04/22/2015 12:05 EDT | Updated 07/17/2015 04:59 EDT

Manitoba minister was told CFS kids stayed in jail due to lack of foster spots

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's family services minister was warned a while ago that children in care were being kept in jail longer than necessary because of a shortage of appropriate foster care spots.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Kerri Irvin-Ross said the government has been working on the issue, but there is no quick fix. Kids who end up in police custody have complex needs and often can't be released into any foster home, she said.

Irvin-Ross refused to say if she was concerned that keeping kids in jail longer than necessary was a violation of their charter rights, as some have alleged.

"When we're talking about moving a child from the youth centre back into the community, we need to take a lot of care and attention," she said, adding that when a child is ready to be released, there needs to be a plan in place.

"If that plan is not in place — and I'm not pointing fingers — the time needs to be made to ensure that plan is developed and implemented. That's our responsibility."

Children's advocate Darlene MacDonald recently told The Canadian Press she gets calls from judges who want to release young people from police custody, but can't because there is nowhere appropriate for them to go. She said judges have said they don't want to see youth put up in hotels, so the children remain in jail until Child and Family Services can find somewhere for them to stay.

Irvin-Ross said both MacDonald and aboriginal leaders have raised concerns with her about how much time children in the care are spending in jail. The government is always looking for ways to reduce the length of time youth in care spend behind bars, she said.

"The goal is making sure we can reduce recidivism."

Manitoba has more than 10,000 children in care, the vast majority of whom 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 province's child welfare system has come under harsh scrutiny after an attack on a 15-year-old girl in care who was being housed CFS in a downtown Winnipeg hotel and the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, who was also in care.

Irvin-Ross has promised that hotels won't be used after June 1. The province is creating 71 new emergency foster home spots and reducing its reliance on outside contract workers by hiring 210 permanent childcare workers over two years.

Manitoba is also focusing more on supporting families before a crisis, she said.

"We have a lot of work to do," Irvin-Ross said. "There are children in care across Canada. It really is a national tragedy. The solutions are all of us working together."

Critics say the governing NDP isn't showing the kind of urgency needed to fix the problem.

Corey Shefman, head of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, said the Youth Criminal Justice Act specifically states a youth can't be detained "in custody prior to being sentenced as a substitute for appropriate child protection, mental health or other social measures."

"Not only is a violation of human rights but it appears to be a pretty clear violation of the law," said Shefman, who also sits on the Manitoba Liberal party's board of directors. "This is an emergency. Keeping children in jail because you don't have a home for them is ... unconscionable."

Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari called for a public inquiry into the issue and Irvin-Ross's resignation.

Progressive Conservative critic Ian Wishart said the government has known for at least two years that kids in care were staying in jail due to a lack of appropriate foster placements.

"I hate to say it, but we've certainly seen that the only time the minister really moves with any determination is in crisis," Wishart said.