03/30/2016 15:59 EDT | Updated 03/31/2017 01:12 EDT

Child welfare in Manitoba election spotlight as Liberals vow to cut kids in care

WINNIPEG — Manitoba's beleaguered child-welfare system came under the provincial election spotlight Wednesday with promises from all parties to cut a record number of kids in care.

The Liberals said they would bring the number down by half to roughly 5,000 by putting more money into supporting families rather than apprehending children.

"We have more children in care today than we did at the height of residential schools," said Liberal candidate Kyra Wilson, who is currently on leave from her job with the Manitoba First Nations children's advocate office. 

Wilson is taking on the NDP's child and family services minister, Kerri Irvin-Ross, in the Winnipeg constituency of Fort Richmond.

"It's been really damaging to our children and for their development."

Whichever party forms government on April 19 will have to deal with a child-welfare system that has been dubbed a "national disgrace" by at least one aboriginal leader. Manitoba has one of the highest apprehension rates in Canada and seizes an average of one newborn baby a day.

With more than 10,000 children in care — the vast majority of them indigenous — the next Manitoba government will have to grapple with an increasingly expensive Child and Family Services Department that has been criticized both for apprehending too many children and for repeatedly returning others to abusive homes.

The next Manitoba government may have little choice but to address what many have repeatedly called a crisis. The federal government has signalled it wants to reform the current child-welfare model for aboriginal children and the No. 1 recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to reduce the number of indigenous children in care.

Wilson was short on what specifically the Manitoba Liberals would do to drastically reverse the current apprehension rate beyond listening more to families and putting at least 75 per cent of the department's budget toward prevention. 

In fact, she said the Liberals would give children the option to remain in care until age 25. She said she doesn't believe that would add to the department's budget of $484 million because, overall, there would be fewer kids in care.

Progressive Conservative candidate Ian Wishart said about 10 per cent of the department's budget right now goes toward prevention and family support. The focus of the system is on apprehension which is expensive, he said.

A Conservative government would give First Nations communities more power to intervene and would support struggling families rather than continue seizing children, Wishart said.  

"If you can keep the kids in the household and the household functioning, that is much less expensive than the apprehension model."

The New Democrats have said repeatedly that they are moving toward prevention rather than apprehension. In the NDP government's last days before the election campaign, it proposed customary care legislation, which would have placed children at risk of apprehension with a family member in their community.

The bill died when the election was called.

Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press