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Why are Manitoba foster kids still living in hotels?

Tina Fontaine's portrait sits on an end table at her aunt Thelma Favel's home on the Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Falls Manitoba August 20, 2014. Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

When Manitoba's provincial government announced last fall it would take steps to address the large number of foster children being warehoused in down-at-heel hotels, no one expected them to eliminate a longstanding problem overnight. But four months later, the apparent lack of progress is, to put it politely, disconcerting.

It is true that other Canadian jurisdictions have sometimes resorted to sending children in their care to hotels. But outside Manitoba the practice is extremely unusual. In late 2014, Saskatchewan had recorded only one hotel stay for the year; it involved a group of siblings. British Columbia says it's so rare, it doesn't keep statistics. In Alberta, it is forbidden.

Manitoba officials insist hotels remain a last-ditch option, but the monthly average of placements – 65 at this time last year – dwarfs figures elsewhere. A Globe and Mail reporter recently found at least 10 foster children staying at a downtown Winnipeg Best Western hotel. Among them was a cousin of Tina Fontaine. Ms. Fontaine was found dead last August, after going missing from the same hotel.

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Of the more than 10,000 kids under government care in Manitoba, about 90 per cent are aboriginal. That number is part of a broader social tragedy.

Instead of a secured environment, many of these children are placed in a hotel room. Depending on circumstances, it can house as many as three other foster kids, some of whom may even be infants. The provincial Children's Advocate first sounded the alarm 15 years ago, and yet the situation persists.

It may or may not be advisable for Manitoba to get into the hotel business, but surely it's possible to purchase, convert or build accommodations that are better suited to the task. Yes, this will cost money. Yes, it is money that must be spent.

More immediately, the government must quickly establish a central registry of available foster-care places in order to effectively co-ordinate emergency placements – incredibly, such a database does not yet exist.

Perhaps it would speed the process if Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross got around to actually visiting the Best Western facility where provincial wards are being kept, in some cases for months.

The experience of being placed in foster care is traumatic. It shouldn't be compounded by a failure of government.

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