Police say gas-sniffing among children in the northern Labrador community of Natuashish is becoming increasingly common.

RCMP Sgt. Faron Harnum, who often comes into contact with the young people involved, says dealing with them is a struggle.

About 40 to 50 youths are sniffing solvents in the streets at all hours of the day and night, Harnum says.

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N.L. Minister of Child, Youth and Family Services Charlene Johnson told CBC she's surprised by the numbers coming from the RCMP. (CBC)

"We take the gas from them and pour it out," he said.

"If they are real young, we'll generally take them back to their parents, and hope that their parents will take them in."

But that doesn't always work out.

"Many times, when we go to the residences, the parents are not there," said Harnum.

"In some cases, when we knock on the door we don't get a response, even though there are people inside."

He says often the parents have been drinking, and they don’t answer the door because they’re worried they could be charged under the community's alcohol prohibition laws.

Children who aren't turned over to their parents are placed in the care of social workers.

But Harnum says the system is often weighed down by the volume of cases.

"From time to time we have to resort to placing the child in our cells until we can get someone to care for the child," said Harnam.

The province responds

Newfoundland and Labrador's Minister of Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS), Charlene Johnson, said she's surprised by the numbers coming from the RCMP.

"We've never heard of 50 in one sitting," Johnson said.

"We need to follow up with the RCMP on that because that's not the reports that we have received."

Johnson says provincial social workers tell her they're looking after 36 children in Natuashish.

Another 76 in the community are staying with their families while remaining under a protective intervention plan. Of those young people, 25 have been identified as having solvent abuse problems.

However, Harnum notes the programs only work when parents get involved. He said the community needs parents to step up and get involved in their children's lives.

Johnson says in many cases that's not possible because the parents have substance abuse problems of their own.

She said parenting courses are available through CYFS, and the department also plans to bring in outside experts on addictions treatment.

But some parents have decided to give up their children to CYFS so they can be sent out to Ontario for treatment.

"Sometimes it gets to the point where the parent can't cope any more," Johnson said.

"Then we remove the child, or put them in foster care, or send them for treatment out of province."

Currently, 43 children are being cared for in other provinces. Twenty-two of them are from Innu communities and 12 of them are from Natuashish.

Johnson admits the situation may be overwhelming for social workers in Labrador, but insists her department is trying to bring it under control.

"We are managing the risk on the ground," Johnson said.

"It's not an easy problem to fix. It's very difficult, but we're committed to finding a solution."