EDITORIALS

MANITOBA CHILD WELFARE – Intrusions of the State or Justified Interventions?

Poverty:  "Damaged Child," Oklahoma City, OK, USA, 1936. (Colorized).I read the story several times just to be sure I was getting the message.

I can be slow like that.

It seems Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck is suggesting the Manitoba Government  is bent on apprehending children at all time record numbers.  His latest story contains some alarming statistics;

  • In 2013 the number of children in the child welfare system grew to 9,940,  a 72% increase since 2004.
  • The annual cost per child in 2013 is estimated at $42,354.
  • The annual cost of the Child Welfare System is estimated at $421 million. (9,940 x $42,354 = 420,998,760)

“But the pace at which Manitoba’s child welfare system is apprehending kids and removing them from their communities has reached a crisis level. It’s become an industry.  We’re creating an entire generation of wards of the state — again — which will have incalculable consequences down the road.  Unless we do something to change it,” Brodbeck writes.

The concern is a valid one, but is the Government acting irresponsibly in the overzealous apprehension of Manitoba children?

Is the Government intentionally usurping the rights of capable Manitoba parents?

As a former front line police officer I’d like to share some insight on the subject;

Silent Victims

In the summer of 1987 I was a rookie cop assigned to work a primary response patrol car during the field training phase of my police training.  My partner was a hardworking, battle tested veteran with over ten (10) years experience.  He was a good guy with a penchant for working high crime areas like downtown and the north end.

We were working the evening shift in the core when we received a call for a child welfare incident.  Someone dropped a dime on people who were apparently neglecting their children.  It was an exceedingly hot summer evening with temperatures hovering around the +25° C mark.

The neighbourhood where we were heading was only a couple blocks from the downtown Police HQ.  It was a rough, high crime area filled with rooming houses and street thugs.  When we arrived on scene I noticed the home was a single family dwelling with concrete steps leading to a wide open front door.

As I stood in the doorway I was disgusted by the squalor.  Upwards of six (6) adults passed out on a variety of chairs and filthy couches in the main living area.  The heavy stench of stale booze filled the air and the floor was almost completely covered with broken beer bottle glass.

That’s when I noticed it.

A chair, strategically positioned under the door knob to a bedroom just off the living-room.  When I opened that door I was shocked by what I saw, five (5) little children ranging in ages from three (3) months to approximately six (6) years of age.  They were hot, sweaty and despondent.

My eyes were drawn to the eldest child who was cradling the infant in her arms while trying to feed her from a bottle.  A bottle that was approximately half full of putrid, curdled sour milk.  The poor kid was doing her best to calm the child’s incessant crying, but it wasn’t enough.  The child must have been extremely uncomfortable, after all, her diaper looked as if it contained a gallon of heavy wet sand.

As I knelt to help her I was overcome by the smell of steeping urine and pungent feces.  I couldn’t even guess when the last time the child may have had a diaper change.  As my eyes watered, I fought the gag reflex as I gently cleaned the infants inflamed red bottom.

“You don’t have to do that,” my training officer said.  “We don’t get paid to do that.”

I apologized from crossing that imaginary line, but as a recent father of a beautiful baby girl, I did what I had to do.

“These poor kids,” he said in disgust.

An hour or so later the house was cleared and the children were apprehended by Child & Family Services.

Food for Thought

During my years on patrol I attended many child welfare calls.

The calls were often made by anonymous callers concerned about the safety and wellbeing of children.

I took one such call a few years after I graduated from the Police Academy.  The call history indicated the mother left her two (2) small children in the home and went out drinking.  When we arrived the caretaker let us into the suite to investigate.

“Is there anybody home,” I yelled as I entered the home.

My calls went unanswered.

When I walked into the kitchen I saw a little girl, approximately 2 1/2 years of age sitting on the kitchen counter holding a can of beans in her tiny hands.  She had pushed a chair across the floor and used it as a ladder to climb up the counter in her search of food.  The look of sadness and bewilderment etched on her face still flashes in my mind.  Her big brown eyes filled with fear and uncertainty.

It was heartbreaking.

An infant was sleeping in an adjacent room.

The search for the mother was unsuccessful.

Another call to CFS and more apprehensions.

(The mother showed up intoxicated several hours later wondering where her children were.)

Strangers in the Night

I was working night-shift in the middle of winter a few years later when I observed a woman struggling with a shopping cart she was pushing down a snow packed sidewalk.

The temperature was frigid and windchill values were extreme.

It was around 3:30 am, early morning or late evening depending on your perspective.

When I stopped the cruiser and approached the woman I could see she was extremely intoxicated.  The smell of booze, the glassy eyes and her unsteady gait told the story.  When I looked inside the cart I was shocked to see three (3) little frost covered faces staring back at me.  The children and their mother were clearly not dressed for the weather.

