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Canada Manitoba child welfare agencies must follow hotel ban or risk government takeover

Kerri Irvin-Ross, Manitoba’s Minister of Family Services at her office in Winnipeg Manitoba, October 15, 2014.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Manitoba's family services minister says child-welfare agencies must follow a ban on housing foster children in hotels or risk being taken over by the province.

Kerri Irvin-Ross says the government has issued a directive to agencies that orders them to avoid the practice at all costs after June 1.

She told a legislature committee earlier this week that agencies could "choose not to follow that standard." But on Thursday she told The Canadian Press there will be consequences for those who don't comply.

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The province will keep a close eye on hotel use by agencies and will take over if hotels are used too frequently, she said.

"We will not tolerate any agency placing a child in a hotel," she said in an interview. "We are working day and night with the authorities and agencies to ensure that we have the resources that are available."

Manitoba has about 10,000 children in care. The vast majority are aboriginal. A chronic shortage of foster-care spaces has forced the province to use hotels to house children — something that has been criticized for more than a decade.

The minister tearfully promised to end the practice after a young girl was seriously assaulted in March. Both the victim and the youth charged in the assault were in the care of Child and Family Services at a downtown Winnipeg hotel.

Irvin-Ross had already promised in November to phase out the use of hotels after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was killed after running away from one.

The government is creating new emergency foster-home spots and reducing its reliance on outside contract workers over two years. It is also focusing more on preventative efforts that support families before children are taken into care, Irvin-Ross said. The province will be working closely with agencies to ensure hotels aren't needed, and won't hesitate to act if the directive isn't followed, she said.

"If it's chronic non-compliance, action will be taken."

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The NDP began decentralizing child welfare in 2003 by creating four new agencies — two for aboriginal children in northern and southern Manitoba, one for Metis children and a general authority for others. The agencies have a degree of independence but ultimately answer to the province.

Manitoba has tried to end the use of hotels before. In 2006, then-family services minister Gord Mackintosh promised to stop putting foster children in hotels by July 1, 2007, because "a hotel room is no substitute for a family room."

Recently, the New Democrats were criticized for allowing children in care to languish in jail longer than necessary because there was no appropriate placement for them.

Ian Wishart, a critic for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, said the NDP has had years to address the problem, but has failed. Despite repeated questioning in legislative committees this week, Irvin-Ross couldn't say how the latest ban will be enforced, he said.

"There's really nothing in place this time to make sure it's really any different. We're very concerned that they're (not) going to meet their commitment."

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