Two weeks after the Manitoba government conceded it did not know how many foster children were being placed in hotels outside Winnipeg, the province has collected the data and says it is aware of three youths living in a hotel since June 1.
One Child and Family Services (CFS) agency reported having a group of siblings in a rural hotel and indicated it plans to move them next week. All other agencies reported they had not placed any children in rural or northern hotels since June 1 – the original provincial deadline to stop using hotels for emergency foster-care placements.
Late last month, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross surprised native leaders, the provincial Children's Advocate and some CFS staff by revealing that the June 1 target applied only to Winnipeg. Rural and northern agencies would have until Dec. 1.
The province has made commitments to improve its emergency child-welfare system since Tina Fontaine, an indigenous teenager, was killed in August after going missing from her hotel placement in Winnipeg. 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 in Winnipeg since last fall, and found evidence of prolonged hotel stays, questionable supervision and possible security concerns. A recent canvass of rural and northern hotels showed that while emergency placements at establishments outside the capital decreased when CFS agencies thought they all had to meet the June 1 deadline, some foster children were living in rented rooms for weeks at a time over the past several months.
One general manager at a Thompson hotel recalled a 17-year-old girl living there for about a month last fall. The manager, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said the teen was "a little uncontrollable" and had been reported missing during her stay. According to a Dauphin hotel manager, three siblings have been staying there for about a month. "I think [foster-care placements at the hotel] slowed down because of the changes they've made," said Cherie Storozinski, who has been the manager for about a month.
The province's Métis authority, which learned of the deadline extension in late May, told The Globe its agencies had placed seven foster children in rural or northern hotels over the past two months, with an average stay of two weeks. In a case from several months ago, an agency was renting a motel room by the month because no housing was available for a 17-year-old foster charge making the transition out of care.
Billie Schibler, the CEO of the Métis authority and the former children's advocate, said kids placed at rural and northern hotels in her jurisdiction are looked after by trained agency staff; in Winnipeg, third-party workers – some of whom spoke poor English – supervised children at hotels.
"I have more concerns around the safety and security about children in hotels in Winnipeg … simply because of the way that was operating," she said.
"Some of the safety issues are less evident for us in small communities where everybody knows everybody."
The province says it expects hotel use outside Winnipeg to fluctuate over the coming months and will monitor the situation to determine where additional emergency-placement resources are needed. Any rural or northern hotel placements before Dec. 1 will require approval from the head of the relevant CFS agency.
On Wednesday, the NDP government also introduced new legislation aimed at strengthening the Office of the Children's Advocate and making it more independent. Darlene MacDonald, the advocate, said in an interview she welcomes the legislation but is frustrated that it does not expand the office's mandate to include children who are not in care and that it does not give her office the discretion to make some information public.