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Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says the Manitoba government is shifting its focus and its funding from protecting children to preventing families from going into crisis in the first place.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

The Manitoba government says it will revamp its child-welfare system and introduce new legislation that will strengthen the Office of the Children's Advocate – a move that comes six months after Tina Fontaine's high-profile death in care and a decade after the province failed to protect an aboriginal girl who was ultimately murdered.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross announced Tuesday the province is shifting its focus and funding from protecting children in care to preventing families from going into crisis in the first place. "We know the best place for children is in their own communities and in their own families," she said.

Manitoba's child-welfare program has long faced questions over its capacity to protect its most vulnerable children and youth. More than 10,000 children are in the province's foster-care system, which some critics have likened to residential schools, in part because nearly 90 per cent of the wards are aboriginal.

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Plans for the overhaul, which stem from a 253-page report on how to implement recommendations from the inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair's death in 2005, include revising the funding model for Child and Family Services (CFS) agencies, hiring an associate children's advocate to work on behalf of indigenous families and developing a retention and recruitment strategy for CFS workers. It would also create a family-focused pilot project based at Sagkeeng First Nation – a reserve with a history of its children dying in care, including 15-year-old Tina last August and two-year-old Gage Guimond in 2007.

The announcement was met Tuesday with mixed reviews ranging from cautious optimism to disappointment. Ted Hughes, the retired judge who led the $14-million inquiry into Phoenix's death, welcomed the government's shift in priorities but expressed concern, for example, that the province is not immediately adopting his recommendation to reduce caseloads from a standard of 25 per family-services worker to 20. (Ms. Irvin-Ross said Tuesday the average caseload, which fluctuates daily, was 28.)

"I certainly endorse their overall strategy," Mr. Hughes said in an interview. "Ideally, I'd like to see [all of the recommendations] implemented, but I understand it's their decision."

The Sinclair inquiry, which sat for 91 days and heard from more than 100 witnesses, concluded the government failed to protect the little girl from her mother and stepfather. The probe revealed that some 27 CFS workers were involved in Phoenix's file and that CFS was notified at least 13 times with concerns for her safety. The report was pegged to the girl's tragic case, but it put the entire provincial child-welfare system under a microscope.

Ms. Irvin-Ross said she understands the "proof will be in the pudding" – that the government's actions on this sensitive file will speak louder than its words. "Now, the work begins," she said.

The minister said the government will introduce legislation that would give the Office of the Children's Advocate greater independence and discretion when it comes to public reporting of critical incidents, including deaths in care. While the office is pleased the government has gone on the record with its intention to move ahead with new legislation, Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald also criticized what she described as a lack of clear timelines. "Are we going to be sitting in the same place a year from today?" she asked in a statement.

The much-anticipated report, undertaken by an aboriginal-run consulting firm and delivered to the minister earlier this month, detailed various ways to implement 31 of Mr. Hughes's 62 recommendations; the other half have been implemented or acted upon in some measure already. The Winnipeg-based firm consulted some 300 individuals – from government staff to elders and youth – and laid out so-called options for action.

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One of the anonymous individuals cited in the report said when a child comes into care, there are limited meaningful resources available to that family. "How do you return kids to a home where you haven't done anything to support that family and resolve any issues that brought the kids into care in the first place?" the participant asked.

Told of the province's stated commitment to focusing on prevention, the woman who raised Tina, her great-aunt Thelma Favel, said "right on," but added: "Seeing is believing, and I just hope they follow through on it." Ms. Favel said that if Tina had been able to access counselling services outside of the foster-care system, as the family had been seeking without success, perhaps she would have been able to remain in their rural Manitoba home, instead of being placed in foster care in Winnipeg.

The grieving woman's message to the government is simple. "Help the family when they call for help," she said. "It's called Child and Family Services for a reason. The families are calling for help for their child, and they shouldn't be turned away."

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