POLITICS

Manitoba moves to get children under government care out of hotels

11/18/2014 12:56 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government is promising to wind down the use of hotels to house children in need of emergency foster care, but the great-aunt of a teenager who was killed after running away from one wonders why it took the searing spotlight of a tragedy to make changes.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said the province is creating 71 new emergency foster home spots across the province. It also plans to reduce its reliance on outside contract workers by hiring 210 permanent childcare workers over two years.

But Tina Fontaine's great-aunt, Thelma Favel, questions why it took a death for the government to push forward. The children's advocate has criticized the use of hotels for more than a decade.

"I lost my baby," said Favel, who took Tina into her home in Powerview, Man., and raised her as a daughter for years.

"Nothing is ever going to bring her back. Why did it have to take her death for them to open up their eyes to see there were problems out there?"

Tina, 15, was in foster care for less than two months when Favel said she ran away from the Winnipeg hotel she was taken to temporarily in August. Her body was found wrapped in a bag in the Red River nine days later.

Manitoba has around 10,000 children in care — the highest proportion in the country — and the vast majority are aboriginal. On any given day, dozens of those children are put up in hotel rooms because there isn't room in a foster home.

In addition to the new emergency spaces, the province is creating a new secure facility for six to 10 high-risk girls.

"What's going to happen with all the other hundreds of kids?" Favel said. "What about the other hundreds of girls that are still out there? What about them? They need more than just six beds. There are so many of them that get lost like Tina."

Internal reviews into Tina's death are ongoing, Irvin-Ross said. Police have called the death a homicide, but no charges have been laid.

Manitoba was criticized by its own children's advocate as far back as 2000 for using hotel rooms to house children. The children's watchdog has released several reports since then that kept raising concerns about the practice. Another report is due out early next year.

The province's goal is to eliminate the use of hotels, but Irvin-Ross said sometimes children end up there for good reason.

"Sometimes it's because of a breakdown in a placement and it's an emergency that needs to be addressed immediately. We do not want to have children sleeping on the streets. If it's a large sibling group, our goal is to keep siblings together," she said Tuesday.

"Hotels really are the placement of last resort."

The province has been working to reduce the number of kids in hotels since 2000, but Irvin-Ross couldn't say why it has taken 14 years to bring more emergency spaces online and to hire provincial staff rather than rely on outside agencies and contract staff.

"You have to look at what's been happening in society and what's been happening within the child welfare system over the years. There's been many changes that have happened," she said. "I don't have to tell you that the numbers have increased. That puts extra pressure on our system."

Information posted on the government's website shows the number of children housed in hotels fluctuates, from a high of 81 one day in March to a lone child on the last day of September.

Darlene McDonald, Manitoba's children's advocate, said she hopes the use of hotels is on the decline.

But she said it's going to take significant resources to eliminate the use of hotels completely. It's not enough to simply put a roof over a child's head, she said.

The whole emergency placement department needs to be well-staffed and be able to provide such services as therapy and rehab, McDonald said. Some of the caregivers responsible for children in hotels now don't even speak the same language as the child, she added.

"That's no place for our children," McDonald said. "It just adds to the vulnerability and increased stress for the child."

Jay Rodgers, former CEO of Manitoba's Child and Family Services agency, said everyone acknowledges that hotels are not an ideal setting for children in care. The quality of care in hotels can be lacking and the surrounding neighbourhoods are not "great," he said. Most hotel stays are short, he added.

Rodgers is now heading up a child welfare facility that will be expanded under the overhaul to include a secure unit for a select number of girls like Fontaine.

"It's young women like that with that type of history and complex needs that we're hoping to serve."