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The Manitoba Legislature is seen on Oct. 5, 2017.Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government is promising to reduce the fast-rising and overwhelmingly Indigenous number of kids in provincial care and to help families reunite sooner.

Families Minister Scott Fielding announced a package of measures Thursday aimed at addressing criticism raised by many First Nations leaders and by a 2013 public inquiry report that said the child-welfare system needs an overhaul.

The definitions and reasons for taking children from their families are to be clarified and are likely to be narrowed, Fielding said. Assessments of seized kids, which can currently take months, are to be sped up.

"Other jurisdictions have done some work in terms of that process – clarification of when a child is taken into care. We want to make sure that we're at the same level of other provinces."

The Manitoba government plans to expand subsidies to permanent guardians and adoptive parents so as to encourage people who are temporary guardians to provide long-lasting homes.

The Progressive Conservatives also plan to follow through on a promise by the former NDP government to enact customary care in First Nations communities. Customary care allows children to stay within their community under the guidance of extended family and community leaders.

The announcement was welcomed by Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 33 First Nations in Manitoba.

"I want to ensure that the outcomes for our people are outcomes that bring families together, that support the cohesiveness of families and also support our children in the communities," Daniels said.

The number of children in care in Manitoba is among the highest per-capita compared with other provinces. It has nearly doubled in the last decade to 11,000. Nearly 90 per cent are Indigenous.

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, with roughly the same population, the number is roughly 4,000, Fielding said.

Manitoba First Nations leaders have long complained that some children are taken from their families because of poverty or poor housing conditions, not because of abuse or neglect.

"We had a young mom, brand new baby, staying in a bachelor apartment," said Richard De La Ronde, executive director of the Sandy Bay First Nation's child and family services agency.

"If you recall, last summer was super hot. It was like over 40 degrees in her apartment. Not a healthy place for a child to be," he continued.

"Legislation says that that child is not in a safe environment and workers wanted to apprehend that baby ... and I said, 'Why don't you go buy her an air conditioner for $89 at Walmart?"'

Manitoba child welfare has been under scrutiny since the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old who was beaten by her mother and mother's boyfriend after social workers decided the girl was safe and closed her file.

A public inquiry said social workers repeatedly lost track of where the girl was, missed warning signs that she was in trouble and never caught on that her mother's boyfriend had a history of domestic violence.

The inquiry report urged the government to address the fact that the number of children taken from their families is overwhelmingly Indigenous.

Fielding said his plan should reduce the number of kids in the system, but he does not have a specific target.

"We think that the numbers are unacceptable ... in terms of the amount of children in care. And if we can do this effectively right ... we think that's going to make a difference and it's going to substantially drop the amount of children in care."

Advocates say they’re disappointed that the Sixties Scoop settlement leaves out Métis. Ottawa is paying $750 million in compensation to survivors, who were robbed of their cultural identities when placed with non-Indigenous families.

The Canadian Press

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