Manitoba

Province reports 1st decrease in child welfare numbers in 15 years

The government's efforts to focus greater efforts on helping families before they reach a crisis point has resulted in the 3.6 per cent decrease from last year's figure, Families Minister Heather Stefanson says. However, Manitoba still has the highest per-capita rate of children in care.

However, Manitoba still has the highest per-capita rate of children in care

Families Minister Heather Stefanson says the government has tried to focus greater efforts on preventative measures. (CBC)

Manitoba's high number of kids in the child welfare system has dropped for the first time in 15 years, show figures released Tuesday by the provincial government.

Excerpts from the Families Department's upcoming annual report show 10,328 kids were in care as of March 31, a 3.6 per cent drop from the same time last year.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson said the government has tried to focus more on preventative measures by helping families before they reach a crisis point. That has resulted in fewer children being taken from their families.

"The focus primarily in the last couple of years has been on prevention — recognizing who those at-risk families are, and getting them the resources that they need ahead of time," Stefanson said.

The number of families being reunited is up slightly, she added.

The drop reverses a long trend that saw the number of kids in care almost double from 2004 to 2014. Manitoba has the highest per-capita rate of children in care and almost 90 per cent are Indigenous.

First Nations groups have compared the high number to the residential school system that saw children forcibly removed from their families and culture.

Manitoba's children's advocate is encouraged by the new data.

Daphne Penrose says that now the province has to offer more resources to families and children — and earlier — "so that those resources are accessible to families before they become involved with Child and Family Services; so that bringing kids into care isn't their only option, but other treatment resources are options for them."​

Penrose says it's important to give social workers greater support so workers don't see apprehensions as the only option when concerns arise.

The focus primarily in the last couple of years has been on prevention — recognizing who those at-risk families are, and getting them the resources that they need ahead of time.- Families Minister Heather Stefanson

The Progressive Conservative government, elected in 2016, promised last year several new measures aimed at cutting the number of kids in care, including changing the funding formula for child welfare agencies to make it less focused on apprehending kids and more on supporting families.

The government also plans to fulfil a promise made by the former NDP government to enact customary care, which gives children more opportunities to stay in their home communities with extended family members.

Manitoba's child welfare system has been under scrutiny for more than a decade following several high-profile tragedies.

The most notorious case was that of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her mother and mother's boyfriend after social workers closed her file.

An inquiry found social workers, facing high caseloads, repeatedly failed to keep track of the girl and didn't realized her mother's boyfriend had a long history of violence.

The retired judge who led the inquiry, Ted Hughes, later called the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in government care across Canada an "unconscionable national embarrassment."

With files from Kristin Annable

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