Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Vulnerable teens lacked supervision in foster home without water or adequate food

No running water, little food and staff nowhere to be found. Those were the conditions a Winnipeg police officer stumbled upon while trying to return one teenager to a foster home entrusted with the care of four highly vulnerable girls.

Winnipeg foster dad who got $109K a year tax free from Child and Family Services defends why bills went unpaid

Teen girls in Child and Family Services care lived in this suburban Winnipeg home until the water was shut off for non-payment. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

No running water, little food and staff nowhere to be found. Those were the conditions a Winnipeg police officer stumbled upon while trying to return one teenager to a foster home entrusted with the care of four highly vulnerable girls, some who were sexually exploited and drug addicted.

Health authorities were called in, and the inspector recommended no one live at the Wildwood Park foster home licensed by Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services (DOCFS) until the water was restored, according to a Department of Public Health spokesperson. 

The City of Winnipeg had cut off the water on May 15 because the foster father owed more than $1,000 to the utility, according to a document obtained by CBC News. The water was off for nearly a week before the foster father got it reconnected. During that time, some girls went to neighbours asking for water and used public washrooms at nearby businesses. 

"There's no excuse for that. It shouldn't happen … I'm not sure why that wasn't immediately addressed and resolved," said Bev Wiebe, who worked in the child welfare system for 30 years and was asked to comment on this story. She was not involved in the case, but said she believes the vast majority of foster parents take good care of children. 

Foster parents who care for high-needs youth receive thousands of dollars per month tax free from Child and Family Services agencies. 

The foster father is not being identified by CBC. In an interview Tuesday, he blamed Winnipeg CFS for his financial hardships. 

"While the optics clearly appear to showcase a mismanagement of funding, it does not take into account that I was not receiving the funding for months at a time," he said.

The man had been renting the home in Wildwood Park since September 2018. He was evicted 10 months later for non-payment of rent as of July 1 this year. The teen girls have been relocated to other placements.

DOCFS, through its lawyer Dean Kropp, refused to answer questions about when an agency staff member last visited the Wildwood Park home for an inspection or licensing review. He refused to say what supervision in the home is required for the teens or if the foster father still holds a licence. 

"I can confirm that appropriate actions have been taken by the agency to ensure the safety of children in their care," said Kropp. 

$109K given a year for care of girls

The foster father said while DOCFS was responsible for the foster licence, Winnipeg CFS and Western CFS provided funding for the four teens. 

The man wouldn't say how much money he received per day for each of the girls, but said combined, he got $9,100 a month, which works out to $109,200 a year, tax free.

He said $7,200 of that went to pay bills, like rent, food and cellphone. He claimed he couldn't afford to pay the water bill for a month because he had to pay more than $1,000 to cover one of the girls' cellphone bills. 

"I take full responsibility for that. I am not the greatest at paying bills," the man said.

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Before the police officer's discovery, troubling conditions were routinely discovered by the mother of one of the teens. CBC News is not naming any of the parents of the girls or the foster father, to avoid identifying the teens in care.

'Nothing more than a loaf of bread'

One mother who CBC is calling Kim said she frequently dropped by the foster home.

"I went through the cupboards and the fridge, and there was nothing more than a loaf of bread there," she said. "This would be after we were told by the manager/foster parent that they, quote unquote, 'Had just done a big grocery shop the night before.'"

She said the telephone and internet were disconnected on more than one occasion.  

High-needs teen girls lived in the Wildwood Park home for several years. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Even more troubling to Kim was the lack of supervision. Her daughter requires Level 5 care, which is reserved for youth who are a danger to themselves or others due to the severity of their mental-health or emotional disturbance. These youth can also be victims of high-risk behaviour, including sexual exploitation, drug use and self-harm.  

Kim said she was assured her daughter would be watched round the clock.  

"On several occasions when I attended the house, always unannounced, I would find staff sleeping," Kim said. 

"There were times there was no staff there. They had actually left the house open with children in the house and had gone on an errand." 

The mother of another girl in the home also expressed concerns about the level of her daughter's supervision.

"She would tell me that she would run [away] a lot due to the staff. It was more babysitting on their part," said the mother, who CBC is calling Kelly.

"They're supposed to have workers in there who are trained to deal with high-risk youth, who are trained to be running after the girls." 

She said her daughter told her staff would just sit around and watch TV. 

Trouble with debt

Land-title records show the foster father and his wife also own a separate home in St. Vital. The couple lists the St. Vital home as their address on a car loan document. It is not known how, or if, he divides his time between the two houses. 

This is not the first time the foster father was delinquent in his debt. Court records reveal he was subject to a court order to sell his St. Vital home to pay back debt in 2018. 

The money was owed to a Winnipeg law firm that hired a collections agency. According to the statement of claim, the foster dad had hired lawyers to represent him in two other civil suits in 2011 and 2012. Though he made partial payments, he still owed about $49,000. 

In 2016, a judge ordered him to pay that back, but as of March 2018, the debt had not been settled and had grown to $59,067.50 with interest.

The debt was paid in August 2018, around the same time he took over the foster home.

The foster father said he took out a second mortgage on his home to clear up what he owed.

No credit checks required

Foster homes are licensed by CFS agencies, but the province sets the standard related to the licensing process, which include criminal record checks, and physical and mental health checks, but don't include credit checks.

"Financially we don't really dig in to foster parents' business … because foster care maintenance fees are not salaries," said Wiebe, the former child welfare worker.

She said the amount of money paid to foster parents for high-needs children is enough to cover the bills and rent. 

The foster father said he's currently in a dispute with Winnipeg CFS because the agency refuses to reimburse him $15,000 that he says he paid to respite workers to look after two girls, who are both wards of Winnipeg CFS.

"I would submit respite bills for the staff that were in for those two weeks and which girls they were covering. And then I wait for 10 days to get a cheque," the man said.

He said he was told the agency doesn't cover support staff wages on nights when the teens are not in the home.

The man said he lost his licence when he was evicted, but still keeps in touch with the girls. He said they have become like family to him, his wife and his own children.

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