04/15/2015 03:36 EDT | Updated 06/25/2015 04:59 EDT

Manitoba premier concerned kids in care stay in jail due to lack of foster spots

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says he's concerned about complaints that children in government care are languishing in jail because of a lack of foster homes.

Children's advocate Darlene MacDonald told The Canadian Press this week that she receives calls from judges who want to release youths from police custody, but can't because there is nowhere for them to go. Others who work in the justice system say once a child is in custody, Child and Family Services doesn't move quickly enough to find a placement.

Selinger said the Family Services Department is looking into the matter.

"That's always a concern," Selinger said just before a caucus meeting Wednesday.

"If there are any children staying in any kind of correctional facility longer than necessary, we want to make sure that's not the case, and that we get children in safe, community environments with their families as quickly as possible."

Manitoba has more than 10,000 children in care. The vast majority are aboriginal. A chronic shortage of foster-care spaces has forced the province to use hotels to house children — a practice which has been criticized for more than a decade.

The NDP government is being accused of violating the charter rights of children by allowing them to stay in police custody longer than necessary.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said he has raised the issue with the justice and family services departments, but no action has been taken.

"I'm disappointed that the province is treating these issues as if they're not aware of the problems."

If the government didn't know this was going on before now, that highlights an even more serious problem, Nepinak suggested.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross has declined repeated interview requests on the matter. Her spokesperson, Rachel Morgan, said in an emailed statement that youth in custody have complex needs and often require counselling, addiction treatment or help leaving gangs.

"These youths can't be placed with foster families who don't have specialized training," she wrote. "Specialized placements must meet sentencing conditions to protect the public and ensure that they do not reoffend."

The province is working hard to create more placements for foster children, Selinger said. But the main goal is to keep children at home with their families.

"The interests of the child are No. 1."

Ian Wishart, critic for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, said the government has known for some time that it has a critical shortage of foster placements. Police custody is not an appropriate place for a vulnerable child and the government isn't moving fast enough, he said.

"Kids in the justice system — everybody is a loser in that situation. Their lives are scarred and it's difficult to get them going back on the right foot."