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Five aboriginal children spilled out of the Winnipeg hotel, the youngest – a one-year-old with round cheeks and a thumb in her mouth – carried on the hip of the eldest. A pair of Child and Family Services caregivers loaded the siblings into vans. The children were smiling. They were bound for a foster home.
They had been living at the Best Western Charter House, a basic hotel steps from the Manitoba Office of the Children’s Advocate, because the province had nowhere else to put them.
The same was true of Emily, a 20-year-old who said she is still in CFS care because of learning disabilities borne from the time her alcoholic mother cracked her in the back of the skull with a shovel. (The Globe and Mail cannot reveal her identity because she is in care.)
And it was also true of Emily’s friend, Tina Fontaine, the Sagkeeng First Nation teen whose August killing in Winnipeg prompted renewed calls for a national inquiry into Canada’s more than 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women.
“A hotel is not an okay place,” said Emily, who met Tina in July and had a conversation with her about staying in hotels. “She was like, ‘Why are they trying to place me in a hotel? I was like, ‘K, it’s ‘cause they can’t find a foster home for you. Nobody wants older children. Everybody wants to take the babies.’”
A hotel is a placement of last resort, a temporary fix until a residential bed frees up. And in the grand scheme of it all, hotel stays are rare.
But in a province where nearly 90 per cent of the more than 10,000 children in care are aboriginal, hotels are also a reminder of the ill fate of the most unfortunate of the unfortunate. Many children in provincial care have already faced neglect. The lucky ones are embraced by loving foster families or reunited with their own. The unlucky ones lay their heads on rented pillows, dizzied by a revolving door of outsourced caregivers working shifts.
A disproportionate number of native children are in care across Canada. In B.C., aboriginal children make up just 8 per cent of the under-18 population, but more than half of those in the child-welfare system. In Saskatchewan, where more than 10 per cent of the population is aboriginal, nearly 80 per cent of children in care are native. The provincial and territorial social-services ministers have agreed to make the problem a priority over the coming year.
This prairie province is the epicentre. Alberta does not place children in hotels. British Columbia does not even collect information on hotel stays because they are so rare. Saskatchewan has placed just one sibling group in a hotel for a single weekend this entire year so far.
Manitoba is at a crossroads, a place where reconciliation feels far-fetched in part because its most vulnerable children – many aboriginal – end up in hotels or motels that are at best unfamiliar and at worst unsafe.
The Globe visited some of these establishments and spoke with CFS charges, current and former caregivers, hotel staff and government officials. Their accounts reveal a world most Canadians know little, if anything, about – one so grim that a former caregiver likened the situation to her experience in the Indian residential school system.
Although the typical hotel stay in recent years was about a week, there is no legislated limit. The Globe has heard of children living in hotels or motels for months. The average number of hotel placements for March, 2014, was 65. The province paid a private company, Complete Care In-Home & Hospital Health Services, $6.4-million in 2013-2014 for staffing at hotels. That’s up from $4.4-million in 2012-2013.
The Children’s Advocate sounded the alarm in 2000. But even after its report was released, one month in 2006 had an average of 132 hotel placements. The province eradicated hotel stays for only a brief period in 2007. It has a hotel-reduction team, and yet it is only now working to create a central registry for available foster care spaces. As it stands, one agency might have an excess of beds, while another might have a shortage and resort to renting rooms.
There are, of course, some well-equipped, kindhearted caregivers. But there are also those who get little training, speak poor English and take little interest in the children. They are required to call police when a child goes missing, but not necessarily immediately.
This is not the world Tina grew up in, but it is the one she died in, alone and far from the family who cared for her until they could not.
The last day Tina was seen alive, Aug. 8, she encountered two police officers who let her go even though she had been reported missing. Tina, who is said to have been prostituting herself, was later taken to hospital after being spotted unconscious in a back-lane after a possible sexual assault. Then a care worker dropped her off at the Best Western Charter House, the placement she would flee to go missing one last time. Her body was found in the Red River on Aug. 17.
To understand Tina’s death, it is important to understand not just her history, but the system that put seven other CFS children in hotels across Manitoba that same August night.
