WINNIPEG – A commissioner who investigated the death of a girl who died after falling through the cracks of Manitoba’s child-welfare system says he is disappointed the province still hasn’t replaced the aging computers used to track children.
Ted Hughes, who led the inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair, said his final report made it clear that the decades-old child and family services information network needed to be replaced “without delay.”
“I know it’s expensive, but the system needs the link where everything is available, and everyone is part of the system,” Hughes said in an interview from Victoria, B.C.
It’s been more than four years since the inquiry issued its final report into the death of five-year-old Phoenix, who had spend stints in foster care before being killed by her mother and stepfather. The inquiry found “protection of children requires a reliable and up-to-date information management system.”
The computer network — created in 1993 and moved online in 2006 — has been plagued with problems, including issues with poor internet service, missing information on caseloads (partly because of non-compliance from some child and welfare authorities) and inaccurate data.
The former NDP government announced in 2008, 2012 and again in 2014 that the system would be replaced.
But the old computers are still in use. The Conservative government says it won’t consider anything new during an ongoing “transformation of child and family services,” which includes a review of applicable legislation.
Daphne Penrose, Manitoba’s children’s advocate, said a new computer system is needed to adapt to changes during the child welfare overhaul.
“Any computer system, even a new system, is going to have to upgrade as our province and legislation changes to respond to the differing needs of the communities and what we are seeing here in Manitoba,” she said.
Any database also needs to have accurate, culturally appropriate information, she said. There are about 11,000 children in care in Manitoba and almost 90 per cent are Indigenous. The province has one of the highest apprehension rates in Canada.
Child welfare in Manitoba has been criticized for years, most recently following the 2014 death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in the Red River after she ran away from a hotel where she was being housed.
First Nations leaders have expressed concerns about the centralized database in the past, especially concerning what information is shared and with whom.
“The current system is not working for our families,” said Cora Morgan, children’s advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “It is just a measurement and it’s a way for them to be able to track our families.”
The province says it is meeting with Indigenous communities for ideas.
Morgan said she’d like a new, separate system where information is owned, shared and monitored by First Nations. Currently, families that are listed can’t see what’s there or challenge it, even though the details can have an impact on their entire lives, she said.
“It’s a seriously flawed system.”