Manitoba is overhauling its emergency child-welfare program to better protect teenaged girls and reduce the number of children placed in hotels – a move that comes in the wake of Tina Fontaine's high-profile death and amid urgent calls for national action to address violence against aboriginal women.
The province announced Tuesday it will create 71 new emergency foster-home spaces, open a secure residential facility for at-risk girls and increase foster placements in rural areas. The government is also hiring an additional 210 child-care workers to reduce its reliance on third-party firms, which came under intense scrutiny after Tina ran away from her hotel placement in August and was found dead in a Winnipeg river a week later.
A recent Globe and Mail investigation into the province's Child and Family Services emergency program found that on any given night, dozens of children and youth – mostly aboriginals – are placed in hotels and receive what many sources described as questionable care. The Globe found that while a typical hotel stay lasts about a week, some CFS charges live in hotels or motels for months. Caregivers are required to call police when a child goes missing, but not necessarily immediately.
Manitoba ratcheted up its efforts to reduce hotel placements in March, when an average of 65 children were staying in rented rooms each night. But its child-welfare system has come under the microscope in recent years, including in the aftermath of the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old native girl who was murdered by her mother and the woman's boyfriend after prolonged abuse that was reported to CFS at least 13 times. And then there was Tina, who was voluntarily placed in care in July.
"Both of their deaths is a tragedy that has changed the face of child welfare," Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross told The Globe. "If you're a front-line worker, you're terrified every day that you're going to make the wrong choice … If you're making policy, you're thinking, 'What can I do differently to support families and [care] workers?'"
The man who led the inquiry into Phoenix's death, retired judge Ted Hughes, said he welcomes the government's announcement but emphasized that the status quo – nearly 90 per cent of the roughly 10,000 children in care in Manitoba are aboriginal – is unacceptable.
"For goodness sakes, why are so many [native children] in care?" he said. "The causes … are no different than all the reasons these aboriginal women are on the streets and getting attacked."
Mr. Hughes was referring to Canada's more than 1,180 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls. Tina is now one of them. Since her death, native leaders and premiers renewed their calls for a national inquiry into the violence against aboriginal women, but Ottawa has dismissed those pleas. Instead, federal Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch agreed to sit down with provincial, territorial and native leaders at a national roundtable, slated for February.
"The roundtable is an opportunity to really attack this," Mr. Hughes said. "They need to look at the basic problems of alcohol, drug abuse, poverty, etc."
Ms. Irvin-Ross has 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. But she also said much more has to be done, by various levels of government and the aboriginal community at large. Aside from the roundtable on murdered and missing aboriginal women, she and her provincial and territorial counterparts have agreed to make the issue of native children in care a top priority over the coming year.
Thelma Favel, Tina's great aunt and the woman who raised her, said the government's announcement Tuesday is too little, too late. "Nothing is ever going to bring her back," she said. "Why did it have to take her death for them to open up their eyes to see there were problems out there?"
Mr. Hughes said he hopes the national roundtable will take a hard, pro-active look at why aboriginal children, youth and women are so vulnerable. "It's a huge task, sure, it's monumental," he said. "But can we afford to let it continue the way it is? No."
With a report from The Canadian Press