Knee-jerk solutions will hurt the children.
Children and youth running away from Child and Family Services facilities accounted for 82.6 per cent of the missing persons files the Winnipeg Police dealt with from April to June.
That is only one figure to raise alarm bells, said Cora Morgan, Manitoba's First Nations family advocate. Statistics shared with her from the Health Sciences Centre, a hospital in Winnipeg, are just as startling.
Morgan says she has been told that 66 per cent of the patients in the psychiatric ward are First Nations youth in care.
She has also been told that 30 to 40 babies each month are apprehended from the hospital. And on Sept. 8, she knows personally that five babies were taken, all of them First Nations.
Morgan says hospital staff told her that if it weren't for children taken into care from Northern Manitoba there would be no need for a children's hospital in Winnipeg. Children who come from the north, who are either born with special needs or present with special needs, must be placed in Child and Family Services care in order to receive treatment. And foster parents are trained to care for these children at the exclusion of the birth parents.
"The hospital reached out to us. People working in the system are saying changes need to happen. Somehow they feel that our office may be able to help support that in some way," said Morgan.
Morgan's position was one of 10 recommendations that came from the document "Bringing Our Children Home," which was the result of community consultations held by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in Winnipeg and Northern Manitoba. Of the nearly 11,000 children in provincial care, 87 per cent are Aboriginal.
In the nearly four months the First Nations family advocate office has been in operation, Morgan has opened more than 90 files representing close to 300 children whose parents are trying to get them back. The work is urgent, she says, as parents are given 15 to 18 months to make the changes necessary before their children become permanent wards of the court. And many of these parents don't have case plans in place in order to tackle the issues.
Ainsley Krone, spokesperson for the province's Office of the Children's Advocate, says 90 per cent of the young people her office advocates for are Aboriginal.
Krone says she is not surprised that nearly 83 per cent of missing people are children in care. They run away for a variety of reasons, including the need to reconnect with family and friends, problems with their placements, which include not feeling safe or comfortable there, and not understanding why they have been apprehended.
"We would expect and anticipate from an advocate's perspective that young people (in care) are being reported more quickly to various resources in order to help locate them," Krone said.
Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says the high number of missing children in care addresses the complexities of those children's needs and not the care they receive. Statistics indicate that more than 3,000 children in care have complex needs.
But Krone says it's a combination of the two and something her office has addressed in numerous reports over the last 15 years. One of the issues raised in those reports is the number of children housed in hotels. Those children were the ones with complex needs. Earlier this year, Irvin-Ross announced that by June 1, no more children would be kept in hotels in Winnipeg, and the rest of Manitoba had until Dec. 1 to comply to that new rule.
While Krone says she was pleased with the directive--and as far as her office knows there have been no children in Winnipeg hotels for the past several weeks--she was surprised by the timeline.
"The need is far outpacing what the resources are available to the system," said Krone, who notes that her office has consistently said that the system is "in a chronic state of emergency."
Krone says her office is still unclear as to the alternatives that will be put in place to care for these children. What she does know, though, is that quick decisions mean scrambling to find options and, in the end, it's the children that suffer with poorly thought-out solutions.
"In the scheme of all of it, there's a lack of love for these children," said Morgan as solutions become business opportunities.
She points to Marymound, which offers a variety of managed care, including secured units, for troubled youth. The government is proposing the creation of a six-bed unit at $2 million per year.
"The issue for me isn't that they're being housed in hotel rooms because our people historically lived in tiny homes and tipos, and it isn't the surroundings, it's the connections that they're deprived of. Everybody needs to feel loved and that they're cared forO. So no one seems to think about this disconnect and that it's causing and motivating these complex needs. We know that the children have complex needs, but as long as parents can't get their children back, they're developing complex needs and they're giving up hope," said Morgan.
By Shari Narine