The revelation that Manitoba has seen a spike in the number of foster children being placed in hotels – even after the government promised last fall to reduce its reliance on them – is spurring calls for a centralized system that tracks available foster beds across the province.
The Globe and Mail reported Monday that extremely vulnerable government wards, mostly aboriginals, are still being placed in hotels under the supervision of third-party workers. On a single day earlier this month, one downtown Winnipeg establishment hosted at least 10 foster charges, including a three-month-old infant.
Progressive Conservative family services critic Ian Wishart said a centralized registry is long overdue and could lead to fewer children and youth being placed in hotels, where he believes security is unsatisfactory. Foster beds in Manitoba are spread across 28 Child and Family Services agencies operating under four different authorities. Without a central list, it is possible that one agency might have an excess of beds while another has a shortage and resorts to hotel rooms.
"This is a real weakness in our system," Mr. Wishart said. "We're not satisfied with the speed of changes here."
He said the head of one shelter for teenaged girls just outside Winnipeg told him last fall that the night Tina Fontaine was placed at the Best Western Charter House, the facility had five available beds. Tina, a Sagkeeng First Nation teenager, was found dead shortly after going missing from the downtown hotel in August. Her killing prompted renewed scrutiny of the child welfare system and reignited calls for an inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women.
Retired judge Ted Hughes, who has closely examined the Manitoba foster-care system and led a high-profile inquiry into one child's death in care, called the registry a "must" and said the province should get it running as soon as possible.
Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said in the fall the government was working to create a registry accessible to all CFS agencies, but she would not provide a timeline. She said "barriers" need to be broken down – some agencies with available beds, for example, might want to keep their vacancies in case they later need the space.
Asked again about the registry this month, Ms. Irvin-Ross said staff are working to improve co-ordination among agencies and that the central list remains a work in progress. "It's going to take a while," she said. "Sharing of information sometimes can be complicated."
The government announced in November it would take steps to scale back its reliance on hotels for emergency placements and move away from third-party supervisors. Ms. Irvin-Ross pledged to create 71 new emergency foster-home spaces and, over the course of two years, hire 210 permanent child-care workers. As of mid-March, the government had created 57 new emergency spaces and had hired about a dozen child-care workers.
Among the foster charges living at the Best Western Charter House this month was Tina's cousin. Mr. Wishart noted Tina's homicide investigation is continuing and expressed concern that a "predator" is possibly at large. "We're especially concerned that someone who is in an almost identical situation [to Tina] would be left at risk," he said of the girl's cousin.
Since assuming her Family Services post in the fall of 2013, Ms. Irvin-Ross has not visited the Best Western Charter House floor where CFS charges are sometimes placed. Mr. Wishart said he went to the hotel in the wake of Tina's death to see the situation for himself and came away with safety concerns.
"It's pretty unsecure, in my mind," he said. "You can just walk in and [the foster charges] could just walk out. … I think all that would happen is that [third-party supervisors] would make note of what [the foster charges] are wearing so they could report them missing."
The hotel manager did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an earlier interview, she said she had "no comment" on hotel placements or security policies.