Emergency housing program for at-risk youth gets overhaul

The Manitoba government is overhauling its emergency housing program for at-risk children and youth, adding 71 new foster home spaces. But for the woman who raised Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old girl whose body was found in the Red River in August, the changes are too little, too late.

'It should have happened long ago,' Tina Fontaine's great-aunt says of plan

Manitoba overhauls emergency housing program for at-risk kids

9 years ago
Duration 2:01
The Manitoba government is overhauling its emergency housing program for children in crisis, adding 71 new foster home spaces.

Manitoba is overhauling its emergency housing program for at-risk children and youth, adding 71 new foster home spaces.

It's part of the province's plan to reduce reliance on hotels as shelters, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross announced on Tuesday.

The government will also reduce its use of contract workers by hiring 210 highly trained permanent child-care workers over the next two years, she said.

Tina Fontaine, 15, was reported missing on Aug. 9. Her body was found in the Red River in Winnipeg on Aug. 17. (Family photo)
But for the woman who raised Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old girl whose death sparked public discussions about Manitoba's child welfare system and its use of hotels to temporarily house at-risk youth, the planned overhaul is too little, too late.

"It should have happened long ago. Like, maybe I still would have had my baby here," Thelma Favel, Fontaine's great-aunt, told CBC News on Tuesday night.

Fontaine's body was recovered from the Red River on Aug. 17. Her death is being treated as a homicide, but no arrests have been announced.

Residential facility for at-risk girls announced

As part of the overhaul announced on Tuesday, the province says a former nuns' residence near the Marymound building on Scotia Street will be converted into a new residential care unit for girls, ages 12 to 17, who have complex needs.

"At Marymound, we are part of a network of service providers that strive to create the best short- and longer-term care possible for our children. We welcome the changes announced today and very much look forward to working in partnership with the province," said Jay Rodgers, CEO of Marymound, a non-profit agency that works with youth.

Irvin-Ross also repeated an announcement made in early October — that a secure facility to shelter at-risk girls will soon be opened as well.

Most of the changes should be implemented by spring 2015, Irvin-Ross said, adding the goal is to have no children in hotels.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross announces changes to the government's emergency housing program for children in crisis. (Caroline Barghout/CBC)
There are currently eight children in care living in hotels as of Tuesday, she said, noting that the number fluctuates daily based on where there is room to put them in the child welfare system.

Manitoba's children's advocate, Darlene MacDonald, said she hopes the province's plan will go beyond getting at-risk youth out of hotels.

"I think sometimes we're too concerned about safety of the child for the day, and not looking at the overall needs of children and what a total plan needs to encompass," she said.

MacDonald added that the child welfare system needs to devote more resources to mental-health supports and early intervention programs for children and youth in care.

As well, she said social workers need to be trained to work specifically with sexually exploited youth.

System under scrutiny

Manitoba's Child and Family Services (CFS) system has come under scrutiny over the past couple of months, as CBC News revealed that dozens of teenagers were being placed in Winnipeg hotels every day, with some saying they have witnessed prostitution and been introduced to drug use during their stays.

In many cases at the hotels, no CFS social workers were on hand and care was left to contracted workers from private companies.

But that care often came under question. One support worker was caught sleeping 20 minutes after arriving at the Travelodge Winnipeg East hotel last May to supervise a teenage boy.

The boy took a video of the sleeping man, who was later fired.

A former worker for another one of the private companies, Complete Care, told CBC News that staff received minimal training and had no control over the children they were supposed to watch.

Vivian Ketchum told CBC News in September that she quit because she was frustrated that the needs of teens were being unmet. Her responsibility was to sit with children and youth in their hotel rooms, but said she had no power to stop those who wanted to leave.

Despite that, Complete Care was paid $8,368,207 in 2013 and $5,925,854 in 2012 by the government. 

Ketchum, who worked for the company between 2009 and 2011, said government officials have no idea how dangerous it is to place children and teens in hotel rooms with minimally trained staff.

Irvin-Ross has ordered an internal probe by the accountability unit in her department into the contracts and what the companies do.

Tina Fontaine had run away from her home in the Sagkeeng First Nation on July 1 and travelled to Winnipeg. She was later placed in CFS care.

While Fontaine was in care, a Complete Care worker checked her into the Best Western Charterhouse Hotel in downtown Winnipeg, but the teen walked away.

A little more than a week later, her body was found in the Red River.

"There's hundreds of kids out there. Like, this should have been addressed long before this happened to Tina," Favel said of the government's new plan.

"Tina had to die for people to open their eyes to the problem that was happening in Winnipeg."