09/27/2013 01:46 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

Women's shelter says politics, race at heart of dispute with government

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government is embroiled in a nasty spat with a Winnipeg women's shelter that has involved accusations of racism, political favouritism and a toxic work environment.

The province recently ordered Osborne House to devise a plan to address what it says are long-standing issues about the safety of women and children at the facility. The plan was submitted Friday and the government is reviewing it before deciding its next step.

Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt insists the NDP is targeting her organization partly because she attended a news conference with the opposition Progressive Conservatives in the 2011 election campaign when the Tories promised $5 million to upgrade the shelter.

"I stood beside the (Progressive Conservatives) in good faith when they made that pledge to us because, for us here, it's all about the women and children who require our services," Judt said this week.

The dispute has led to occasional partisan sniping on Twitter

"Speaking of agendas — does Judt plan on doing any more photo-ops with the Tories?" reads a tweet from the account of Keith McManus, a social media outreach employee with the NDP caucus, in response to a media report about the ongoing dispute.

Race has also emerged as an issue. The shelter serves a high proportion of aboriginal women.

In an email last year that was only recently made public, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson denounced a burlesque show that raised money for the shelter. Robinson wrote to a government employee that the theme was inappropriate and demonstrated "the ignorance of do-good white people."

Judt filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission over the email. She says the NDP is singling out her shelter and is intent on replacing her and others at the facility.

Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard says the government is simply responding to concerns raised in reviews of Osborne House.

"We're trying to find a way to address some real health and safety concerns that have come to light," Howard said.

"We work with people with all kinds of political beliefs and political stripes, and the civil servants who work with these agencies are not involved in the political process."

A workplace assessment report last March found almost half the staff said they experienced a hostile work environment. Case management meetings, shift change-over discussions and training had all been reduced as the workers felt divided into "camps," the report said.

More recently, an external file review of the shelter, ordered by the province, found the quality of counselling to clients was unacceptable. In nine of 20 cases reviewed, clients stayed two days or less and received no counselling.

In one case, a counsellor documented possible child abuse, but there appeared to be no follow-up and no reporting of the possible abuse to authorities.

The review also found a security problem. The inner door was seen unlocked on one occasion, which meant an abusive partner could potentially have entered the shelter, the report found.

No other women's shelter in Manitoba has undergone such a review in recent memory. Howard said that's because other shelters have worked with the government when concerns were raised.

"In other situations, when concerns (have) come to light, we've been able to work them through with the board or senior management," Howard said.

"I hope what we can do is move together to fix some of the problems we both know exist at Osborne House."

Judt concedes that some of her workers may have some "knowledge shortfalls," but she says the shelter generally provides good service. Management is having a hard time addressing some of the demands of the province because the government won't identify which client files were reviewed, she said.

"Myself and our ... training and development committee need to look at that so we can ascertain, you know, is this just a couple of people or is this right across the board?"

Howard said the government is not trying to replace anyone at Osborne House and would like to see the matter cleared up.

"Those are serious issues and they need to be addressed and it's bigger than politics.

"It's not about blame, it's not about any kind of personal dramas," she said. "This is about ensuring a safe place for women and kids who are leaving abusive situations."