“There is no damned degree that will ever teach you humanity.” A dialogue on CFS

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People. From all walks of life. In one room. Talking about Child and Family Services in Manitoba.

Setting aside the fact Sunday’s meeting of minds at the River Heights Community Centre was sponsored by Manitoba Liberal Leader Dr. Jon Gerrard — he’s been one of the NDP government’s harshest critics on the CFS portfolio — I couldn’t help but be struck by the event just because it was happening at all.

Again: People. From all walks of life. In a room. Talking about CFS in Manitoba.

No intervening high-minded lawyers, no awful tragic child’s death anchoring it all and (virtually) no ranting and raving, or for that matter, much finger-pointing.

If there were one thing I could say I took away from the discussion (aside from the oddity that people rationally discussing a very live and vital issue in our society is somehow a marvel to behold), it would be this: People — the average Joe and Jane citizen — feel completely in the dark about CFS, how it works and what it does. But they care. 

To many, it’s a gigantic government machine — “the feared child police” — which operates largely in secret and appears completely unaccountable for the decisions it makes — and that it make decisions about the lives of others which don’t appear to be working in a long-term sense. It bears remembering that many people touched by CFS aren’t the most sophisticated to start with.

Navigating complex legal and bureaucratic systems, for them, is unthinkable. And there’s not a whole host of advocacy routes to travel.

But let’s face facts: We have a terrible problem in Manitoba.

There’s an overwhelming number of kids in CFS care (many, if not most, aboriginal) and most they’re there not because of “abuse” — a nebulous and shifty term as set out in the CFS Act — but because of parental neglect.

No food in the fridge, mom and or dad or both drinking or splitting up, a shaky housing situation. These are just some of the instances of neglect which could move CFS to pull a child from his or her family and into care, and the parental issue triggering the apprehension may or may not get attended to.

It can’t be overstated: pulling a child from its family is no small thing. The aftershocks of that broken bond could last an entire lifetime. We have evidence in droves, including that unearthed by a years-long public inquiry, that the foster care and child-welfare systems is a feeder for youth jails, addictions and gang-involvement and, later, adult prisons.

[Two quick, but admittedly extreme examples: A 19-year-old man who lit a guy on fire in the north end and killed him? He had nearly 20 different foster placements in his short lifetime. Another man, who torched his Sherbrook Street apartment block around Christmas — he had 36 different CFS placements as a youth. The mass rejection a developing mind would feel from the constant shakeups is staggering.]

So, what do we do? Blaming the government won’t help. Blaming social workers won’t help.

But being given information and ideas to contemplate and question the status quo is a start.

And that’s what we should be doing.

Sunday’s meeting was an excellent example of this.

There were five speakers, and I’ll summarize a few of their views [as I understood them], briefly. This is not exhaustive.

First was Bernice Cyr, executive director of the Native Women’s Transition Centre and former CEO of Metis Child and Family Services.

Cyr spoke of several key areas, including the problem the system has in terms of dealing with the competing concepts of ‘safety’ and ‘risk’ assessments.

While it’s pretty apparent what constitutes ‘safety,’ for kids — the concept of ‘risk’ (in the long-term sense) to a child is one that’s harder to get a grasp on. Because of new risk-assessment tools used by CFS (the Structured Decision Making computer risk evaluation, sarcastically dubbed the “cover your ass tool” by some), Cyr suggested that long-term risk can’t be addressed through apprehension of kids into care (because of the later “desperate outcomes” many of them encounter in other systems: health, criminal justice) and advocated for a greater use of what she described as “safety networks” for families in crisis.

Ultimately, Cyr believes child-welfare is a public concern to be addressed by the community/public agencies as a whole and not simply left to the ‘system’ to deal with in isolation.

Key point: in northern isolated communities, CFS is often the only resource available. The presence of health and other agencies can be skimpy or non-existent to meet people’s basic needs and protection centres for kids aren’t there, but CFS is, so a lot of burden is placed on the system.

Cyr also said the definition of ‘abuse’ in the CFS Act needs to be narrowed because it prevents social workers from developing more progressive practice habits. She also called for the expansion of the mandate of the Children’s Advocate office and the redirection of already-existing funding for family support interventions.

Next — and most interesting to me — was Lore Mirwaldt, a child protection and family support lawyer who practices up north.