The vintage motel sign boasts of weekly and 30-day rates, a single night starting at just $70. At the rear of the parking lot, a broken chair and slanted table lean against the white stucco of the single-storey block of rooms. It’s a dreary October day, but the curtains are drawn.
The Capri Motel said it had an agreement until recently with the government to house 15 CFS charges at a time. According to online TripAdvisor reviews, it is also a place where fights broke out and amenities were scarce. “I wouldn’t let our kids step outside alone even in the day,” one reviewer wrote. Others complained of a lack of hot water, plugged toilets and poor cleaning services. Another said there was a shooting in the room next door. Raisa Qazi, the front-desk clerk, said it “maybe” is the scene of prostitution.
“I don’t think [it’s an appropriate place for youth],” Ms. Qazi said, adding that the children sometimes stayed for months. Several weeks ago, with a spotlight on the child-welfare system, CFS “pulled the kids out,” she said.
Staff at several Winnipeg hotels said they host CFS children only a couple of times a month, if that, and have no trouble with them. But one general manager said his hotel years ago chose to stop sheltering CFS children because it became untenable and it wanted to appeal to a corporate clientele.
“These kids are just kind of thrown into these hotels and then forgotten about,” said the manager, who asked not to be named because the hotel has other business with the province. “There’s a lack of security. There’s a lack of follow-up. There’s a lack of pretty much anything from the government when it comes to these kids.”
The Family Services Ministry would not disclose its list of hotels, citing safety concerns, but explained they are chosen based on amenities, availability and ensuring that none is over-burdened.
Within the hospitality industry, the Best Western Charter House appears to be well-known as a place that takes in CFS children. A young woman in care, whom The Globe is calling Nina, stayed there in October for at least 10 days. Nina is 18, but said she has been advised to stay in care to improve her chances at a relationship with her daughter, who lives with a foster family. She said she was in the hotel because she was booted from a group home over an accusation she stole an iPod.
Nina admits she recently took off from the hotel to hang out with her boyfriend and “went missing.” She used to go AWOL from foster care, too. “My old foster parent worries about me,” she said. “She says she doesn’t want me to end up like the girl in the river.”
The Globe was unable to reach Nina to determine her current whereabouts, but in a recent text-message, she said she thought she was the only CFS charge at the hotel that night. General manager Janet Barrit said she had “no comment,” citing guests’ privacy.
The care workers
Senedu Chernet, a Complete Care worker originally from Kenya, is a bubbly woman with a warm smile. She cared for the five children who left the Best Western Charter House for a foster home. After waving goodbye, she explained she tried to keep them busy by playing games, watching TV or spending time outside.
As she knows, caring for children and youth in hotels is challenging. The path to an emergency placement is often paved with traumatic experiences that are all too common in the aboriginal community.
Just look at Tina. Her mother was an alcoholic who left her children with their father, Eugene Fontaine. Mr. Fontaine was diagnosed with cancer when Tina and her sister were young, so he asked his aunt, Thelma Favel, to look after them. He was given four months to live in 2011, but his time was cut short when two of his friends beat him to death.
“I see a lot of similarities between the hotels and what I experienced,” said Vivian Ketchum, a residential school survivor and former Complete Care worker who supervised children in hotels in 2009 and 2010. “When I’d go home on the bus, I’d start crying. … For them to be placed in a hotel room, with little support, and not a loving environment, it’s heartbreaking.”
Tina’s great uncle once cared for children in hotels and motels in Winnipeg and on Sagkeeng First Nation reserve. Joseph Favel, who raised Tina with his wife, said he got little if any training, and no professional support. “It was basically a high-priced babysitting job,” said Mr. Favel, who quit around 2005, when his diabetes became debilitating. “A hotel isn’t a place for a kid. It’s never been a place for a kid.”
Family Services said hotel caregivers are expected to engage with the children, manage their behaviour and ensure their safety. The youths have curfews, get weekly allowances and must attend school. The ministry said a CFS caseworker provides the supervising staff with information about risk factors, including, for example, a list of people who should not have access to the child.
