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He felt abandoned in Manitoba’s emergency shelters. Here’s what he says needs to change in child welfare

One of the only signs anyone was paying attention to Joshua Nepinak during his teenage years was the black book a group of strangers filled with notes about him as they watched him come and go from a nondescript Winnipeg home. 

Ate breakfast: 10 a.m. Left for school: 11 a.m. Dinner: 6:30 p.m. In bed: 10:30 p.m.

By the time he was 16, he’d ended up in the child welfare system’s emergency placement resource shelters about two dozen times. He knew them well: the bare bedrooms, the revolving door of staff taking notes on his comings and goings, the way they felt like somewhere you were filed away and forgotten about. 

He also knew he couldn’t stay there — so again and again, he got on the bus and ran away.

“It never felt like I mattered,” said Nepinak, now 23. “And it sort of just made me go out onto the street, or go bus to where I did matter.”

Most of the time, that meant running to his grandparents’ house, after reconnecting with them while in care. But while Nepinak said he felt safest staying there, it took a while for the system to agree.

Emergency shelters, where he was repeatedly sent, are supposed to be stopgap measures in Manitoba’s child welfare system — a last resort used for a short period of time in certain situations, like when a child is first apprehended or because social workers need time to find a placement with specialized support.

But people involved in child welfare say the province’s strained system is leaning too heavily on them, putting vulnerable kids at risk as they grow up in shelters with little supervision from under-trained workers.

“They’re just a symptom of a larger issue, which is the child welfare system is so underfunded and unsupported that we’re putting these children in a place where I wouldn’t feel safe going,” said Jamie Pfau, a longtime foster mom.

A woman in front of a bookcase.
Foster mom Jamie Pfau has helped raise eight foster kids ranging in age from three to 16 over the past 13 years. (Zoom)

“If the province feels it necessary to apprehend these children from their homes, they should have a place for that child that isn’t an emergency placement and then ‘we’ll figure it out later.’ That’s so irresponsible.”

It’s the same kind of shelter where a 14-year-old girl was expected to end up, hours before she was stabbed to death in downtown Winnipeg in December.

A day before the First Nations teen was killed, she was released from custody by a judge who lambasted the child welfare system for leaving her without the housing resources she needed. 

“I just think in this province, at this time when we have the concerns on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls — how is that not a priority to see that she has the resources?” provincial court Judge Kusham Sharma asked during a hearing on Dec. 14.

The girl’s social worker told court she hadn’t been able to get funding for the kind of specialized placement needed for the teen — who struggled with a serious addiction, ran away from foster homes and was waiting to be assessed for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

The worker told the court if something didn’t materialize within the next few hours, the girl would be sent to an emergency shelter.

“Everyone that knew her, unfortunately, could see that something terrible was likely to happen to her,” Louis Mendelson, the girl’s lawyer, said in an email to CBC News after her death.

“I’ve practised almost exclusively youth criminal defence, working with some of the most vulnerable young women in the province. It was clear to me from our first meeting that [she was one] of the most, if not the most, high at-risk.”

‘A never-ending cycle’

Joshua Nepinak has seen first-hand the kinds of risks kids can face in emergency shelters.

When he was 15, another boy tried to recruit him to a gang while he was staying in one, with the promise of easy money from selling drugs.

It was a tempting offer, and his mind turned with the possibilities — the things he could buy with all that money. The boy, who was also staying in the shelter, told him he could start making money right away, up to $1,000 a week.

Looking back, Nepinak said it’s exactly the kind of interaction a setting like an emergency shelter helps create.

“You’re placed there with another kid who probably had a placement breakdown, who’s probably a little bit more on their way into that vulnerability sector of their lives where they’re engaging in that…. And that’s where it becomes a danger,” Nepinak said.

“It just takes that one meetup to be recruited and to start pushing drugs. It’s as easy as that. And it’s that whole dynamic that … allows for those vulnerabilities to be tapped into by others who aren’t looking out for the best interest of that person.”

Though Nepinak turned down the offer, Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth said what happened to him isn’t uncommon. 

A woman in long black hair stands near a blue wall. Black and white photos of children are in frames and hanging on the wall
Sherry Gott, Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, says she’s heard of kids spending up to a year in the province’s emergency shelters. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

With kids of different ages all staying together in emergency shelters, younger children are sometimes exploited or recruited into gangs by older ones, said Sherry Gott.

And while the province says the median time kids stayed in emergency shelters last year was just over three weeks, she said she’s heard of kids spending up to a year in those shelters.

Gott said kids there are looked after by staff hired with “minimal qualifications” — some of whom come from private companies — who aren’t trained to deal with the kind of complex issues they often face, like mental health challenges, addictions and trauma. There are also sometimes language barriers between staff and the kids, she said.

And if the children decide to run from their placement, like Nepinak did over and over again, there’s not much staff can do, said Gott, a former social worker in the child welfare system.

“The door is wide open. The workers can’t chase them, because there’s other children in the home that they have to look after. And then police get involved,” Gott said. “So it’s just a never-ending cycle for those children — strangers coming in and out of their lives.”

WATCH | Overuse of emergency shelters puts kids at risk, advocates say:

he felt abandoned in manitobas emergency shelters heres what he says needs to change in child welfare 2

Overuse of emergency shelters puts kids in care at risk, people involved Manitoba’s system say

2 hours ago

Duration 2:43

Emergency shelters are supposed to be stopgap measures for child welfare in Manitoba. But some say the province’s strained system leans too heavily on them, putting vulnerable kids at risk as they grow up in shelters with little supervision from under-trained workers.

