Manitoba's children's advocate is warning that the province's child welfare system is "in a state of chaos" in a document that is being kept private.

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Manitoba's children's advocate is warning that the province's child welfare system is "in a state of chaos" in a document that is being kept private.

A recent budget submission from the Office of the Children's Advocate points to high caseloads for social workers and a lack of resources, sources who have seen the document said Tuesday. The written submission was made to a legislature committee that oversees the budget of the advocate's office and other independent bodies such as the auditor general.

The document also blames the government's policy to place aboriginal foster children in other aboriginal homes, saying many non-aboriginal foster parents are quitting because they worry their foster children will be taken from them for cultural reasons, the sources said.

While Manitoba's child welfare system has already been the subject of much criticism, the warning from the children's advocate is the strongest language to date. The report points out that the number of children in care has ballooned to more than 8,600 from 6,600 in the last five years.

Manitoba Liberals have called on the government to make the document public, but legislature Speaker George Hickes ruled last week it must be kept private because it was for committee use only and contains personal information.

The province's acting children's advocate, Bonnie Kocsis, would not comment on the document Tuesday, saying she is required under law to keep the committee presentation confidential. She would not even confirm whether the report included the word "chaos" to describe the system.

Kocsis stepped into the role just six weeks ago, replacing Billie Schibler, who is on leave for personal reasons and is in the final year of her six-year mandate.

Speaking Tuesday night, Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh said since late 2006, the province has added $112 million to the child welfare system and created 230 new funded positions, 116 of those front-line positions.

He also said the Office of the Children's Advocate has seen its budget jump to $2.8 million today from just $325,000 in 1999.

Added Premier Greg Selinger: "We have put money in place in the last two budgets for prevention programming... to provide supports at the community level that will enable families and children to stay together in a healthy lifestyle."

Mackintosh conceded that such a dramatic jump in the number of kids is a stress to the system.

"It's a sad fact that there is a breakdown in far too many families," he said. "This parenting breakdown has to concern us all and requires not just taxpayer-funded police and child welfare service, but the attention of family, friends and neighbours."

Criticism of Manitoba's child welfare system has grown since 2003 when the province started handing over management of aboriginal cases to aboriginal-run regional authorities. Internal and external reviews were launched after some high-profile deaths of children who had been placed in harm's way.

The most notorious case was that of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old girl who spent most of her life in foster care and was killed after being handed back to her mother, Samantha Kematch. The girl suffered months of horrific abuse before being beaten to death in the basement of her home on the Fisher River reserve north of Winnipeg.

In another case, two-year-old Gage Guimond was given to his great-aunt, Shirley Guimond, despite the fact she had a criminal record. The boy was beaten and died after falling down stairs.

The case prompted the government to change its legislation in order to ensure that a child's safety is the prime concern for foster care, not cultural or family ties.

The Progressive Conservatives want to hear more from the children's advocate. But they are concerned about the turnover in the office, which has not produced an annual report since 2007-08.

 

-- The Canadian Press, staff