Kerri Irvin-Ross should be fired. Manitoba’s Family Services Minister has had two years to overhaul and improve the province’s abysmal emergency child-welfare system, which shamefully relies all too heavily on low-rent hotels to warehouse children in its care. With little sign of progress, it is time the Premier appoints someone new to the role who might bring the kind of leadership, drive and direction needed to set about cleaning up this wretched mess of a system.
Of course the challenges facing Manitoba’s child-welfare system are many and complex. Manitoba has some of the highest rates of children in state care, from infants to young adults. Of the nearly 10,000, 90 per cent are aboriginal, which speaks to an even greater tragedy. However, placing children in hotels isn’t a common approach across Canada: BC doesn’t even keep statistics of its hotel use because it is so infrequent; Alberta doesn’t even allow it in the first place. In Manitoba, it happens all the time, and it’s not a new phenomenon: Manitoba’s Children’s Advocate first raised concerns about placing children-in-care in hotels FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. Quite simply, hotels are no place for these children: they’re ill-equipped, unsafe and entirely inappropriate.
And yet here we are: fifteen years later, still being told the situation is complex and will take time to solve.
Of course, Ms. Irvin-Ross has not held the Family Services portfolio for that entire time. Others have come and failed before her. However, her appalling lack of knowledge about or apparent sense of urgency in solving the situation suggests she is especially ill-suited to the position.
Ms. Irvin-Ross was appointed Family Services Minister in 2013. A full year later, when news broke about Tina Fontaine’s tragic death last summer and her having been housed in just such a hotel supervised by staff from Complete Care, a private company contracted by Child and Family Services (CFS), Ms. Irvin-Ross admitted she wasn’t even familiar with the company, let alone their $8 million contract with her department. Stunning when you consider only three companies received contracts totalling $13.4 million from CFS to supervise children in hotels and shelters last year.
“Are you familiar with Complete Care?”
In the wake of that tragedy and her embarrassing response, the Minister promised action last fall: a foster-bed registry, less children placed in hotels, ending the practice of contracting out the supervision of children in hotels to private companies.
Four months later, little progress has been made. There is still no foster-bed registry, or even a timeline of when one might be instituted. “It’s going to take a while,” she said. Worse, there has actually been a spike in the number of children in hotels. “I have to have patience,” she said.
Was it her patience that prevented the Minister from actually visiting the Best Western Charter House hotel where many CFS children have been housed? And was it her patience that prevented her from speaking with any of the Complete Care workers who were contracted by her department to supervise those children? It’s complicated, she said.
What about Manitobans’ patience with the Minister? There is nothing complicated about that: it has run out. Promising to take action. Commissioning reviews. Invoking the complex nature of the challenge. Bafflegab.
The party of Tommy Douglas has had over fifteen years to bring about meaningful changes to Manitoba’s emergency child-welfare system. In that time, countless children have been removed from their families because of “neglect issues” (Irvin-Ross’ words). Ironically, the same could be said of dumping children in slummy downtown hotels where they are exposed to prostitution and drugs. Or the government’s own torpid response to this provincial disgrace: neglect issues.
It has to end. And while that won’t happen immediately, it clearly can’t happen with Kerri Irvin-Ross at the helm of the beleaguered Family Services Ministry.
Originally published on Spectator Tribune.