Metis leader says children in care left out of Manitoba's pandemic response

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba Metis Federation's president says the province has left vulnerable foster children out of pandemic response plans.

"When this pandemic came into play the province did not give us one penny more, knowing full well the complications we are going to face as an agency," David Chartrand said.

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"Not one ... penny was issued to us to help us during this time of COVID."

Chartrand said Metis Child and Family Services is facing multiple hurdles caused by the pandemic to ensure safety of more than 1,200 children. But the province's block funding model will inevitably force agencies to cut programs or fall into a deficit, he said.

The province changed to "single envelope" funding, also known as block funding, last year. Manitoba provides finances up front to child-welfare authorities based on a three-year agreement. The previous system based funding on the number of children in care and the number of days they were in care.

Many agencies voiced their concerns about the switch saying the funding levels were based on a year when there were less children in care and the new model would not cover current needs, let alone fund preventative services.

There was no increase in funding for child and family services authorities in the Manitoba's 2020 budget released in March. There are about 10,000 children in care in Manitoba. About 90 per cent are Indigenous.

When asked about additional funding, Families Minister Heather Stefanson said the government is working with agencies.

"We are assessing what some of the challenges are with respect to COVID and will continue to do that throughout," she said, adding personal protective equipment was provided.

The Families department said in an email that the move to single envelope funding means that authorities and agencies are responsible for managing and overseeing expenditures based on the needs of the families they serve. However, the department recognizes that the pandemic is creating new challenges, and is monitoring for financial implications.

Chartrand said the bills are adding up and falling to agencies that are already financially strapped. He said the Metis federation itself gave $400,000 to its agency to help cover costs during the pandemic.

Chartrand said the agency needed to get kids tablets so they could do schoolwork. It needed to find ways to have employees work from home and come up with creative ways to keep children in contact with family. When schools and camps were closed that put even more pressure on agencies and their staff.

A letter sent to foster families from Southeast Child and Family Services last month provided to the Canadian Press by the Manitoba NDP said the agency was being forced to reduce its respite pay. Respite pay gives caregivers a short-term break from the unique demands of caring for a child with disabilities.

The letter said the agency was "forced to make changes" due to provincial funding cuts and the deficit incurred as a result.

A pandemic is "perhaps the worst time to freeze funding for children, especially those in the CFS system," said Amanda Lathlin, the NDP critic for child and family services.

"Agencies need the provincial government to lift funding freezes, stop cuts to supports and actually increase funding so that kids in care are safe and have the supports they need to be successful."

Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Daphne Penrose said her office has received concerns about block funding both before and during the pandemic. Penrose said young people are also struggling to access mental health and addictions services.

"With the provincial government moving so quickly on pressing issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope implementing child-centred services is at the top of their agenda."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2020

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