In the wake of Tina Fontaine's death while a ward of the province, Manitoba is promising direct oversight of the private firms that supervise foster children placed in hotels – a pledge borne out of a review that found gaps and inconsistencies in the quality of care.
The government on Thursday released a 15-page report that recommends renegotiating third-party contracts, which were revealed to lack clarity on "crucial" matters, including who is responsible for the on-site supervision of temporary caregivers at hotels. That ambiguity, the report said, "may contribute to unwanted situations and unfortunate outcomes."
Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross told The Globe and Mail that the findings confirm the need to reduce hotel placements, decrease reliance on private firms and ensure contracted workers are better trained. "Hotels are our last resort," she said, adding the province is committed to adopting the report's eight recommendations around training, monitoring and communication. "That's not where children should be … We need to be able to provide them with consistent, stable care."
Although the two highest-paid firms met their contractual obligations, Ms. Irvin-Ross said the agreements will be renegotiated to ensure the new standards are enshrined.
She said "highly trained department staff" have already been assigned to monitor contract workers who supervise children in emergency placements such as hotels.
"I'm very, very glad to hear about that," said Tina's great-aunt, Thelma Favel, who raised the girl.
"It's a step in the right direction. I just hope they don't fall back into their old ways."
A recent Globe 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 there are some well-equipped, kindhearted caregivers, there are also those who get little training, speak poor English and take little interest in the children.
The announcement on Thursday is Manitoba's latest response to calls for changes to its child-welfare system, which came under scrutiny after Tina, a 15-year-old struggling with the beating death of her father, ran away from her hotel placement in August and was found dead in a Winnipeg river a week later.
Her homicide case also reignited calls for an inquiry into this country's murdered and missing native women, with proponents arguing there are systemic causes that leave women and girls such as Tina vulnerable to violence.
The report, dated Dec. 12, showed Manitoba paid the company Complete Care In-Home and Hospital Health Services Inc. $6.4-million in 2013-14 for staffing at hotels – by far the most of the three companies listed in the report. Complete Care also received close to $2.6-million for staffing at shelters. The company that was paid the second-largest sum for temporary emergency staffing, Drake Medox Health Services, received $3,900 for hotels and $4.4-million for shelters. Neither firm immediately responded to a request for comment.
As Ms. Irvin-Ross said she suspected, the review found there was an opportunity for savings: The government could actually save more than $1-million if Winnipeg's 60 shelters were staffed exclusively with departmental employees, rather than supplemented by contracted staff.
The report also found that while Complete Care and Drake Medox were meeting their basic training requirements – first aid and non-violent crisis intervention, for example – employees did not have access to the sort of ongoing training available to departmental staff. In some cases, third-party employees' files did not have current child-abuse registry and criminal-records checks (the required documentation was provided once brought to management's attention).
Vivian Ketchum, a former Complete Care worker who supervised children at hotels in 2009 and 2010, said she is skeptical the recommendations regarding care at hotels will bring improvements. "I've seen these workers," she said. "Some of them can barely speak English."
Ms. Irvin-Ross said the recommendations, as well as the hotel-reduction measures announced in November, are expected to be implemented by the spring of 2015.