Twenty-month old Jaylene Redhead was killed by her mother on June 29, 2009 while both were resident in a second-stage housing facility in Winnipeg. Jaylene had been apprehended from her mother’s care at birth by Awasis Agency of Northern Manitoba but had been returned to her mother’s care at the Native Women’s Transition Centre in the months before her death.
The Inquest Report of Judge Lawrence Allen into her death, released May 23, reveals the awful details of this child’s short life. The inquest was called in 2011 under the provisions of Manitoba’s Fatality Inquiries Act to:
- inquire into the circumstances relating to Jaylene’s death;
- examine the function and operation of “safe houses” with regard to staff/client ratio, supervision and criteria used to determine which child/children can be reunited with their parent/parents (who, most often, are in need of services themselves) and when; and
- determine what, if anything, can be done to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future.
Hearings began in 2012 and concluded in December 2013.
During the course of the inquest proceedings, Awasis Agency brought a motion for recusal of Judge Allen alleging bias with respect to his active questioning of a particular witness. Judge Allen considered and refused that motion, and the agency brought a further motion to the Court of Queen’s Bench, seeking to quash that decision or to prohibit Judge Allen from continuing to preside over the inquest. The motion was ultimately denied by decision of Chief Justice Joyal who found that:
While it might be possible in extraordinary cases to identify, with only one witness’ testimony, conduct on the part of a judge that amounts to a breach of natural justice sufficient so as to justify interlocutory review and relief, such is not the case on this motion.
….this is not a case where the impugned conduct at this point in the proceedings can be obviously seen to have destroyed the underlying fairness, legality and legitimacy of the Inquest, such that any impugned findings or recommendations could not be addressed on appeal.
The Inquest Report makes numerous recommendations with respect to changes to Manitoba’s child welfare system. The recommendations address a broad range of issues including:
- provincial child welfare standards (Recommendations 1-3);
- drug and alcohol testing (Recommendation 4-5);
- FASD (Recommendation 6);
- service agreements between child welfare agencies and other community agencies (Recommendation 7);
- caseloads of child welfare workers (Recommendations 8-9);
- note-taking and use of the child welfare system database (Recommendation 10);
- provincial funding of the Native Women’s Transition Centre (Recommendation 11); and
- risk assessments (Recommendations 12-14).
The report concludes with a general recommendation that the various stakeholders within the child welfare system work together more collaboratively:
I encourage the government to do everything possible to stimulate the possibilities as to child welfare participants working in a more collaborative manner. One obvious way is to bring them together for the purposes of communicating and learning from each other.
It seems to me that any improvement in the various parties [sic] ability and desire to work collaboratively can only work to the betterment of the protection of the children of Manitoba.
Manitoba’s Minister of Family Services has accepted the recommendations from the inquest and has indicated the department is now reviewing the recommendations to filter out those that are duplications from the 62 recommendations from the recent report from the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Phoenix Sinclair.
While the solutions proposed by Judge Allen are appropriate to address the specific circumstances surrounding the death of Jaylene Redhead, these will not solve the larger-scale social issues that seem to inevitably lead families into contact with the child welfare system when it may already be too late. Of course, better record-keeping by child welfare workers is a good thing, but really that’s just painting the house when what’s needed is a complete foundation repair.
Many of the issues raised in the course of this inquest echo those heard in the course of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry. That inquiry heard that fixing the system doesn’t in any way address the social conditions of poverty and social exclusion, inadequate housing and homelessness, addictions and FASD and the residual impacts of colonization and the residential schools system. These are the root causes that so often bring families into contact with the child welfare system.
As I wrote here, solutions are within our grasp, but action is required. There is already a substantial evidence-base upon which we can build a foundation that better supports families through prevention and early interventions, employment and education supports and other initiatives that we know can effectively break the cycle of child abuse.
Jaylene Redhead and Phoenix Sinclair are but two of the children failed by current approaches to child protection. We know better and it’s time to act on what we know.