Manitoba nixes plan to change how it counts kids in care

Manitoba's New Democratic Party government is backing off a plan to change how it counts the number of children in its care.

Manitoba has been under fire for so many kids in care, even called a 'child apprehension machine'

There are some 700 Manitoba kids in voluntary agreements, in which a parent places a child in government care but continues to maintain guardianship. (Getty Images)

Manitoba's New Democratic Party government is backing off a plan to change how it counts the number of children in its care.

"We previously announced, based on faulty research, a change in how we were going to be counting voluntary placements going forward," said Family Services Minister, Kerri Irvin-Ross.

"It was reported to us that there were some inaccuracies and that we were basing our changes on information that was incorrect regarding other jurisdictions."

Last month, Irvin-Ross announced the province was being unfairly compared to other provinces because it includes kids in voluntary placements in its total number of 10,295 children in care.

Other provinces don't include those voluntary cases, Irvin-Ross said at the time.

On Friday, Irvin-Ross said British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan actually do include voluntary placements in their overall number of children in care.

"It's a lesson about checking and double checking and triple checking the facts when you are talking about changing the policy," she said.

"It's very embarrassing. But, what I want people to understand is that we are focused 100 per cent on providing good quality care for children."

There are some 700 Manitoba kids in voluntary agreements, in which a parent places a child in government care but continues to maintain guardianship.

Tina Fontaine was one of those children. The 15-year-old, who was killed in 2014, was placed into the care of Child and Family Services voluntarily by her guardians.

Cases such as hers would have been excluded under the proposed changes.

The province would also exclude kids brought into the system under customary care legislation, a new foster program that allows an at-risk child to be placed with another relative or a family within their home community.

Both those and the ones in voluntary placements would be reported in a separate category, Irvin-Ross said.

Opposition seeks answers

The opposition Progressive Conservative Party said they thought Irvin-Ross' information sounded odd when she first announced it so they called the other provinces and found she was in fact wrong.

Conservative Family Services critic Ian Wishart said he and the Tories have been raising her inaccuracy in question period.

"We're not surprised that [Irvin-Ross] would reverse her position. We were surprised when she took the position because it is simply not accurate," he said.

Cora Morgan, Manitoba's First Nations advocate for children in care, said excluding voluntary placements was "ridiculous."

"I thought it was just a way to fix the numbers so that it looked better in all appearances, that there weren't as many kids in care," Morgan said.

"They had ample opportunity to do prevention and prevent the apprehension of children. And they've had an enormous amount of time to do that. instead they keep throwing out these Band-Aid approaches that try to make the elephant not look so big."

Now, Irvin-Ross said, the numbers will be counted the way they have been for more than 10 years.

"What we are saying today is we are going to keep counting children in care just as we have been since 1999. [We will] be counting all children in care, voluntary placements will also be part of that number," she said.

'Child apprehension machine'

Manitoba has been under fire for the large number of kids in government care. 

The province was even called a "child apprehension machine" earlier this year by Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).

Irvin-Ross, however, said the number of indigenous children in care is a "crisis" across the country.

"We are working every day to … provide healing as well as treatment programs and ensuring families can stay together," she said.

The NDP was criticized when it first proposed the changes in counting kids in care, with Wishart saying the government is just trying to make its numbers look better as an election looms.

"[Irvin-Ross] and her staff were looking at ways to restate their numbers to try and make it look better [and] happened on this, which is completely inaccurate. It's not the appropriate way to do it and I think they were literally making a conscious effort to try and mislead Manitobans," Wishart said.

"To me, it indicates that they are pretty desperate to try and put the right spin on this from their point of view. I'm very disappointed that they're not focused on doing their job."

But, Irvin-Ross said that's not what happened.

"There was no intent at all to hide the total number of children receiving services," she said.

She also said the opposition doesn't understand the full picture.

"They're not aware of every conversation we have and planning and policy decisions that we're making," she said.

"We are constantly working to serve Manitobans to the best of our ability. This is an unfortunate incident that has happened. We are rectifying it and we're moving forward to ensure that we are providing good quality service to Manitoba families."

With files from Chris Glover