Last year, there were nearly 900 visits to emergency shelters in Winnipeg, involving 615 children, the province says. Of those, 170 were kids who landed there more than once. Those numbers are similar going back the last five years.

Manitoba has 39 emergency shelters sprinkled throughout Winnipeg and seven outside the city. The locations are kept confidential.

Nepinak said most of the shelters he was taken to as a teen were in unassuming houses in residential neighbourhoods, in areas like Transcona or north Winnipeg, while others were in bigger buildings run by community organizations.

All of Manitoba’s emergency shelters are licensed by the province and staffed by youth-care practitioners. Some are operated by child and family services agencies, and five in Winnipeg are run by Indigenous community groups, the province says.

Gott said the emergency shelter system has raised long-standing concerns for her office, including some mentioned in a report last year on Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old First Nations girl who was shot and killed by a Winnipeg police officer in 2020 following a car chase in which police said she drove a vehicle involved in a liquor store robbery.

The report said Hudson’s time in emergency shelters “resulted in increased police contact and increased risk in the community.” 

People who worked with her at the time were also concerned that she lacked appropriate supervision, “including excessive unsupervised time in the community” while in those shelters, and that “the progress Eishia had made in trusting adults in her life could be compromised by the staffing structure in the [emergency] placement,” the report said.

That structure often ends up making things worse for kids who have already come from unstable environments, Gott said. 

“To take them out of their own home and place them in a shelter with strangers, it just creates more trauma for them,” she said.

‘Who is watching these children?’

Jamie Pfau remembers making the hard decision to send her foster daughter to an emergency placement in early June 2022, after she had to wrestle a knife from the 13-year-old’s hand to keep her from attacking another of Pfau’s foster children. 

The girl had been in Pfau’s home for nearly a decade, but the longtime foster mom said she needed a place for the teen to go temporarily so the rest of the family could take a breath after what happened. Pfau thought at least in the shelter, the girl would be safe. 

Her stomach dropped when she saw what the girl was posting on social media while she was there.

Pfau watched in disbelief as she saw a video of her foster daughter running through an abandoned, burnt-out building with a group of girls, after sneaking out of the shelter one night. 

“Who is watching these children?” she wondered.

“The staff there are very well-intentioned and well-meaning, but they do not have the training and capacity to respond to the needs of … children who need a specialized placement,” said Pfau, who, with her husband, has helped raise eight foster kids ranging in age from three to 16 over the past 13 years.

Pfau, who previously worked in group homes and has since completed a master’s degree in social work, said she saw the lack of training among emergency shelter staff — many of whom are new Canadians — up close about a year ago.

She was leading a two-day session called “how to be an Indigenous ally,” and several people raised their hands to ask what a residential school was.

“So you could really understand how difficult it would be to respond to the needs … of any Indigenous child when you have no idea of their culture, their history and intergenerational trauma,” she said.

As of last March, 91 per cent of the 8,990 kids in care in Manitoba were Indigenous. 

Lack of foster parents

Pfau, who is also president of the Manitoba Foster Parent Association, said the system is leaning more and more on emergency shelters in part because of a lack of foster parents.

She said those numbers have been declining because of a lack of training, and allowances and service fees that have been frozen for more than a decade. 

As of last March, there were 6,291 kids in foster homes — a 15 per cent drop from 7,415 in 2018. The total number of kids in care over the same period dropped 13 per cent.

But it hasn’t always been just those two options. Years ago, the province also put kids in hotels — but it halted that practice after a teenage girl was viciously attacked while placed in one in 2015, and after Tina Fontaine walked away from one the last night she was seen alive in 2014.

Pfau said from what she’s seen in more than a decade as a foster parent, the problems that policy change was supposed to address haven’t gone anywhere — there are still children being taken into care, then put somewhere where they’re at risk because they don’t get the supervision or support they need.

“On paper, we have stopped putting children in hotel rooms,” she said. “And that is wonderful. It’s just that the model is pretty similar still, unfortunately.”

‘It can’t just be you’

Last month, Nepinak drove back through Winnipeg’s Transcona neighbourhood, near one of the houses where he was often sent as emergency placement when he was a teen.

It triggered memories of a time he hadn’t thought about in a while — one that seems a world away from his life now, as a university student and father to a three-year-old girl.

But he hadn’t completely forgotten about that time. Nepinak, who is from Lake St. Martin First Nation, thinks of it still today in his job as an action therapist — where he connects with a caseload of youth each week, getting to know them and bringing them into the community for things like volunteer work and Indigenous ceremony.

He’s also learned something from that job: though it’s important for youth to have someone like him in their life, “it can’t just be you.”

A young man and a toddler sit together in a booth at a restaurant with a colouring book on the table in front of them.
Today, Joshua Nepinak is a university student and a father to three-year-old Emily. (Submitted by Joshua Nepinak)

Kids who end up in emergency shelters like he did need a wide network of support, with resources they can gravitate to instead of ending up on the street, he said — a system of people who are there for them and know how to work with them where they’re at, no matter where that is.

“The system is constantly a system that’s put out fires,'” he said.

“And so I guess my mission is to build rapport with the youth that I do have assigned to me, and to just make sure that they feel heard. To make sure that they know that somebody cares for them and somebody … wants them around and wants them, you know, to succeed in life.”

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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