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Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri-Irvin Ross said April 1, 2015, that she has ordered her department to find “alternative safe places” for children within 60 days

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Amid intense public scrutiny, the Manitoba government is vowing to remove all foster children from hotels after a serious assault on a teenaged girl who had been placed in a Winnipeg hotel.

Calling the assault a "cowardly attack on a vulnerable child," Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Wednesday she has ordered her department to find "alternative safe places" for children by June 1. "I am deeply troubled that this has happened to a child in the care of [Child and Family Services]," she said. "We have a responsibility to protect children in our care and to provide them with places of safety."

The pledge comes eight months after the killing of Tina Fontaine, a native teen who died after going missing from her placement at the Best Western Charter House. The woman who raised Tina, her great-aunt Thelma Favel, said she has no confidence the government will deliver on its promise.

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The Globe and Mail has been investigating the province's emergency child-welfare system since October. It found some children were living in hotels for weeks at a time and that some third-party supervisors speak poor English. A recent visit to one downtown Winnipeg hotel revealed a spike in the number of foster children staying in hotels, even after the government promised in November to reduce its reliance on them. The Globe found there were at least 10 foster children – most, if not all, aboriginal – staying at a single hotel on March 9, including Tina's cousin.

Tina's killing reignited calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women and sparked fresh scrutiny of the child-welfare system. In the wake of her death, the government pledged to move away from hotels by creating 71 new emergency foster-care spaces, opening a residential facility for at-risk teenaged girls and increasing emergency foster placements in rural areas. "Today's horrible tragedy shows that we need to move faster," the minister said Wednesday through tears.

To Ms. Favel, those were "crocodile tears" from a government that, in her mind, should have quashed hotel placements years ago. "I have no confidence in them whatsoever," Ms. Favel told The Globe. "It's called Child and Family Services. Family. They should be helping the families stay together."

Nearly 90 per cent of the more than 10,000 children in care in Manitoba are native. Aboriginal leaders on Wednesday expressed skepticism of the government's motives and of its ability to move children out of hotels within 60 days. The foster children who end up in hotels are often the most vulnerable of the vulnerable; some are part of large sibling groups, some are apprehended in the middle of the night; others have addiction or mental-health issues.

"We've already lost one child," Grand Chief David Harper, who represents dozens of northern Manitoba communities, said in reference to Tina. "How many more have to die? How many more have to be critically injured? The government is in reaction mode."

Grand Chief Harper said he confirmed with the minister that the victim, who has not been identified by Winnipeg police, is native and was in the care of the Southern Authority.

Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he typically receives calls from Winnipeg police when an indigenous person is the victim of a serious crime; police phoned Wednesday morning to brief him on the assault.

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The girl is in critical condition with serious injuries and members of the homicide unit are investigating the downtown attack.

"Now that a second incident is happening, all of a sudden they're ramping up the effort again," Grand Chief Nepinak said. "It's a reactionary, Band-Aid solution. There are systemic failures within the institution of Family Services and we all have to work together to get past it."

It is unclear how, exactly, the government will meet its June 1 deadline. A spokeswoman for the minister said details for the plan are still being finalized, but it will involve recruiting more foster parents and opening new spaces at group homes and shelters. In the meantime, Ms. Irvin-Ross said children who are placed in rented rooms will receive "extra supervision, security and counselling."

Grand Chief Nepinak said he is concerned the alternative spaces will not necessarily be much safer than hotels. He said the solution lies in supporting families and ensuring children are able to remain at home. "What we have now is an intergenerational foster-care system," he said. "There are foster children having foster babies. The population that's falling into this system has outpaced capacity."

The province's Office of the Children's Advocate, which has been sounding the alarm on hotel placements for more than a decade, welcomed Wednesday's announcement and said it is "pleased" there will be greater supervision during the transition away from hotels. "I will continue to be in communication with the minister's office about this situation," the advocate, Darlene MacDonald, said in a statement. "I want to say that my heart goes out to the child and her family."

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