Manitoba's Child and Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says more has to be done to keep children in care from being placed in hotels on an emergency basis.
Child welfare authorities place dozens of teenagers in Winnipeg hotels every day, and some teens have told CBC News they have witnessed prostitution and drug use during their stays.
Irvin-Ross responded to a CBC report Friday that as many as 80 teens are put up in hotels, and some are free to come and go as they please.
The minister mentioned the story of one girl in care who said she was exposed to drugs and prostitution while staying in a hotel.
The latest numbers the provincial government posted online show an average of 65 children and youth in hotels in March of this year. That number has spiked. From 2007 to May 2012, the monthly averages were zero to 17.
Irvin-Ross said money could be better spent on counsellors, more foster care and programs to help families in crisis.
"That is why we are doing foster parent recruitment, that's why we are working with families, to hope that children don't come into care," said Irvin-Ross. "Placing children in hotels is not our priority."
She also said that in some cases, hotels are used during the interim because finding foster parents for larger family groups can take longer.
"In some instances we have to rely on hotels if it's a large sibling group, because it takes a little bit longer to find a foster home placement."
Social workers absent, says teen
"Well, sometimes there would be other hotel rooms open through johns and hookers and other older people, I guess.… They're just there to drink or party," said an 18-year-old CBC News is calling "Katrina," who was in ministry care in a hotel.
"You could do it in your own hotel room because the workers, they would go and have breakfast or lunch or supper with the other workers in a different room. So they weren't really watching you as they should have been," she told CBC News.
The provincial Child and Family Services Department paid Complete Care $8,368,207 in 2013. That's up from $5,925,854 in 2012.
Complete Care workers fill in when regular ministry staff call in sick or there is a shortage.
Tina Fontaine allowed to leave hotel
Tina Fontaine was taken to hospital by ambulance on Aug. 8 after the 15-year-old was found passed out in a back lane off Ellice Avenue.
A Complete Care worker later checked in Fontaine at the Best Western Charterhouse Hotel, but Fontaine did not spend the night there. She was allowed to leave the hotel.
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Fontaine was reported missing on Aug. 9, and her body was recovered from the Red River on Aug. 17. Winnipeg police are treating her death as a homicide, but no arrests have been made to date.
"I think they should have put her somewhere where they would have kept her safe, not somebody that's not going to watch her," said Lana Fontaine, Tina's aunt.
CBC News was told that workers keep a log book and mark down what the children were last seen wearing, and if they do not return for their nightly curfew they are reported missing. That's what happened with Tina Fontaine.
Katrina, who had befriended Fontaine days before she went missing, said teens in care in hotels can come and go as they please.
"You're free to walk out at any time. All they'll do is write down what you're wearing…. You can boss them around a lot. If you tell them to go to bed, they'll go to bed," she said.
"We could do whatever we wanted because no one was forcing us to go to school. So there was a lot of problems."
She added, "The person who placed us in the hotel, she would call a lot and make all these rules saying if we're going to hang out with our friends, we'd have to go off the property. You can't hang out in rooms. You can't smoke in rooms. Can't do drugs in rooms. We had to respect our staff."
Introduced to drugs
"If I wasn't in care, I probably wouldn't have known what any of those drugs were, honestly," she said.
Katy said she constantly runs away from her placements, including earlier this week.
She said she has been in three hotels and 10 group homes in the past four months alone.
"I'd say it's hard. It takes a toll on you because you find some place and you think you're comfortable. And then the next thing you know, you're getting moved again and it keeps happening," she said.
"We give up hope."
In a statement to CBC News, a provincial government spokesperson said officials only use hotels when there is no other option.
"Our first priority is the safety of children in care and we are committed to eliminating the use of hotels, except under exceptional circumstance, or when there are no other viable options available," the spokesperson wrote.
Manitoba government's full response
In an email, a government spokesperson for Child and Family Services responded to questions put forward by CBC News:
CBC News: Why are CFS kids still in hotels at all? Is there no other room for them anywhere else?
CFS: Our first priority is the safety of children in care and we are committed to eliminating the use of hotels, except under exceptional circumstance, or when there are no other viable options available.
It is a policy that there will be adult supervision of all children placed in hotels. This supervision is provided by adult support staff. A protocol allows children to be placed in hotels temporarily, but only under very limited circumstances:
- A community crisis requiring emergency placement such as flood or fire;
- If a sibling group is taken into care and there is no other suitable place they can be placed together, in a hotel; and
- Health or mental health issues requiring a child be placed with no other children and such a placement is not available elsewhere.
All hotel placements must be approved by a Child and Family Services authority or designate. Manitoba has worked to bring hotel use numbers down, for example with improvements to foster parent programs:
- Increased funding for foster parents 9 times and also increased special needs funding by 150 per cent.
- Reinstated the Manitoba Foster Family Network, a new investment of $555,000 annually.
- Launched a foster family recruitment campaign, which increased foster and emergency beds by over 3,000 to more than 12,400 beds.
- Provided specialized training to foster parents and workers throughout the province.
- More than 750 new families began fostering children last year, for a total of about 4,800 foster families across the province. We have increased the basic child maintenance rate increase by almost 25 per cent over the last five years.
- Increased number of emergency foster beds available to the Emergency Placement Registry from 84 to over 150, meaning greater capacity for staff who work with child services agencies to arrange long-term placements between foster families and children-in-care.
- Passed "Gage's Law" to reinforce that child safety is the highest priority when placing children.
Statistics on CFS placements in hotels
Below are the Manitoba Child and Family Services Department's numbers on CFS placements in hotels. These statistics and others can be found on the department's website.