Manitoba

Manitoba foster care questioned after girl's vicious attack

This week's serious attack on a teenage girl who was in the care of Manitoba's child-welfare system has again raised questions about the government's longtime use of hotels to house children and youth in care — a practice the province is now promising to end this year.
This week's serious attack on a teenage girl who was in the care of Manitoba's child-welfare system has again raised questions about the government's longtime use of hotels to house children and youth in care — a practice the province is now promising to end this year. 2:21

This week's serious attack on a teenage girl who was in the care of Manitoba's child-welfare system has again raised questions about the government's longtime use of hotels to house children and youth in care — a practice the province is now promising to end this year.

The 15-year-old girl was last reported to be in critical condition as a result of the attack, which happened on Hargrave Street in downtown Winnipeg. She was found early Wednesday morning.

The victim was staying in the care of Child and Family Services (CFS) at a hotel just blocks away from the scene.

Hours after news of the assault surfaced, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross vowed to end the practice of placing children in care in hotels by June 1.

A handbag, wallet and makeup are seen in a cordoned-off area on Hargrave Street where a teenage girl was found critically injured early Wednesday morning. (CBC)
Irvin-Ross said the province is creating new emergency foster home spots and reducing its reliance on outside contract workers over two years.

Hotels are a last resort, the minister said, but the number of children in care has risen recently and there aren't enough alternatives. It takes time to build up foster and group home spaces, she added.

Manitoba has around 10,000 children in care. The vast majority are aboriginal.

On any given day, dozens of those children are put up in hotel rooms because there isn't room in a foster home.

Nine children in care are currently being housed in hotels, according to the province.

2nd incident in a year

The latest attack marks the second incident within a year involving a teenage girl who was checked into a Winnipeg hotel in care of Child and Family Services.

The body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was recovered from the Red River in August, over a week after she was reported missing.

Police are treating her death as a homicide, but no arrests have been announced to date.

A friend later told CBC News that Fontaine had been taken to the Best Western Charter House Hotel in CFS care.

Fontaine didn't stay the night at the hotel. She took off instead, according to the friend, who CBC News identified as "Katrina."

"She was supposed to be at the Best Western placement, and she said that they were going to report her missing if she wasn't back at a certain time," Katrina said in September.

"I looked at my phone. I was like, 'Oh shit, you're going to be missing in, like, two hours.'"

Fontaine left the hotel on the night she was last seen alive. Eight days later, her body was found in a bag in the river.

Stories of sexual assault, drug use

Katrina said like Fontaine, she also had CFS hotel placements. She said she was placed at a Pembina Highway motel during her last seven months in care and was sexually assaulted there.

Another teenage girl, identified as "Katy," said she was exposed to drugs at the hotel where she had been placed.

"If I wasn't in care, I probably wouldn't have known what any of those drugs are, honestly," she said.

In many cases, no Child and Family Services (CFS) social workers were on hand at the hotels and care was left to contract workers, some of whom were only minimally trained.

Housing children in hotels is meant to be a last resort and used only in emergency cases, officials have said, but some teenagers in CFS care told CBC News they've spent up to a year in hotels.

In December, the province said it would tighten up training requirements for contract workers looking after children in emergency care and make sure those children are better supervised.

The government also promised to phase out the use of temporary employees altogether by March 2016.

Critics slam government

Darlene MacDonald, Manitoba's children's advocate, said she has been calling on the provincial government to end the practice of hotel placements for children in care since 2002.

The children's watchdog has released several reports since then that have raised concerns about the practice.

"We've known for a long time that hotels cannot substitute for the care given for a child," she told CBC News.

Progressive Conservative critic Ian Wishart said the province's NDP government has had years to address this crisis. Hotels are the worst place to put a vulnerable child, he said.

"There is very little supervision," Wishart told The Canadian Press.

"They are taking them from a medium-risk environment, in many cases, and putting them in the absolute highest-risk environment you can imagine."

Placing children in CFS care in hotels has been done for years. In 2013, the province spent nearly $10 million on doing so.

Last fall, as many as 80 children and youth in CFS care were being housed in Manitoba hotels a day.

With files from The Canadian Press