The sound of TV shows and children's high-pitched voices spilled from the Winnipeg hotel rooms into the hallway, where the carpet was littered with paint chips crumbling off beige walls awaiting repair.
The first door off the Best Western Charter House elevator was propped open. Inside, two women were supervising three young foster children. Down the hall, another room housed four foster charges, including a three-month-old baby.
There were at least 10 foster children – most, if not all, aboriginal – staying at the downtown hotel on March 9. Among them was Tina Fontaine's cousin. Tina, a Sagkeeng First Nation teenager, was found dead in August after going missing from her Best Western placement. Her killing sparked fresh scrutiny of the child-welfare system and reignited calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing native women.
The women supervising the foster children at the hotel were Complete Care workers contracted by the Manitoba government, which in November publicly pledged to reduce its reliance on hotels for emergency placements and move away from third-party supervisors.
Since the fall announcement, The Globe and Mail has found the situation appears largely unchanged and has learned of other problems with the emergency child-welfare system: extremely vulnerable foster charges being placed in hotels, including one 20-year-old native woman who said she tried to end her life in a hotel bathroom; potential security concerns (the woman said her violent ex-boyfriend made his way to her hotel floor and knocked on her door); and an overwhelmed after-hours child-welfare phone line that sometimes kicks emergency calls to an answering service.
The 20-year-old woman, who is under an extension of care and says she is cognitively impaired partly because of severe child abuse, told The Globe she had been raped not long before being placed at the Best Western in late January. She had been in and out of hotels at least since October, and by mid-March was living in a foster home outside the city.
A disproportionate number of aboriginal children are in care across Canada, but Manitoba is at the centre: Nearly 90 per cent of the more than 10,000 children in care are native. A Globe investigation in October found some children were living in hotels for weeks at a time and that some third-party workers speak poor English and take little interest in their charges' lives. The government contends there is no quick fix to hotel placements, especially since the need for emergency spaces fluctuates daily and some foster parents prefer to take in only babies.
In an interview at the Best Western earlier this month, Tina's cousin, who will be identified in this story as Kailynn to conceal her identity as a government ward, said she is glad she removed herself from an abusive situation outside the city but is hoping for some stability. "I understand, I guess, why I'm going to be here for a bit," said Kailynn, who was later staying at a shelter in an area of Winnipeg she described as unsafe. "But then I want to do my own thing and move on with my life."
The November announcement highlighted a number of commitments, including the creation of 71 new emergency foster-home spaces. Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said the majority of the changes would be "fully implemented" by the spring. She also said the province would hire 210 permanent childcare workers over the next two years. As of mid-March, the government had created 57 new emergency spaces and had hired about a dozen childcare workers.
Ms. Irvin-Ross, who spoke with The Globe twice since February for this story, receives weekly statistics about hotel placements and said she had recently seen a "spike" in the use of rented rooms. She said the government is conducting case reviews to better understand the increase and has put a "rush" on hiring childcare workers. The government has also said it is working to prevent children from coming into care in the first place, by, for example, creating a family-focused pilot project based at Tina's Sagkeeng First Nation.
"Hotels are a placement of last resort," the minister said. "Of course I want things to happen faster. People are working and are committed to addressing the situation. I have to have patience."
Since assuming her Family Services post in the fall of 2013, the minister has not visited the Best Western floor where CFS charges are placed, nor has she spoken with Complete Care workers. Asked why, she said "partly because of confidentiality" and then added it was a "complicated question."
The B.C. Children and Youth Representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said she finds it concerning that vulnerable women – often native – are being placed in the resource of last resort. "People will victimize and prey upon vulnerable women and girls," she said, adding Manitoba's Office of the Children's Advocate needs an immediate "reset" and broader investigative and reporting powers. "I'm sure [the minister] is well-intentioned, but does she even know what's going on in her own province?"
Manitoba still lacks a centralized registry of available foster beds – it is a work in progress, Ms. Irvin-Ross said – and teens continue to bounce from one emergency placement to another.
Kailynn, for example, spent a couple of days at an emergency placement in Steinbach, Man., about a week at the Best Western, a few days at one youth shelter and, as of March 17, was staying at another shelter. Because she left home without packing any bags, she found herself wearing the same clothes for at least two weeks. At one point, she said she was frustrated her CFS social worker, whom she hopes will help her figure out how to finish her schooling this year in the city, had not called in days to update her.
The woman who raised Tina, her great-aunt Thelma Favel, fears for Kailynn's safety and is concerned the girl will go off the rails, as Tina did after struggling with her father's death and being placed in CFS care in July.
"Tina was only gone for a month and a half, and she just completely changed," Ms. Favel said, her voice quivering at the news that Tina's cousin had been placed at the Best Western. "I think being in those places changes the kids somehow, so fast." She said she understands the overhaul announced in the fall will not happen overnight, but five months on, she feels the promises are "just talk."
The Best Western is steps from the Office of the Children's Advocate, which the government recently promised to empower via new legislation. It is also a short walk from Portage Place, a struggling mall frequented by some CFS charges living at the hotel, including Kailynn while she was staying there.
When young women go missing, they are sometimes listed in police media releases as having been last seen at or near the mall – a hangout one police officer patrolling the area in the fall described as a "challenge." One of Tina's cousins, Cheyenne Fontaine, said she was behind the mall a few months ago when a man grabbed her by the arm and unsuccessfully tried to drag her away, saying, "I'll buy you for $30."
Ms. Irvin-Ross said staff are working on developing new emergency placements for at-risk youth and large sibling groups, but noted it is a "balancing act" when it comes to foster-care resources.
If there are eight empty beds designated for sibling groups and then eight people suddenly require emergency placements, for example, she would rather see them placed in foster beds than in hotel rooms.
"When I made that announcement in November, I never said we were going to never use another hotel bed," she said. "I truly wish I could, but I can't."