The second floor of Winnipeg's downtown Best Western has been spruced up, its hallway freshly wallpapered and its carpet replaced. Foster children, mostly native, are no longer seen coming and going from the rooms. A cleaning staff said the province stopped using the hotel for emergency foster-care placements "since the incident."
The incident was the April 1 sexual assault that nearly killed a 15-year-old foster child placed at the hotel; her alleged attacker was a foster charge of the same age, living at the same hotel.
The vicious beating, which has left the indigenous girl debilitated at the Children's Hospital, unable to communicate on the eve of her sweet sixteen birthday on Friday, spurred the government's promise to move all foster charges out of hotels within 60 days.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, provincial Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said the government is on track to meet its June 1 deadline, with zero hotel placements since May 11. The minister, who is slated to provide a progress report to the public Thursday, said 90 new emergency beds have been created over the past several months, including roughly 30 since April 1. She also said the government has hired 80 new permanent staff to replace third-party workers.
"We're continuing to build a better system, with a focus on prevention and ensuring families have the necessary support so they can provide for their children," the minister said.
The Globe has been investigating the emergency-placement program since October and found evidence of prolonged hotel stays, questionable supervision and possible security concerns.
The government recently issued a directive to all child-welfare agencies that hotels are no longer an acceptable placement of last resort as of June 1, but victims' families question the province's motives and whether it will keep foster children out of hotels in the long term.
Public criticism of the child-welfare system reached fever pitch after the August killing of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, a native girl who went missing from her hotel placement just days before her body was found in the city's Red River.
Nearly 90 per cent of the more than 10,000 children in care here in Manitoba are indigenous. The foster children placed in hotels are often the most vulnerable of the vulnerable; some are part of large sibling groups, some are taken amid middle-of-the-night safety concerns, some have addiction or mental-health issues. Some of them, such as Tina, land among Canada's growing number of murdered and missing indigenous women.
Ms. Irvin-Ross said she has asked her department to review the Child and Family Services Act and examine whether the legislation should be changed to explicitly rule out hotels as a designated "place of safety."
The Office of the Children's Advocate, which has been sounding the alarm on hotel placements for more than a decade, said child-welfare agencies have expressed concern with meeting the deadline. "We will continue to actively monitor the situation," spokeswoman Ainsley Krone said in an e-mail.
For months, the government has been reaching out to community organizations that manage emergency-placement programs to see if they can create additional spaces. Erma Chapman, the chief executive officer of Macdonald Youth Services, said even before last month's announcement, plans were in motion to convert one of its residential buildings into a four-bed facility to help eradicate hotel placements. "Hotels had been the buffer, but now they have to build a new buffer," she said.
For the April 1 assault victim, who loved to play the violin but now struggles with arm movements, the government's pledge came too little, too late, her mother said.
"Look at how many kids had to get hurt or get killed before they actually did something," she said in an interview at the Winnipeg hospital, where her daughter lies mostly still, her eyes open but apparently unable to see.
The girl, who cannot be identified because she is a minor in care, had been mainly raised by her grandmother because her mother had fallen into substance abuse. Now, her mother is working to stay clean and is taking parenting classes in the hope of regaining custody of her daughter and youngest son, aged nine.
The boy, she said, wandered off from his north-end group home Tuesday night and made his way to the hospital, across a set of train tracks, to see his sister. Security found the boy and he was ultimately returned to the group home, his mother said. His drawings, including one of himself crying at his frowning sister's bedside, are posted in the hospital room along with get-well cards and a photo of the girl's volleyball team.
The minister said foster children placed in shelters and group homes will be safer than at hotels, in part because of better security. The Macdonald shelter, for example, has 16 security cameras, and visitors cannot enter without permission. Certain individuals, including those known to recruit vulnerable girls into the sex trade, are not allowed on the premises.
Tina, who had been voluntarily placed in care because her great-aunt wanted help with the struggling teen, showed up to the Macdonald facility. But despite the staff's encouragement to stay overnight, she left and was found dead days later, on Aug. 17. Her last CFS placement was the Best Western.
"I have no faith in that system at all," said Tina's great-aunt, Thelma Favel. "They promise you one thing and they do something else."