Manitoba's troubled child and family services system is facing a "volatile" situation, where foster parents are dropping out over fears "uncaring" social workers will take children away in a bid to reunite them with their aboriginal families or communities.
The disturbing portrait the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) paints of Manitoba's child welfare system also found experienced social workers are bolting due to stress and overwork, leaving daily "life-and-death decisions" in the hands of younger workers who lack seasoned supervisors.
The 12-page OCA document -- a confidential budget submission to a committee of MLAs on April 27 -- widely leaked to reporters on Wednesday sparked an emergency debate in the Manitoba legislature.
Opposition MLAs demanded the Selinger government call in the acting children's advocate, Bonnie Kocsis, to appear before a committee to give the subject a full airing.
Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen also called for a halt to children being removed from longtime, stable foster homes and reiterated his party's concerns about the speed of devolution, which saw the governance of child welfare transferred to aboriginal agencies.
"We continue to hear stories of children who are being taken from stable, long-term foster-family situations and being placed in situations that may present risk," McFadyen said. "They should put a freeze on it today, on any further removal of kids from stable, long-term foster situations and work urgently to bring stability to a system in chaos," he said.
On Wednesday at the legislature, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard called for Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh's resignation.
"This minister presently has been there for four years. The system has got worse instead of better. It's time for this minister to resign and move on...," Gerrard said.
The OCA said the number of kids in care in Manitoba now exceeds 8,600 -- the highest number ever recorded in the province and 2,000 above what it was five years ago.
Mackintosh said Wednesday the high number of kids in care concerns him, as does the fact 85 per cent of them are aboriginal. "We have some very serious family breakdown in this province that is causing some enormous pressures," he said.
But he noted the province has increased the number of front-line staff and is close to a deal with Ottawa that would see the federal government boost funding to child welfare services in First Nation communities.
Currently, federal agencies focus their efforts on child apprehension, Mackintosh said. But Ottawa is now interested in directing increased funding at family intervention services to deal with problems before they get out of hand.
"We think that is a more effective way in investing in child welfare," he said.
The OCA said the booming numbers of kids in care have taken their toll on foster parents -- and its office.
"New foster parents are struggling to provide care and nurturing -- often to several children and youth, some of whom have very significant special needs due to FASD or trauma as the result of abuse and neglect," the OCA said in its budget submission to the legislative assembly management committee (LAMC), which oversees funding of independent agencies such as the advocate's office and the auditor general.
But Candace Seymour, executive director of the Manitoba Foster Family Network, said Wednesday evening she hasn't seen an increase in the number of families dropping out of the system.
"There are always people who say 'I can't do this because there's not enough support,' or because they're scared their children will be moved," she said. "It's not my opinion that it's gotten worse. I've seen less (families leaving) over the last two years than what it used it to be."
Seymour said there has always been a shortage of families, but the MFFN tries to alleviate caseloads through peer support and education programs between parents.
"The system is not perfect by any means, but it never was," she said.
In the leaked document, the OCA reports calls for service have increased significantly. "On any given day, there are approximately 110 callers waiting for a worker to respond to them. Some of these calls can be very urgent and children are at risk," the document said.
In 2009-2010, the OCA issued 38 "high-risk notifications" to various agencies warning them of an "imminent risk of harm to a child."
The LAMC agreed to the children's advocate's demand for three new staff.
Kocsis, who has served as the acting children's advocate since April, was unavailable for comment on Wednesday. She is filling in for Billie Schibler, who has held the post for five years and is on indefinite leave because of personal family reasons.
The absence of a permanent children's advocate worries some MLAs, especially considering the concerns raised in the budget submission.
A government spokeswoman said in an email to the Free Press on Wednesday a legislative committee will look at hiring a permanent advocate.
"The committee that deals with the hiring of independent officers was stalled for a while by the Tories' refusal to participate in a hiring process for the next Chief Electoral Officer. Now that that process is underway, we will soon begin discussions for a hiring process for the children's advocate," the spokeswoman said.