Lost Opportunity: A note on the Phoenix Sinclair Report

The Legacy of Phoenix Sinclair: Achieving the Best for All Our Children by Hon. Ted Hughes, Commissioner is tragic to read. The first tragedy involves the details and lost opportunities to save Phoenix, a little girl within Manitoba’s child protection system while custody and parental responsibilities were being sorted out. The second tragedy is the lost opportunity of a $14 million dollar report that squandered the opportunity to provide any recommendations to resolve one of the core failings in the lives of Phoenix’s and other children with separated parents- the implementation of an effective parenting plan* that maintains a child’s contact with parents, the community and services.

Children with separated parents face greater risks of adverse outcomes (everything from physical and mental health impairments, to relationship and career success, diabetes, teen pregnancy, suicide as children, suicide as adults, criminality, and child abuse). These negative outcomes for children correlate much stronger to their status as children with separated parents than their race, culture or social standing. As well, the impact of child abuse is compounded for children with separated parents resulting in higher suicide and PTSD.

Hughes’ Report makes 61 recommendations. It was important to address the organizational workings of Child and Family Services, advance understanding and training with respect to the role of systemic discrimination of Manitoba’s aboriginal peoples and develop a better child and youth advocacy apparatus. Without comment on these recommendations, there is a lack of attention or redress to the central theme of the failings of the child protection system to recognize that custody arrangements and parenting plans play a vital role to integrating children with their communities, and thus a child’s safety and their long term successful adult outcomes.

It is perplexing why the Report has absolutely no recommendations to improve children’s access to effective parenting plans – a deficiency clearly described throughout the Report with devastating impacts on Phoenix and other children everyday in Manitoba.

Why were Phoenix’s social workers reluctant to address parenting plans?

This reluctance is in part structured through the interrelationship between child protection legislation and family law legislation. Unfortunately, parents relying on the child protection system for guidance are left with no beacons in best practices for developing parenting plans. Social workers leave the issue to parents and their lawyers. The responsibility of lawyers is to follow the instructions of their clients. Few lawyers receive training in parenting plans. It is also not the professional role of mediators to integrate children; they are servants of parental convenience. If social workers do provide recommendations, it is usually an ineffective, but resource intensive, family-centric model.

For families in need, there is a knowledge and support gap in promoting good parenting plans and educating parents about good plans. If child protection workers feel too constrained or are not knowledgeable, then separating parents could be referred to a community elder, an appropriate professional or even Google.com for advice on parenting plans. These solutions would be far ahead from the services Phoenix’s parents received. The report describes the reluctance of social workers to get involved:

7/16/01 2:27 PM

Received PC from Samantha at 2:25 PM. She stated she wants to know about where Phoenix was and that she wanted her. This worker informed her that the child is with her father Steve and that he was caring for her. Samantha stated that the police told her that the child was with CFS. This worker informed her that at the time of [redacted]’s death that the child was being cared for by her father Steve. Samantha began to sound angry and stated that she wanted Phoenix and how we gave him Phoenix. I informed her that Steve was the primary caregiver of the children and that the Agency is aware that her and Steve have been separated for about one month. Samantha responded “yeah” – and that he had the child in his care and was the guardian. I further told her that “custody” or legal guardianship needs to settle by them and their lawyers. Samantha stated that they both have guardianship of the children, and where is it written that he has only guardianship. I informed that that it has to settled between them. Samantha got angry and stated “whatever” and hung up the phone. DCA (Page 216).

The system further frustrated the situation by hampering Phoenix’s father’s resources to maintain involvement in Phoenix’s life.

“EIA records also contain a fax, dated May 10, 2004, from Okotcha to SOR#3.477 It attaches a copy of a Canada Child Tax Benefit Notice dated January 20, 2004, showing that Kematch had been receiving benefits for Phoenix. It also attached a memo from Legal Aid Manitoba, dated May 6, 2004, addressed to Okotcha, saying that an application for legal aid had been made with respect to custody of Phoenix Sinclair. A handwritten note on the memo said: “Phoenix has been in Ms. Kematch’s care & control since Nov 7/03, however, the child continues to be on Nelson Sinclair’s budget. Please amend your records to provide benefits to Ms.Kematch for Phoenix, temporarily, until the matter is confirmed in court.”478” (Page 157)

Was it the place of Legal Aid Manitoba to act with favor for one parent over the other? Crippling one parent’s financial resources could make the difference in facilitating and encouraging continued involvement in a child’s life and having the ability to advocate for an effective parenting plan.

What difference does an effective parenting plan do for a child?

At-risk children that are integrated with their communities benefit socially from learning positive skills that can help them with success in their adult lives, help them become more resilient to the challenges and disappointments they face in life, gives more opportunities for dangerous problems to be identified, and introduces a structure and many of the same benefits for the child’s parents.

Use of the standardized best practices Fair Parenting Plan solution could reduce the number of families who are struggling with the stress of separation from moving into high risk and high needs families. Using a solution that promotes integration of children with their communities and is designed to maximize a parent’s ability to work and retrain saves valuable public resources. With high turnover of social workers, the Fair Parenting Plan also provides a level of long term consistency not possible within a child protection organization. A standardized parenting plan can become known and understood by parents, grandparents, teachers and coaches to prevent misunderstandings or misconceptions from occurring. The Fair Parenting Project also advocates for parents and children who encounter systemic (policy, scheduling) hurdles to participation with daycare, school bus and children’s activities.

Implementation:

During the implementation phase of the Report, consideration to parenting plans and effective integration of children with separated parents into community services and activities cannot be forgotten. It is the most cost effective solution to easing the child protection burden while improving the lives of children and parents.

*What is a parenting plan?

A parenting plan is the schedule and protocols for children with separated parents. The Fair Parenting Plan is a particular parenting plan uniquely integrated with community services (daycares, school buses, tutoring) and activities (sports, arts, music, etc.). The Fair Parenting Plan is administered by the Fair Parenting Project.

February 3, 2014

For further information on this topic, please contact Eric Letts at eric@FairParenting.com.

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