National Newswatch

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's largest aboriginal group is calling child welfare in the province a form of genocide and says it must be overhauled to stop record numbers of children from being seized from their families.

"Genocide ... has grown legs from the residential school experience and it is now evident in the child-welfare system, where our children are being denied access to their families, being denied access to their language and their culture," Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Tuesday.

Nepinak released a 17-page report that calls for greater First Nations control and a move away from seizing children toward more supports for struggling parents. The money spent putting kids in group homes or foster care would be better spent on community programs that help parents, he said.

The document was partly a response to a public inquiry report issued last year into the death of Phoenix Sinclair. The girl was killed by her mother and mother's boyfriend after she repeatedly fell through the cracks of child welfare. Social workers often lost track of who was caring for the girl and, just a few months before her death, they decided she was fine with her mother despite a history of neglect and violence.

Child welfare in Manitoba has come under scrutiny again more recently following the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old whose body was pulled from the Red River in August.

Fontaine's great-aunt, Thelma Favel, has said the girl was supposed to be in a group home or foster home, but had run away.

Favel said social workers have told her that on the night of Aug. 8, the girl had passed out in an alley downtown and paramedics took her to a nearby hospital. She was released into the care of a social worker but ran away again and disappeared, Favel said.

The government has moved to hire more social workers and improve training. It is also working on a better central database to keep track of children and to ensure they are monitored.

That, Nepinak said, is the wrong approach.

"I characterize it as surveillance, oversight — a tweaking of the system to make it more effective and efficient at apprehending children."

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Tuesday she had not read Nepinak's report, but called the number of aboriginal kids in care "alarming." The number of children in the system has nearly doubled in the last decade to about 10,000. More than 70 per cent are aboriginal.

"The responsibility is to ensure that Manitoba's children are safe, and that's our No. 1 priority."

Premier Greg Selinger has raised the issue with other premiers, Irvin-Ross said, and an effort is underway across the country to address the high rate of aboriginal children in care.

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