Manitoba currently has no foster kids in hotels but that could change: Minister

Kenneth Jackson
Jaydon Flett
APTN National News
WINNIPEG – There are currently no foster children in hotels anywhere in Manitoba, but that could change at any moment, says Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross.

When the province imposed a June 1 deadline to end its criticized practice of placing foster kids in hotels, it never anticipated rural and northern Child and Family Services’ agencies couldn’t meet it.

“They made it very clear that they had concerns of being able to make the deadline of June 1 in the rural and the north because of the different circumstances and the different needs and lack of resources, in some aspects,” said Irvin-Ross. “So, they asked us to give them an extension.”

As of May 11, there have been no CFS kids in hotels in Winnipeg, she said.

The province designed a “Hotel Reduction Team” to provide “expert” advice and planning for the rural and northern CFS agencies to meet an extended Dec. 1 deadline.

And if they want to put a kid in a hotel they have to ask.

“If an agency needs to place a child in a hotel, they need to get permission from the CEO of the authority. So, it is my information (as of Thursday), that there have been no agencies (that) asked permission. It is my understanding that there are no children in hotels in Manitoba,” she said.

Manitoba has more than 10,000 kids in care and 9,000 of them are Aboriginal.

It’s been a long-standing practice of putting CFS kids in hotels under the supervision of a contracted, third-party company.

The province once again came under fire last August when Tina Fontaine’s 15-year-old body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg.

She was a ward of the province and had been put in a hotel just before her death.

As it turned out, one shelter within 30 minutes from Winnipeg had five beds open and was geared toward troubled youth. But agencies don’t communicate, according to the Progressive Conservative family services critic.

MLA Ian Wishart said soon after Fontaine’s body was found he received a call from the shelter and the person asked him why CFS didn’t bring Fontaine there and away from her troubles in the city.

“The reason why they didn’t is because of all this agency confusion,” said Wishart.

The reason for the confusion is the way the system is set up.

CFS is split into four zones – central, northern, southern and western – which are made up of 22 different agencies, including First Nation communities, he said.

And there’s no central computing system, said Wishart.

“It creates a lot of offices and a lot of supervisors but not a lot of central control,” he said. “They don’t have a central computer system they all use … it’s quite a cause for concern.”

Even if the province can eliminate the use of hotels, the damage has been done, said Wishart, who demanded answers from Irvin-Ross in Question Period Thursday in reaction to a recent APTN story titled, Manitoba’s CFS girls: How the province feeds Winnipeg’s sex trade.

“The recent expose from APTN drives home the problem of children being brought into Winnipeg hotels from remote areas and being placed right next door to drugs, prostitution and gangs without adequate supervision,” he said in the Manitoba Legislature. “Will the minister admit today that the practice of bringing children in the care of CFS, children that the government have deemed in need of protection, and placing them in hotels have caused some children to end up in the sex trade?”

Irvin-Ross didn’t answer the question directly.

“We’ve improved diagnostics services for young adults,” she said. “We’ve implemented a youth mental health strategy, and we continue to work on the prevention of poverty across this province.”

She later said the province has much more work to do.

APTN spoke to several former and current CFS children in Winnipeg recently and was told stories of kids being put in hotels at young ages where they hung out with sex workers.

One said she had been in over a dozen hotels while a CFS ward.

“We had a lot of prostitutes coming and going and they’d give us free drugs or alcohol just to hang out,” said Faith, who asked that we not use her real name. “Prostitutes get lonely too. Us kids had bad lives, and so did they, and we really connected with them and they gave (us) our basic needs which was smokes, alcohol and drugs.”

She said the drug situation was pretty bad. Many of those who started smoking weed moved on to meth and crack.

She said the younger kids would learn from the older kids.

“I remember eight-year-olds high. Why? Because the older kids were doing it. Not many kids sobered up. I knew hundreds of kids and only a couple made it out of CFS sober,” said Faith. “I got kicked out the morning of my (18th) birthday. Some kids got worse. I was lucky I had family to stay with. Some kids went straight to the homeless shelters.”

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Producer Nation to Nation - Ottawa

Kenneth is a journalist with nearly two decades of reporting experience who focuses on crime and social issues, including child welfare and wrongful convictions. He has worked out of APTN’s Ottawa bureau since October 2012.