Manitoba changes how it counts kids in its care

WINNIPEG -- Manitoba is changing how it counts the number of children in its care to exclude hundreds cases like Tina Fontaine's amid concerns it is being unfairly compared to other provinces.

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The 15-year-old, who was killed in 2014, was placed into the care of Child and Family Services voluntarily by her guardians. Unlike other provinces, Manitoba counts kids in voluntary placement agreements in its total number of 10,293 children in its care.

However, as Manitoba continues to come under fire for the large number of kids in care and as an election looms, changes are being made to how the numbers are reported publicly.

The province will no longer include children who are voluntarily placed in care as part of the overall number. When those 700 are removed the official number falls below 10,000.

It will also exclude kids who are brought into the system under new customary care legislation, when a child at risk of apprehension is placed with a family member in their community.

Both will be reported in a separate category.

While critics say the governing NDP is just trying to make it look like it is making progress, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says the changes are levelling the playing field.

There is a world of difference between apprehension and a voluntary placement, she says.

"They're reaching out to us and saying, 'Please come and help us.' They can come at any time and say 'I want my child back,"' she says. "It's very different than a case of a child coming to school with bruises and Child and Family Services being called ... and feeling they have to apprehend for the child's safety."

The number of kids in Manitoba's care has jumped 55 per cent since 2006. Almost 90 per cent are indigenous. The province has one of the highest child apprehension rates in Canada and seizes an average of one newborn baby a day.

Neighbouring Saskatchewan -- a province of a similar size -- has around 4,000 children in care. Alberta and British Columbia each have slightly more than 7,000 kids in the child welfare system.

Manitoba has faced criticism in the past for using hotels to house children because of a shortage of appropriate placements.

Irvin-Ross says the number of children in care is very troubling, but comparisons to other provinces are unfair because they don't include voluntary placements in their totals.

Manitoba also includes children who are placed with relatives in kinship care as being under the care of Child and Family Services. They make up 40 per cent of the total. British Columbia doesn't include them in its figures.

Regardless of the numbers, Irvin-Ross says the province is focusing more on supporting families and keeping them together.

"I would say the same thing to you if there were 1,000 kids in care or if there were 10,000," she says. "We have a responsibility."

Conservative critic Ian Wishart says other provinces do not count kids who are placed voluntarily into care because there are so few of them.

"They're trying to make it look like they're reducing the number and making progress downward but, the reality is, they are still responsible for that many kids in one form or another," he says.

"It's a bit of an exercise in public relations, to put it bluntly."



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