Manitoba's child-welfare system will undergo a complete overhaul to try to stem the rising number of Indigenous kids in care, provincial officials announced Thursday.

Premier Brian Pallister said governments have a lot of responsibilities but "there is no responsibility greater than the obligation we have to care for our children."

Children who grow up in care are more likely as adults to be homeless, incarcerated and to experience addictions and mental-health issues, the premier said.

"Almost 90 per cent of children in care are of Indigenous descent and they are growing up disconnected from their natural families, their communities," Pallister said. "These are realities but they are not happy realities."

That doesn't have to be the reality going forward, he said, promising a full review of the Child and Family Services Act.

The system revamp will provide more support for families and communities, more co-ordination and transparency across the whole child-welfare system and better outcomes for children, he said. 

There are about 11,000 children in care in the province, the highest rate in the country. Over the last 10 years, there's been an 85 per cent increase in the number of children in care and a 73 per cent increase in the number of days those kids are in care.

That carries a costly price tag, the province said. The child welfare budget for 2016-17 was $514 million — an increase of $20 million in the last four years. 

Agencies are currently funded on the number of children in care and the number of days they are in care, but the province will move toward block funding, which it says will allow more money to flow into prevention and intervention. 

Currently, Sandy Bay Child and Family Services and Nelson House are signed on to the block-funding pilot project. Two more agencies — one under the General Child and Family Services Authority and one under the Métis Child and Family Services Authority — will be joining by the end of the year, and 14 more are expected to move to the funding model by the end of 2018.

The agencies will get block funding based on the number of children they deal with, and the days in care, when they sign on. They will have a better ability to spend the money as they see fit to keep families together and, if the number of children in care is reduced, the extra funding will be reinvested into prevention services, the province said.

Richard De La Ronde, executive director of Sandy Bay Child and Family Services, says his agency has used its block funding for the customary care model, which has helped them reduce the number of kids in care by 50 per cent over the past two years — from more than 600 to around 300. In the model, Sandy Bay CFS consults with the community about what to do with children who might be in unsafe living conditions. 

"The community is your biggest critic in terms of what you do with families," De La Ronde said. 

As an example, he told the story of a single mother living with her baby in an apartment where the air-conditioning unit had broken down.

Child-welfare workers found that it was far too hot in the apartment for her baby, creating an unsafe environment that could have led to the seizure of the child. But community members came together and decided a better solution was to just replace the woman's air-conditioning unit, and thus keep the family together.

Richard De La Ronde

Richard De La Ronde, executive director of Sandy Bay Child and Family Services, says block funding provides agencies with much more flexibility. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

De La Ronde said the agency wasn't technically supposed to do that, because it is bound by standards and practices, but the new flexibility in funding would allow it to take such action.

Nahanni Fontaine, the NDP House leader, said during question period on Thursday afternoon that she is cautiously optimistic about the changes. "Children are not a partisan issue," she said, and the NDP and PCs have to work together.

"We can all agree that child welfare in Manitoba is in a state of crisis," she said. "We are looking forward to working with the government on proposals to their legislative framework." 

Cora Morgan, Manitoba's First Nations family, was also cautious in her optimism. She said First Nations have had "150 years of the theft of children" and have been calling for child-welfare reform for years.

Cora Morgan on child-welfare changes3:42

The ideas behind the overhaul are in the right direction, but they need to be Indigenous-led, she said. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was not consulted by the province about its priorities in the reform before Thursday's announcement, Morgan added.

Community-based prevention

The province's plan includes developing a community-based prevention model, working with current community groups and local agencies. 

The goal is also to create lifelong connections for children through family reunification and permanency, the province said. That includes reviewing and improving the emergency placement system that's in place when children are removed from their families.

Families Minister Scott Fielding said right now, it's taking far too long and there's too much red tape when it comes to creating a care plan for kids, with the current timeline upwards of 130 days. The former NDP government created a shelter system, costing more than $640 a day per child in a shelter, he said.

Legislation will be brought in to modernize adoption supports. Currently there are no subsidies to promote legal guardianship, Fielding said, adding the legislation is expected in the next few weeks. Culturally appropriate adoptions will be included in the legislation, he said.

He pointed to the family group conferencing project, which is run by the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. Earlier this week, Ottawa announced $500,000 in federal funding to help the centre expand its services, and the province would like to see it expanded further. 

Diane Redsky, the executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, said the centre has had great success, with a 79 per cent reunification rate.

Diane Redsky

Diane Redsky, the executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, says the provincial government's announcement is a step in the right direction to keep children with their families. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

"Anytime that you can return a child to their family faster, then it's easier to return them," she said. "We know that you can have better outcomes when children and families are less traumatized from being apart." 

She said Thursday's announcement from the province was a step in the right direction.

Reviewing and modernizing legislation

The Child and Family Services Act will be reviewed and modernized, Fielding said, and the government will also look at the Child and Family Services Authorities Act, which outlines who is responsible for delivering services in Manitoba.

The review is to be completed by next spring and the updated legislation isn't expected until fall 2018. 

The reform will include a seven-member legislative review committee, which will look at what other provinces have done and what front-line staff and organizations do that has met with success. Fielding said they've already heard that the province doesn't provide enough money for intervention and prevention.

"There's too much money being spent on the apprehension process in the child-welfare system in Manitoba," Fielding said. "We need to get more money to the areas that are going to make a difference."

Scott Fielding

Families Minister Scott Fielding said right now, it's taking far too long and there's too much red tape when it comes to creating a care plan for kids. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

Pallister said he couldn't put a dollar amount on the changes because it is "a monumental challenge" ahead of the province, but he added there would clearly be a reduction in costs — both financially and socially. 

"Of course there would be savings — look at the numbers, talk to the agencies, look at the number of kids who go to jail. [Preventing that is] a cost savings," he said.

"It's a societal savings, it's a saving for that child, that young adult, who doesn't have to go prison. Of course there are savings, right? Better kids, stronger kids, better opportunity for good values, better opportunity to be close to their community, their family and their friends."

When asked about whether the changes would mean some people may lose their jobs, Pallister became emotional, holding back tears, and said there wasn't a person who worked on the front lines with kids and their families who wouldn't prefer that their job wasn't needed.

Reflecting on his conversations with front-line workers, Pallister said "the day they see progress is a day worth investing, right?"

The province also released the annual families report on Thursday. It showed that the number of children in care had increased by seven per cent since last year, and the largest growth was in the Southern First Nations Network of Care with 5,003 — 2,000 more children in care than the next closest region.

In 2016-17, there were 638 children reported to be living with a parent, guardian or family member that did not receive funds through the Maintenance of Children budget. That's compared to 470 children the year before, which the province said represents "a positive movement towards reunification with family."