Manitoba changes how it counts kids in care, will exclude cases like Tina Fontaine

The First Nations children’s advocate is calling the changes a “deplorable” election ploy.

The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG-Manitoba is changing how it counts the number of children in its care to exclude hundreds of cases such as Tina Fontaine’s amid concerns it is being unfairly compared to other provinces.

The 15-year-old, who was killed in 2014, was placed into the care of Child and Family Services voluntarily by her guardians. Unlike other provinces, Manitoba counts voluntary placements in its total number of 10,293 children in its care.

But changes are being made to how the numbers are reported publicly. The province will no longer include children who are voluntarily placed in care as part of the overall number. When those 700 are removed, the official number falls below 10,000. It will also exclude kids who are brought into the system under new customary care legislation in which children at risk of apprehension are placed with a family member in their community. Both will be reported in a separate category.

Manitoba has continued to come under fire for the large number of children in its care. It is also facing a provincial election in April and the First Nations children’s advocate is calling the changes a “deplorable” election ploy.

“Children’s lives, human lives, are reduced to be ploys in their campaign tactics. It’s deplorable,” said Cora Morgan.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Manitoba is just levelling the playing field. There is a world of difference between apprehension and a voluntary placement, she said.

“They’re reaching out to us and saying, ‘Please come and help us.’ They can come at any time and say, ‘I want my child back,”’ she said. “It’s very different than a case of a child coming to school with bruises and Child and Family Services being called … and feeling they have to apprehend for the child’s safety.”

The number of kids in Manitoba’s care has jumped 55 per cent since 2006. Almost 90 per cent are Indigenous. The province has one of the highest child apprehension rates in Canada and seizes an average of one newborn baby a day. Neighbouring Saskatchewan, a province of a similar size, has about 4,000 children in care. Alberta and British Columbia each have more than 7,000 kids in child welfare.

Irvin-Ross said the number of Manitoba children in care is troubling, but comparisons to other provinces are unfair because they don’t include voluntary placements in their totals. Manitoba also includes children who are placed with relatives in kinship care. They make up 40 per cent of the total. British Columbia doesn’t include them in its figures. Irvin-Ross said the province is focusing more on supporting families and keeping them together.

“I would say the same thing to you if there were 1,000 kids in care or if there were 10,000,” she said.

Morgan called the changes crass self-preservation designed to “distract us from the calculated theft of children for the last 15 years.”

“This province over all others has failed First Nations children and families,” she said.”The NDP should be honourable and acknowledge the mess they’ve created and focus energy on creating positive change rather than manipulating numbers to save face.”

Conservative critic Ian Wishart said other provinces do not count kids who are placed voluntarily into care because there are so few of them.

“They’re trying to make it look like they’re reducing the number and making progress downward but, the reality is, they are still responsible for that many kids in one form or another,” he said.

“It’s a bit of an exercise in public relations, to put it bluntly.'”