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Tina Fontaine is seen in this undated handout photo. (HO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Tina Fontaine is seen in this undated handout photo. (HO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Manitoba backtracks on child-welfare data, admits mistakes in research Add to ...

Manitoba is scrapping its plan to change the way it reports the total number of children in its care, admitting there were mistakes in the research it used to justify excluding hundreds of cases, such as that of Tina Fontaine.

The government reversed course after The Globe and Mail pointed out serious flaws in the four-page backgrounder the province produced to explain why it was altering its reporting practices. The document was riddled with errors in the data and content related to how other jurisdictions report their counts of children in care.

In February, the governing NDP said it would no longer include voluntary placements in its total – which last year climbed to 10,295 children, most of whom are indigenous. The government said the move would align its reporting with that of other provinces and make cross-jurisdictional comparisons fairer. The opposition immediately criticized the plan as a public-relations ploy to artificially reduce the total in a province whose child-welfare system came under intense scrutiny following Tina’s 2014 death while in care.

The government backgrounder said British Columbia had 7,516 children in care (no time frame indicated) and that the number does not include voluntary placements – a temporary arrangement in which a parent places a child in care but retains guardianship. Not only was the number the document gave for B.C. actually a muddled version of Alberta’s monthly average of 7,156 for 2014-2015, but voluntary placements are, in fact, part of B.C.’s overall count.

The Globe has also confirmed the government was incorrect in stating that Alberta and Saskatchewan do not include voluntary placements in their totals.

“We were definitely wrong when we said other jurisdictions didn’t report [voluntary placements],” cabinet spokeswoman Rachel Morgan said in an e-mail. “That was a failure on our part to properly do our homework.” In a previous e-mail, she said political staffers were involved in what she described as “inadvertent” and regrettable errors.

The province will continue to include voluntary placements in its overall count, as it has in previous Family Services annual reports (the latest report says there were 706 voluntary placements as of March 31, 2015). Ms. Morgan said the government will break down the total by category, such as temporary wardships, voluntary placements and kinship care, in which a child lives with a relative. She said a new category, called customary care, will be reported separately because an indigenous community will be considered the care provider – not Family Services.

There is no national standard for categorizing and reporting the number of children in a province or territory’s care. One jurisdiction might include children up to the age of 16 in its overall count, while another might go to 18. What one province calls a “voluntary placement agreement,” another might call a “residential services agreement.” Making accurate comparisons can be an exercise in math and semantics.

Conservative family services critic Ian Wishart said he believes the government’s plan was motivated by the April 19 provincial election and a desire to make it appear that the NDP is reducing the number of children in care.

He confronted Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross in the legislature last week with the reality that Saskatchewan, a province of similar size with several thousand fewer children in care, includes voluntary arrangements in its total. The Minister did not budge from the plan and reiterated her commitment to ensuring children get the care they need.

Mr. Wishart welcomes the decision to backtrack, saying it is important to have “accuracy and truth” in the numbers.

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