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Canada Recent hotel stays highlight Manitoba’s child-welfare challenges

Kerri Irvin-Ross, Manitobas Minister of Family Services at her office in Winnipeg Manitoba, October 15, 2014.

LYLE STAFFORD/The Globe and Mail

Two foster children have had to stay in hotels since Manitoba's fall announcement that it had ended its dangerous reliance on rented rooms for temporary placements – a pair of emergency stays deemed necessary for the children's well-being but that nonetheless underscore concerns about transparency and resources outside the capital.

In the wake of violent, headline-making incidents involving foster charges housed at a Winnipeg hotel in recent years, the NDP government announced on Nov. 30 that it had phased out such placements. Since then, two First Nations child-welfare agencies have resorted to overnight hotel placements for reasons the government defends, and even the provincial watchdog and political opposition can understand.

Still, the two stays – one in The Pas following a sexual-abuse allegation against a foster parent late at night, and the other in a rural area due to road conditions – lay bare the challenges faced by remote child-welfare agencies, highlighting the need for a centralized foster-bed registry and raising questions about accountability.

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The Pas, a northern town of 5,500, currently has no emergency beds. A long-promised database of available foster-care spaces, which are spread across 28 agencies under four different authorities, is still in development. Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald learned of the two hotel stays through The Globe and Mail, and Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross found out about one of them a month after the fact. Beyond that, the minister told The Globe that while there is a no-hotels policy, with no exceptions, there is an internal communications protocol for hotel placements in emergencies. The existence of a protocol was news to Ms. MacDonald and Progressive Conservative candidate Ian Wishart, who was the Family Services critic until the provincial election was called Wednesday.

"Common sense needs to prevail," said Ms. MacDonald, noting she is most concerned that the alleged sexual-abuse victim received the treatment and support she needed. "The safety of the child is paramount … but we have gone on record, and we continue to go on record, that a hotel is not a placement for a child in care."

The Globe learned of the most recent hotel placement by canvassing Child and Family Services (CFS) authorities for any violations of the directive. In an interview, Ms. Irvin-Ross confirmed the hotel stay and provided limited information about another case.

The first occurred in mid-December, when a foster charge under the care of the Métis Child and Family Services Authority was temporarily placed in a rural hotel because of a snowstorm that thwarted travel to a placement. Two months later, a worker with the Cree Nation Child and Family Caring Agency took a teenaged indigenous girl to a hotel in The Pas after the agency was alerted, around midnight on Feb. 12, that she was an alleged victim of sexual abuse by a foster parent.

"This is not at all comparable to what we were dealing with in the province of Manitoba previously," Ms. Irvin-Ross said. "There are to be no children in hotels [for temporary placements] in Manitoba. Even with these two instances, which are anomalies, I will still defend that there are no children in hotels."

Ms. Irvin-Ross and Ron Monias, the CEO of the authority that oversees the Cree agency, provided different reasons for the overnight in The Pas. The minister said the girl and a worker were en route from the foster home to a second placement but pulled over at a hotel because it was late and fatigue had set in.

Mr. Monias said the teen was removed from a foster home in a small community and did not want to go to an emergency placement where there were males. There were no all-female resources available in the remote area, so, out of options, the worker drove the child two or three hours to a hotel in The Pas. It was not until the morning that the worker located an open space with the Michif Child and Family Services Agency, based in The Pas.

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"We have always been concerned about the lack of resources in the north, and we are working hard to try and change that," Mr. Monias said. "Going forward, we will have cases like this. The bottom line is that the agency's responsibility, first and foremost, is to keep the child safe."

The government said the police and CFS are investigating the sexual-abuse allegations.

Manitoba's child-welfare system has drawn criticism over the years, but the scrutiny reached new heights when Tina Fontaine, a Sagkeeng First Nation teen, was killed in August of 2014 after going missing from a placement at a Winnipeg hotel. A subsequent Globe and Mail investigation into the emergency child-welfare system exposed prolonged hotel stays, questionable supervision and security concerns.

On April 1, 2015, hours after an indigenous foster child was attacked while placed at a Winnipeg hotel, Ms. Irvin-Ross pledged to end hotel placements within two months. Then, just days before the June 1, 2015, deadline, she revealed the timeline only applied to the capital and that rural and northern agencies would have until Dec. 1, 2015.

Between the spring and fall, the government opened an additional 169 emergency beds across Manitoba. The province is now developing a pair of three-bed emergency facilities in The Pas (one for males and one for females), and is working to bolster resources even farther north, in Thompson.

Mr. Wishart said he understands the impetus for the recent hotel stays but is concerned about a "slippery slope" – that a laxity about the no-hotels policy will eventually set in. "Whether [the Progressive Conservatives] form the government or not," he said, "we intend to monitor the use of hotels very closely."

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