I shudder to think of the scale of the tragedy that may have occurred if we hadn’t decided to stop to investigate.

The woman was incoherent and not able to give us any viable option to ensure the safety of her children.

Another call to CFS and more apprehensions.

Intrusions of the State?

In fairness, Mr Brodbeck did acknowledge, “There are, obviously, cases where children need to be apprehended for their own safety and welfare.”

That’s just reality.

Having said that, is he correct in the notion we should be blaming Government for the outrageous number of children caught up in the child welfare system?

In my experience on the front line, the majority of children are apprehended because their parents or care givers struggle with debilitating alcohol or drug dependency issues.  People with active addiction issues have difficulty caring for themselves, never mind caring for children.

Children have a right to be cared for by sober adults who are capable of providing for their safety, health and overall wellbeing.

That should be a core value in any first world Country.

Front line police officers are the ones who see the dysfunction.

Front line police officers are the ones who place the emergency calls to the CFS workers.

The question regarding the use of hotel rooms for emergency shelter is an entirely different issue.

Is there any logical reason why the Province of Manitoba hasn’t built a state of the art child welfare complex somewhere in the City of Winnipeg?  A complex staffed with professionals capable of providing a range of specific services to meet the needs of apprehended children.

The fact is there is no good reason why such a complex doesn’t exist, yet the Government of Manitoba continues to dole out millions of tax payer dollars to pay for services rendered by private hotels and unqualified child welfare workers.

That policy failed Tina Fontaine.

That policy will continue to fail.

That is, unless we do something to change it.

FOOTNOTE:

The stories I share represent only a tiny percentage of the tragic neglect front line police officers see during the course of their duties.  I expect almost every front line officer has a similar story (s) to tell.

Brodbeck’s report indicates Aboriginals represent approximately 80% of the children apprehended by the Child Welfare System.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the perspective Jimmy. As always, you put a human face on what we see and like you, I have my own experiences that will forever be etched in my memory and haunt me for the rest of my days.

    Having said that, I would like to add to the discussion if I may.

    The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of CFS staff, whom you and I have worked closely with over many years, genuinely care, believe in their work and do the best they can with what they have. Like us, they are overwhelmed with the volume of cases they are faced with and despite what people may believe, only resort to apprehensions, emergency or otherwise, in the most egregious of circumstances (like the ones you illustrated).

    Although I can’t speak to specific cases or children, the suggestion that CFS (or any other authorities) simply take children away from their parents on a whim is irresponsible at best. My experience has always been that apprehensions were avoided, whenever possible, and only used as an absolute last resort.

    To help support that belief and as the retired deputy quite correctly and succinctly pointed out, the problem is far worse than the stats show. How many children have we seen whose living conditions were such that we knew they should probably be removed and put into care, even if just temporarily, but there was simply nowhere to take them? How many times have we seen children in situations that because they weren’t “in imminent danger” and “in need of immediate protection” that our only option was to make the referral and allow the CFS professionals to do their follow up when they could. You know the answer as do I and unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll find a front line soldier who will tell you any different.

    However painful those realities might be for us as human beings, they are a part of our imperfect world. And the fact remains, that the actual number of children in care represents only a portion of those who likely need that kind of intervention. If every child who really needed it was apprehended, the system, as we know it, would simply implode. That is the sad truth my friend.

    Like many things in life, there is no easy solution as I see it. The underlying issues have long been identified and studied many times over and I need not revisit them here. That fact notwithstanding, I do know that tackling the predicament of children in CFS care, much like the issues that exacerbate that reality, will require complex and multi-pronged approaches that are well beyond my level of understanding and influence. I believe however, that your suggestion of a centralized facility to help triage the worst cases with a view to building long term solutions has merit and should be revisited.

    I also believe that such a facility should include an appropriately sized secure area where we can confine disorderly intoxicated youths to ensure their wellbeing until sober. Although I concede that this in itself could be a topic for a whole other discussion, I’m sure you will agree that more often than not, the parents (if we can even locate them) simply can’t or refuse to assume responsibility for dealing with their children in that condition. Furthermore, the current set-up we have to house intoxicated children is woefully inadequate which in turn, leaves us with very few available alternatives. As you know, many of these youths are the very ones most in need of intervention and we simply need more options to deal with this issue. By safely housing them until sober, where they can then be better assessed by the appropriate staff, we will no doubt help other children from falling through the cracks. If it only helps a few, then it would have been worth it in my view.

    Miguel

  2. Every police officer who worked downtown or in the north end experienced scenarios similar to what you describe here in terms of drug and alcohol abuse and child neglect.

    In terms of the number of children in care, if all the children who are by legal definition ‘neglected’ were in care, the actual number would be much greater than what currently exists.

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