05/28/2015 12:31 EDT | Updated 05/28/2016 05:59 EDT

Fewer Manitoba foster kids in hotels, but usage could continue: minister

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government will continue to use hotel rooms as emergency placements for kids in the child welfare system beyond a promised June 1 deadline.

The government is on track to virtually eliminate hotel use within Winnipeg by the start of next month, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Thursday. But in some rural and northern areas it is a different story.

"As we were sort of working through our plan, we identified that there are not the same depth of resources in the north, and that it's going to take us time to meet that goal," she said, adding the target for those areas is Dec. 1.

Irvin-Ross promised to stop using hotel rooms last fall, shortly after Tina Fontaine, 15, ran away from a downtown hotel where she was housed and ended up being killed and dumped in the Red River.

Last month, another 15-year-old girl in care was attacked and left clinging to life — allegedly by a boy being housed at the same hotel. Kids in hotels are often supervised by employees of private contractors and not fully trained social workers.

"Putting children in a hotel is not what we want to do, and it always was the last resort," said Bobbi Pompana, chief executive officer of the regional authority that governs First Nations child welfare agencies across southern Manitoba.

The province has about 10,000 children in care, and most are aboriginal. The number has skyrocketed in the last decade and the system has not been able to keep up with an adequate number of foster homes and emergency shelters.

The number of kids in hotels varies from day to day, but in recent months there have sometimes been more than a dozen.

Irvin-Ross said the government has pumped a lot of new money into the system in the last year, creating 90 new emergency shelter beds and hiring 80 permanent child-protection workers. Those resources, along with new support programs for families, should ensure no kids are put in hotels, she said.

Enforcing that ban, however, could mean reacting after the fact.

"If an agency uses a hotel, the (regional) authority will address it with them, will work with them ... to find out what was the issue and try to alleviate it," Irvin-Ross said.

If an agency continues "chronic" use of hotel rooms, it could be taken over by its supervising regional authority, she added.

Irvin-Ross added the government does not know how many kids have been kept in hotels in rural areas, because the numbers are only tracked regularly inside Winnipeg.

Liberal legislature member Jon Gerrard said Irvin-Ross has broken her promise to stop using hotels altogether.

"Is the minister now saying that children in (rural) Manitoba are second-class citizens?" he said in the legislature.