Was there anything about (Phoenix’s family’s) circumstances, either in terms of their factual circumstances or the nature of services that were being delivered by the agency that stood out in your mind as compared to other families that you were working with?

“This family situation was fairly similar to many families I had dealt with. Whether it was single parent dealing with addictions issues, conflict with the other parent, struggling to manage in child care, relying on other family members. It wasn’t unique in itself. There are certain things about it that make them different but often times I dealt with families that struggled with poverty … parenting … addictions … mental health. It was more common than not.

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You can follow my live blog on the inquiry by finding any Phoenix-related story on the home page of the Winnipeg Sun website.

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