In frank terms, she argued the CFS system as exists today is one that’s been thrust into isolation because of legislation and a hierarchical management/government system which operates in “crisis management” mode brought on by fear of making mistakes which become public controversies (Phoenix, Gage Guimond etc.).

“The name of the game is, ‘keep your cases off the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press,'” Mirwaldt said.

She took the 40 or so people gathered through the genesis of the so-called ‘devolution’ of the system as advanced by the AJI in 1991 and talked in depth about the problems which came out of the so-called “master agreement” the province signed with aboriginal leaders in 2000. While the principles of the agreement were to be lauded, Mirwaldt suggested the implementation was where it all went awry. As a result, the CFS system continues to wrestle with the problems that arose from the transfer of cases to aboriginal-run agencies years after the May 2005 ‘go-live’ of the new system.

“The problem is the government lost its nerve — they got scared,” she said. “They didn’t want to see any more dead children.”

In the north, some social workers handle astronomical caseloads of 70, whereas the recommended maximum caseloads are about a third of that.

As for the SDM tool, the standardized risk assessment questions (often called ‘probability of future harm’) that social workers must use in a case are often biased against northern kids, where ‘risk’ can be determined by the lack of a community store or other resources. Northern kids routinely come out of the computer-generated tool as “medium to high risk” and the solution for the worker is to apprehend, Mirwaldt said.

Overwhelmed by the soaring caseloads, workers on the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation were encouraged by the director of their agency to “think outside the box.”

So they did, by moving to a philosophy Mirwald, tongue in cheek, called “apprehend the parent.” Through a band resolution passed by the NCN chief and council, parents who were creating unsafe atmospheres for their kids were removed from homes (remember, its the band who owns the property) and replaced by grandmothers and other appropriate caregivers to look after the kids. When parents protested, they were told to go work on their issues before they could return.

Most parents “eventually see the light,” she said, prompting the CFS agency to implement supervision orders to reunite the families with conditions.

The child stays in the home with relatives and is safe. The parent deals with the presenting problem or can’t return.

As a result of this “circle of care” strategy, Mirwald said Child Protection dockets in Thompson court have shrunk from 70 cases to as low as 22.

The problem is, she says, “bean counters” at CFS don’t know how to pay for the increase in in-home supports.

In the question/answer portion towards the end, Mirwaldt made an interesting point: Our priorities seem out of whack when a child can die in care and nobody gets fired, but if it was questionable spending a person is caught doing, they’d likely be turfed in a heartbeat.

She also said a worry is that declining caseloads will trigger a funding issue.

“We’re really afraid we’re going to lose our funding because our numbers are down,” she said.

Next to speak (and the last I’ll discuss in this post) was Bertha Traverse, a member of Little Saskatchewan First Nation and former long-term child welfare worker who specialized in working with at-risk youth.

She’s a staunch advocate of finding means to prevent apprehensions.

“Apprehension doesn’t work,” she said. “The bond that you have with family is broken the minute you’re taken out of your home — it’s irreparable,” she said.

Traverse spoke in scenes of realism — pointing out how on the 4th floor of the law courts building in Winnipeg, outside room 410 (where child-protection docket court is held), the vast majority of people there are aboriginal young mothers.

She also talked of how the government’s standards for social workers’ educations don’t always mean the workers are invested in the work.

There is no damned degree that will ever teach you humanity,” she said.

Speaking of humanity, several in the audience offered insight into their personal predicaments and thoughts on the CFS system as a whole.

One of the most touching moments came from the undertaker who buried Gage Guimond.

He seemed to be questioning the entire philosophy of the social-welfare system and wondered what role “corruption” [his word] played in our society being unable to find solutions.

“The more you keep people poor, the more you keep them just running — the worse problems you have,” he said.

Another man spoke of the fear people have of CFS, and called for more advocacy resources for people to be able to navigate the system.

But it was one woman — an adoptee — who really gave me pause.

What the real problem is, she says, is how society has changed so much from when she was a child, when she would walk home from school and people would inquire of her if they hadn’t seen her sister or father that day.

We don’t look out for each other or even know each other any more, she said.

If we simply stuck together more, paid attention and cared, we’d be able to find solutions for the long-term benefit.

Maybe she’s right. But the cynic in me says we’ve come too far afield now to get back there.

I stand to be corrected, because ideally, I think she’s probably bang-on in her assessment.

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