Profiting off a broken child-welfare system

Why is Manitoba trusting some of its foster care to for-profit businesses?

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

On Feb. 28, CBC Manitoba published a bombshell investigation that found that a local foster home had been giving cannabis to children in its care on a daily basis.

Spirit Rising House (SRH), the private for-profit foster home, lambasted the provincial government’s decision to cut ties with SRH following the investigation, saying that they provided children with the drug as a form of harm reduction.

The controversy surrounding SRH raises an interesting question: why are for-profit foster homes allowed to exist in Manitoba? Why is something as vital as foster care being placed in the hands of profit-motivated businesses?

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), an “independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social, economic and environmental justice,” has long reported on the pitfalls of privatizing public services.

Molly McCracken, director of CCPA’s Manitoba office (CCPA-MB), points to the Manitoba government’s 1997 decision to sell public telecom provider MTS as an example of privatization gone wrong.

“What we’ve seen with (the privatization of) MTS is that ... it was bought by Bell, and they downsized the workforce,” she says. “Those are good jobs (that were lost). And the service has suffered.”

There are key differences between a previously functional public service like MTS and the foster-care system. Child and Family Services Manitoba (CFS-MB) has been scrutinized for decades for its handling of foster care, which some have criticized as continuing the colonialism of the Sixties Scoop and residential schools.

According to 2021 census data, 90 per cent of foster children in Manitoba are Indigenous, compared to the national rate of 53.8 per cent. Manitoba also has the highest rate of children in foster care of any province with 2 per cent, far above the national average of 0.4 per cent (the second-highest province, Saskatchewan, has 0.9 per cent).

McCracken says the goal for foster care in Manitoba should be to return responsibility to First Nations, Métis and Inuit-led child-welfare services. “But the problem that has emerged is that they’re still operating within the same legal frameworks of a child welfare system that was set up by colonial governments,” they say.

“The legacy of colonization ... has fractured a lot of families. There needs to be a lot of resources to help these families heal so that we can break this cycle between different generations of families. That means good housing, that means mental-health and addiction supports, that means access to education for sec- ond-chance learners, that means childcare.”

In 2019, the Pallister government introduced a new funding model for foster care. Single-envelope funding, previously known as “block funding,” shifted from providing funding on a per-child basis to a single predetermined annual budget for all child welfare.

“What we’re hearing is that (the new model doesn’t provide) sufficient money to cover all the costs of delivery (of services) and particularly of prevention to keep families together,” McCracken says. “Money only flows once a child is at risk or is apprehended.”

Ultimately, McCracken says public services provide better and more efficient services than private businesses.

“Private delivery of public services is more costly for the public purse, because you can’t off-load the risk to government. The government is ultimately responsible for the delivery of child welfare, for schools, for building roads ... infrastructure services. You can’t just contract that out, because if they don’t do the job properly, then the onus is on government,” she says.

“And that’s what we’re seeing with this (SRH) situation. They’re contracting out foster care, and the risk is still coming back on government.”

In an email statement to The Uniter, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government said some foster programs “are managed by third-party organizations. Third-party organizations that are directly funded for administrative fees by the province are all not-for-profit. CFS agencies can purchase various types of services, including therapy and placements, from other organizations. Third-party foster homes are still licensed by a CFS agency, however day-to-day management ... is the responsibility of the third party. These same third-party managed foster homes then care for children placed by various CFS guardian agencies. This care is designed to have more skilled foster care providers to meet the needs of children with complex issues.”

Published in Volume 78, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 21, 2024)

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