However, the hotel manager who asked not to be named said he saw no evidence the children attended school. If security had a problem with one of them, they were out of luck, he said, because the care workers were “disinterested” and had a “9-to-5 mentality.” Ms. Ketchum said she was given very little information before encountering a child or youth. “It was scary,” she said. “I wouldn’t be sure what state the child is in, suicidal or what. Sometimes the child isn’t even there, and I’d just come to an empty room.”
Complete Care did not respond to phone and e-mail messages requesting comment, and would not make anyone available to speak with The Globe when a reporter visited their office. The government recently launched a review of its contracts with the third-party providers that care for children in hotels.
Manitoba legislature is just a few blocks from the Best Western Charter House, not far from where Tina’s remains were found. The girl is top-of-mind here. The government knows the province and the country are watching. Tina’s case has highlighted the plight of aboriginal women and challenges in the child-welfare system.
In an interview at her office, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross conceded that hotel placements are not acceptable. “Hotels are a placement of last resort,” she said. “We’re not interested in placing children in hotels.”
To be fair, Manitoba faces a particularly steep uphill battle. Compare it with its eastern neighbour. Ontario had about 16,000 children in care over the past year. That’s 1.6 times more than Manitoba; its overall population, meantime, is about 11 times greater.
The government says hotel placements are rare, temporary and done in select cases. Sometimes, children end up in hotels because they were kicked out of the previous arrangement or need to be removed in the middle of the night. Sometimes, no foster home is willing to take an infant or a large sibling group.
Sometimes, there just is no residential space for them, even despite recruitment efforts that last year brought the number of foster families up by 750, to 4,800. Over the years, the province has increased funding for foster parents nine times and raised funding for families that take in special-needs children by 150 per cent. It also recently announced a six-bed secure facility for at-risk girls in Winnipeg.
Ms. Irvin-Ross said her government is focused on preventing families from going into crisis, noting that 80 per cent of CFS children are in the system because of “neglect issues.” When Ms. Favel was told of the minister’s statement, she was angry. She had sought counselling services for Tina, she explained, only to be told that access to support was contingent on being in CFS care.
The Children’s Advocate is investigating the public services Tina received as part of an automatic review that occurs when a child in care dies. The Family Services Ministry, which is doing its own investigation, is in discussions with the Winnipeg Police Service, a provincial anti-sexual exploitation team and child-welfare agencies to review its policies around at-risk youth.
The promenade behind the Portage Place mall in downtown Winnipeg is described by local police, politely, as a challenge. It is also known as a place where drug dealers and users converge, where the smell of cigarettes, pot and alcohol lingers.
That’s where Emily, at the time a dealer, met Tina over the summer. “She was a good kid,” said Emily, a lanky, foul-mouthed but soft-spoken young woman from Island Lakes reserve. “She was fun to chill with and talk to.”
Emily said her understanding is that Tina was placed in a hotel but chose to sleep in back lanes. “All she told me was, ‘I’m missing,’” said Emily, who was recently placed in a foster home. “I tried telling her [to call home], but she said she was scared and didn’t know what to say.”
Tina was selling drugs for Emily, getting paid in marijuana to feed her habit, she said. Tina was also selling her body, said Emily, herself a former sex worker. The last time she saw her friend was in late July, when she said Tina left with a man who had leaned out his car window and asked, ‘How much?’”
Emily blames the province for Tina’s fate, using this logic: If the government had not placed her in a hotel, maybe she would not have run away again, and if she had not run away again, maybe she would not have turned up dead.
“I would never have let my daughter stay in a hotel,” said Ms. Favel, who voluntarily placed the girl in CFS care in July, desperate for help with the teen. “I know what goes on in those places. ... Even if I had to walk, I would’ve got her, just to keep her safe.”
Much has changed at her home in Powerview-Pine Falls, Man., since Tina died. The girl’s bedroom has been taken over by her younger sister, Sarah. The furniture that was cleared out of the living room to make way for guests bearing food and flowers has been returned.
Ms. Favel wants Tina’s story told. She wants the government to take action and Canadians to wake up to what is happening in their own backyard.
“With Tina’s death, everything seems to be opening up; it’s like an airing of dirty laundry,” she said, clutching a tissue at her kitchen table. “I’m never going to fill the void, but [her death] has at least opened people’s eyes.”