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Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross listens to media questions about the release of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry Report at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg, Friday, January 31, 2014. The Manitoba government says fewer foster children are being put up in hotels, but the accommodation may still have to be used occasionally.John Woods/The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government does not know how many foster children are living in hotels in rural and northern communities – a revelation that comes just days before a provincial deadline to eradicate hotel placements.

The NDP government had pledged to stop putting children in rented rooms by June 1 after the brutal sexual assault in April of a 15-year-old foster child placed at a Best Western in downtown Winnipeg. But in an update on the province's progress on Thursday, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said the deadline applied to Winnipeg only – surprising the province's Children's Advocate and some aboriginal leaders.

Hotel placements beyond the capital will continue in the "short term" until further resources are developed, the minister revealed. A deadline of Dec. 1 has been set for phasing out these emergency placements.

The minister said she does not know how many foster children are living in hotels outside Winnipeg. She said she spoke recently with the head of a rural Child and Family Services authority who told her no children were in hotels in that jurisdiction at the time. Ms. Irvin-Ross would not speculate on how many children might be in rented rooms elsewhere.

"We don't have the research numbers on the rural and the north," she said, noting that the government is gathering the data now. "We have to get a picture of what's happening."

Criticism of Manitoba's emergency-placement program reached new heights when Tina Fontaine, an aboriginal teenager, was killed in August after going missing from her Best Western placement. She was one of 10,000 foster children in the province, where nearly 90 per cent of all government wards are native.

The Globe and Mail has been investigating the emergency program since last fall, and found evidence of prolonged hotel stays, questionable supervision and possible security concerns.

The mother of the girl who was assaulted on April 1 said the government should have improved the child-welfare system long ago – that it is too little, too late for her daughter, who will turn 16 on Friday and is debilitated and unable to communicate.

She said her son, a nine-year-old currently in a group home, wandered away from his placement one night this week to visit his sister at the hospital. Security at the hospital located the boy and he was returned to the group home, his mother said.

Asked about the incident on Thursday, Ms. Irvin-Ross said she could not address the specifics of the case, but that "now that we're aware of this, we'll certainly investigate it."

Manitoba Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald said her office was under the impression the deadline to end hotel use applied provincewide. She said she does not know how often hotels are used for emergency placements in rural and northern communities, but said her understanding is it is "limited."

"I would think the minister would know," Ms. MacDonald said. "Clearly, we should know the number of kids in hotels, whether it's in rural communities or the city of Winnipeg."

David Harper, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents First Nations in the province's North, said he learned of the new deadline in a meeting with the minister on Wednesday. He urged the province to move more quickly to improve emergency housing for all foster children.

"For any government, the North is never a priority," he contended. "The housing itself, putting them in hotels, they're not being supervised [there]."

Manitoba government spokeswoman Rachel Morgan conceded that the province should have been clearer from the start that hotels could still be used in rural and northern communities.

"This was an oversight on our part," she said in an e-mail, noting safety concerns were greatest in Winnipeg, where the vast majority of foster children reside.

Ms. Morgan said that as the government developed plans to abolish Winnipeg hotel placements, it became clear that rural and northern communities face unique challenges and would need more time to develop new temporary spaces. In the meantime, any hotel placements made outside the city before Dec. 1 will require approval from the CEO of the overarching CFS authority.

The province has made significant strides over the past two months in reducing its reliance on hotels in the capital. On March 26, for example, 35 foster children were living in Winnipeg hotels; by May 11, the number had dropped to zero.

Ms. Irvin-Ross said the reduction can be attributed to better co-ordination among CFS agencies and the development of 90 new emergency beds. The government has also hired 80 staff to care for children at facilities such as shelters. The Minister noted the province will spend more than $800,000 recruiting more indigenous foster families, given the disproportionate number of natives in government care.